Posted by: Steven Harris | February 2, 2009

Bad Learners, Bad Teachers

A few weeks ago, I was in our Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee meeting. We had been discussing a curricular change that would require students in a particular department to seek tutoring after failing a course twice. Apparently, in this particular department, certain lower level courses have a fairly high failure rate. I don’t remember then number, something over 20 percent.

This was soon after I had read a New York Times article about MIT’s TEAL program. MIT had a similar situation in the Physics Department: high levels of failure in large, lower-division, lecture courses. TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) allowed them to reduce class size and increase student success. I suggested in the meeting, that perhaps it wasn’t student preparation that was poor, but the method of instruction. Perhaps an impolitic thing to say in a meeting of instructional faculty! When I described the MIT program in the Curriculum meeting, a faculty from the department in question said, “if we had the money of MIT, maybe we could do it too.”

To me there are two questions. Are the students learning? Can you measure their level of learning? Traditionally, the procedure is to present students with lots of information (during a lecture most often) and then test them about the content of that information. Students at my school and lots of others are failing those tests, frequently. But we need to ponder whether a large lecture hall is really the ideal place for learning to happen. Maybe, no matter their preparation in high school, a lot of students are unable to learn effectively in that environment. If we really care about WHETHER they learn, we need to think about changing the environment for learning. That’s what MIT’s TEAL program did, with great success.

The question about whether we can afford such innovations is, to me, wrong-headed. Can we afford to have students taking the same 100 level courses 3 and 4 times! What a waste of student and teacher potential. It seems one could devise a small-class curriculum that used the same number of instructor hours in a more effective manner. The cost might be somewhat higher. But if students are failing and retaking classes in large numbers,  smaller classes wouldn’t necessarily mean more cost.  I’d say, can we afford to continue teaching in ways that are ineffective? Student failure can’t only be seen as a factor of their own learning skills. Instructors must take on some of the responsibility as well.



  1. Taking a class 3 or 4 times doesn’t seem like a bad thing for the University. That’s three times the tuition the University would’ve received.

    My high school AP English teacher was convinced that the University only accepted a 4 on the AP English exam to get out of English 1 and 2 because they wanted the revenue from incoming freshmen.

    I’m not sure this theory really flies (since they’d be getting revenue from -any- classes the incoming frosh take, just maybe not to a particular department). However, at the time other, more prestigious schools accepted a 3 on the exam.

  2. Good point…that universities might be secretly motivated to let students take classes as often as possible for the tuition revenue. Sinister!

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