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Teaching and Learning: a matter of terminology

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Mathematics has sometimes been called a "language", it is a compulsion amongst mathematicans to see language used properly. Hence this small essay on terminology.

While I cannot (and do not) expect that all students and faculty will agree with the points of view expressed or even read this document to its end, I do hope that some of us will take this as a starting point for further discussion.

When we use the motto "United we stand, divided we fall", it is important for us to understand what we are "united" for, what we "stand" for and what is construed by "falling".

Here is how I interpret what this means in the context of a university like IISER. (Another matter of terminology; IISER is an Institute or a University and not a College. As we shall see, there is a difference.)

We (faculty and students) should be united in our desire to make this the best environment to learn and do research. That is what we stand for.

I have often seen some confusion on all sides about what this means for the roles of student and faculty member.

Faculty members are required to give lectures, guide students and evaluate their performance as their contribution to this task. They are not "teachers" or "coaches". Teachers (as we know from school) try to ensure that a student learns somethings:, by drill, by reward and punishment, or by other means. A faculty member lectures to put forth her/his knowledge and understanding of the subject matter in a way that a student can learn it; if possible, the attempt is to make it easier to learn than when the faculty member learned it! Later, the amount that the student has learned is evaluated and a grade is assigned to mark the level of learning. This is not a reward and punishment scheme as it might be in a school. Grading is meant to objectively assess the extent of understanding on the part of the student.

It is part of the duties of a faculty member to give lectures and evaluate a student. A "teacher" might refuse to teach a particular student (possibly as punishment for past past infractions), but as an instructor, a faculty member cannot refuse to give lectures to and evaluate a student who is eligible for the course as per rules or pre-requisities.

At the same time, it is important for students to realise that they are not being coached for an examination; their study (of the subject) is being facilitated by the faculty. The instructor is only one resource out of many that can be used to learn the material, albeit an important one. If a student is unable to follow a lecture, it is incumbent on the student to use other resources, such as books and e-materials to learn the subject matter. They cannot expect the faculty to act like teachers who make repeated attempts to help a student learn the material regardless of effort on the part of the student. In the same way, a faculty member guides the research done by a student, who cannot expect to be coached every step of the way towards writing a thesis. The student must contribute to the research in a significant way through her/his own involvement.

The bottom line is that learning is a two-way process between adult human beings who are aware of what they bring to the table. It is considered a "fall" (or "fail") if anyone does not do their part.

In addition to the above roles, we have also the roles of mentor and protege ("mentee") for the faculty members and students, respectively. A faculty mentor can take on some of roles that are traditionally assigned to a "teacher". The student can legitimately ask her/his mentor for advice on choice of courses, choice of research and career. The mentor can be requested to intercede on behalf of the student in case of difficulties with the administration or other faculty members. However, for the faculty mentor to play this role, the student needs to meet the mentor regularly and establish a degree of trust with the mentor. The mentor too must find the time to get to know her/his protege so that the advice can be specific rather than a boiler-plate sermon.

Learning and doing research is an intense and difficult process. Mentorship provides a release mechanism for students and faculty to "let off steam" in a manner that is less painful for all concerned.


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