Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Read then Listen or Listen then Read

Currently I am teaching a course in law and economics. Most of the reading for the course consists of a book I wrote—based on my lecture notes from previous iterations of the course. As in most courses, students are supposed to read each chapter before the first of the classes that discusses it.

I reach the point in the discussion at which I pose a puzzle and want to see if the students can work out the solution—and it occurs to me that any student who has done the required reading already knows the answer, because it is in the book. I make a particularly telling point, summarize an argument with a punch line that I least believe to be witty—and if a student reacts, that is evidence that he hasn't read the assigned chapter, since it contains the same punch line. Large parts of the dramatic effect of the class only work for students who haven't done the reading I assigned for them.

One solution would be to use someone else's book. But if there were another book on the subject I was happy with, I wouldn't have had had to write mine. Another would be to try to forget everything in the book, start over with a blank page, and create an entirely new explanation of the ideas for class. I doubt I could do it, and if I could I wouldn't—I would rather spend my time understanding and explaining some new set of ideas.

An alternative that recently occurred to me is to reverse the order, assign each chapter to be read after the relevant class instead of before. That way the class can introduce the ideas, the reading can fill in details, reinforce what was discussed in class, give the student a second chance to make sense of something he did not understand the first time through.

And I can deliver my punch lines to students who don't already know them.

An intermediate possibility was suggested yesterday by a student; he said that he usually read the chapter after the first class in which the material was discussed but before the second. That way the material was fresh when he first heard it in class and he could use the second class to raise any questions that the reading had left him with.

Has anyone out there tried one or another versions of this approach, either as student or teacher? If so, how did it work?

23 Comments:

At 11:13 AM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should continue requiring students to read the material before it is covered in class. If need be, I am sure you are capable of coming up with novel punch lines, sprinkling in a few of the tried-but-true ones to determine who has not been doing the assigned reading.

The essence of the problem is student laziness (some prefer to think of it as efficiency or time optimization.) Asking students to read after the material has been covered in class provides great cover for delay (efficient utilization of resources.) The inevitable final exam provides one last incentive to do the dirty deed but, if the student manages to make it past the final then he/she will have once again escaped the scourge of students everywhere--studying!

Unfortunately, reading does not equate to understanding.

 
At 11:29 AM, April 22, 2009, Blogger Kat said...

I think it's worth trying; as a student I would prefer to listen first. I get impatient listening to things I've already read and often let my attention wander if the prof lectures straight from the book, then missing new things that come up. (But I'm a very fast reader with a short attention span; others' mileage may vary. Also, easily amused; I would probably still chuckle at your punch lines the second time.)

 
At 11:41 AM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just finishing up a course of graduate study, and I've developed a strong opinion on this topic:

I'd like for my professors to sit down and figure out if there's anything we need to know before doing the reading, and if so, tell it to us beforehand; and then to tell us when the reading needs to be done by so we can discuss it in class as necessary.

If there is some other sane way to have readings relate to a class, I'd like to know it.

 
At 11:50 AM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Little Alex said...

I've always been a "listen and read" learner. I think it's why I performed so terribly in school until college. Before that, you have the pop quizzes and such (where I performed terribly) which weigh down final tests and papers where I would do well.

It helps me to receive a presentation and/or discuss a topic at least for a bit before jumping right into someone else's words.

One of the best professors at I had at DePaul was Dr. Norman Finkelstein who would consistently stray into the topics to be read before the next class toward the end of each class. The first class I had with him was 'Political Ideals/Ideologies' which delves into philosophies almost foreign to the student before reading them and this helped to not be reading Greek every time.

A week or two into a course, this problem goes away as a foundation's been set. Now, in law school, where I have more prep reading than I ever did in college, the only way for me to be prepared is to actively search out lectures on the topic, re-read relevant prior briefs I've compiled, etc. for me to be prepared.

For instance, I didn't really understand "The Machinery of Freedom" (the first ancap work I ever read) much at all until I heard lectures from the LvMI. A year later, I re-read your book and I "got it".

Recording an intro and posting it online would help your students who learn like me a lot. Your views on law and economics are that which are completely foreign to a student indoctrinated to worship the religion of the status quo where minor increments are perceived as "radical change".

If the text at question is "Future Imperfect", your discussions on this are public and archived already on Google/YouTube.

 
At 12:27 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Phil said...

I hate listening and never went to class. My first reaction was, if the material you're lecturing on is the same as in the book, why do you need to repeat it out loud?

I think class is great if you learn better orally. I don't have the attention span for that, and prefer reading. Is it really necessary to have both?

No disrespect is intended.

 
At 12:45 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Sean O'Hara said...

Whenever I had a class where the reading assignments were essentially identical to the lectures, I'd skive off the readings and only use the book when studying for an exam or writing a paper. Going over the same material twice was a waste of time that was more productively spent studying for other classes.

The worst case was when I took intro to logic. The professor would spend the last twenty minutes of class explaining a new topic, then assign some exercises from the book. The first forty minutes of the next class would then be spent going over the homework, which invariably devolved into a reiteration of the material from the previous class for those who were slow on the uptake. Since I understood the material after the first lecture, and homework and attendance weren't actually counted towards our grades, I ended up skipping every other class and still came out with a B+.

 
At 1:47 PM, April 22, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

I'd agree mainly with Kat, though it's been a long time since I was a university student.

You surely know your business better than I do, but I don't see the point of asking them to read something and then repeating the same material orally.

I'm not a fan of lectures (perhaps because I never encountered a really good lecturer?). I'd rather read a book, and consult a human expert for help only if I failed to understand something in the book.

I feel that lectures became obsolete with the invention of printing, but the educational system still hasn't come to terms with that.

 
At 2:31 PM, April 22, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

"My first reaction was, if the material you're lecturing on is the same as in the book, why do you need to repeat it out loud?"

A question that occurred to me long ago. After I wrote Price Theory I tried the experiment of telling the students to read the chapter, then come into class and tell me what they didn't understand or wanted to discuss; if nobody had anything to discuss we could go home. The students didn't like it, so I reverted to the more usual approach.

This is related to my old puzzle of why the mass lecture didn't vanish after the invention of the printing press.

 
At 3:52 PM, April 22, 2009, Blogger Isak said...

I think whether it is better to read first or read after depends on the difficulty of the content.

If the content is easy, it is better to read after, because reading first will make the lectures incredibly boring and therefore make one likely to stop paying attention, and potentially miss an important point that was not in the book.

If the content is difficult, it helps to have seen it before it is explained verbally.

And because students are not all the same, some finding the content easy, and some finding it difficult, and they most likely have better information about this than the teacher, I think it is better to leave it to the students' judgment when they should read.

 
At 4:35 PM, April 22, 2009, Blogger blink said...

To learn best, ideally we do both: read before and after the lecture. Of course, there is a cost to reading twice as you can read less in total. Limited to one, I prefer “read first." A lecturer never has enough time to convey all of the content in the reading, so I take the choices he/she makes as signals of what is most important, most likely to be misinterpreted, etc. As a learner, I compare the key points and examples that I would have presented myself with those the lecturer actually presents. If students have not read before the lecture, then the class time is limited the lowest level content. In such cases, I have felt that the lecture was wasting my time, since I could easily teach myself the basics.

 
At 4:46 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It depends on how difficult the material is and how well it's written, how well it's suited towards non-experts. Text-books are usually better at this than journal articles but for advanced topics the former do not exist.

For example, I have to read a lot of Econometrica articles on theoretical microeconomics for 2nd year PhD courses and some of those articles are non-intelligible, very general, rely on implicit previous results, presented backwards relative to order of discovery etc.

<-- The same is true for undergraduate 'classical' philosophy treatises written by dead Greeks or dead Germans (difficult language, abstract ideas, irrelevant examples from non-contemporary context).

Coming to class gives several benefits: professor often presents a 'scaled down' version of the article that gives enough understanding to follow the original. Secondly, professor also fills the 'implicit' gaps (often trivial but sufficient to feel stuck for hours on the first read). Thirdly, the lectures are interactive -- you can ask questions during the exposition "Why is this true?", "Explain this subscript notation" to codify the argument into a coherent form.

___
If the article in question is "bad enough," then it's not enough to answer "ask questions on what you did not understand" as it already presupposes the student has gained enough understanding of what the main points are, or understood the necessity of certain parts of the argument.

 
At 5:25 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that there are different styles of learning as well as of teaching.

So maybe to make sure that both meet the requirements for the education system there has to be a class and teaching structure known to yield the wanted results. Schools ranking affect many things, even the price of homes at a given neighboorhood.

A mixture of styles should get the attention of most students. Key concepts explained in class and key references in a summary should give enough for everyone.There is a lot of knowledge documented that turns people off.

A different problem is the fair evaluation of the students, because somebody can skip everything, show up to a test and do very well. So class interaction is important.

 
At 5:37 PM, April 22, 2009, Blogger Kim Mosley said...

Maybe because you love to talk so much about your ideas you enable them not to have read the material. If you let them know that they will have to carry the class (all of them) with their questions and comments about the material, then they will step up to the plate. Instead of being "sage on the stage" be "guide on the side."

 
At 6:00 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Sydney said...

I enjoy reading about "one-pass-learning" people who learn with a single reading/lecture:

Kat: I get impatient listening to things I've already read...Phil: if the material you're lecturing on is the same as in the book, why do you need to repeat it out loud?Sean O'Hara: Going over the same material twice was a waste of time...Jonathan: I don't see the point of asking them to read something and then repeating the same material orally.I am, perhaps, one of the dummest people here--I don't know how I could have graduated if I had not had things hammered into my pea brain through reading, lectures, homework assignments, repeated reading, cramming for tests, repeated reading and cramming for more tests all interspersed with office hours' visits.

 
At 6:03 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Sydney said...

I enjoy reading about "one-pass-learning" people who learn with a single reading/lecture:

Kat: I get impatient listening to things I've already read...

Phil: if the material you're lecturing on is the same as in the book, why do you need to repeat it out loud?

Sean O'Hara: Going over the same material twice was a waste of time...

Jonathan: I don't see the point of asking them to read something and then repeating the same material orally.

I may be one of the dummest people here--I don't know how I could have graduated if I had not had things hammered into my pea brain through reading, lectures, homework assignments, repeated reading, cramming for tests, repeated reading and cramming for more tests all interspersed with office hours visits.

 
At 6:24 PM, April 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sidney,

we all have to go through a lot of that, some even more. Imagine you are doing graduate school in a different language.

[I had to tape the lecture, listen to it a second time so that I could undrestand the accent and take good notes, though I got a good score in english and got accepted having to compete with second semester students]

That's why I say good lectures and good references explaining key concepts plus class interaction is more like a universal language.

The problem is the evaluation of the students, the rating, and the nonsense competition and show.

 
At 3:59 AM, April 23, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Friedman,

Long time reader, first time poster.

As a legal scholar in the beginning of this century I took a law and econ-class during my year as an exchange student in the US. That class (using your Law's Order as main litterature) did profoundly change the way I think, not only about law but about society and human interaction as a whole. Obviously I'm a huge fan.

One of the things that stuck is that people are self-interested and respond to incentives. From an early age, students are conditioned to believe (and in some cases have their theories confirmed by empirical evidence)that a good relationship with their teacher/professor is beneficial to their grade in class. A possible view upon which students base their decisions then could be that a teacher that likes me is more inclined to interpret my answers as better than they might in fact be, and a teacher that dislikes me is more inclined to interpret my answers as less right and/or deduct more points for an answer that isnt 100% correct.

Using this as a basis for understanding, dont you think students that react (I may of course misinterpret your meaning here; what I mean by a reaction is anything from a nod to a not-so-loud chuckle. Anything louder/more obvious falls under a different category..) may indeed have read the required chapters but have other, self-interested, motives for their reactions?

To answer your question, read then listen and ask questions is my preferred method.

On a side note, it would be more than interesting to hear your thoughts on the recently ended copyright trial in Sweden, against a bittorrent tracker with users from all over the world.

Best regards,

Johan in Stockholm, Sweden

 
At 8:05 AM, April 23, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hans from Stockholm,

I say:

-prepare for class reading as much as you can.

-listen and participate

-read again to contrast and correct when needed

-fair evaluation applies to both teachers and students, it is a continuos editing process that should adapt to the conditions of the time, but has a single core purpose: convey the concept, update the knowledge, a stimulus to apply.

I am XX, hispanic.

 
At 9:15 AM, April 23, 2009, Blogger Seth said...

One of the best teachers I've had (Ron Book) presented things very differently in the notes/textbook and in class. That way, people who understood either method would understand the idea. You might want to rethink your rejection of that method; by approaching the same idea in two different ways, students can learn it much better.

 
At 6:53 PM, April 23, 2009, Anonymous R. P. said...

If all your readings are webbed, and are able to be put on a clipboard, then you could do audio versions of them.

I use this function on my Mac all the time. Either I have the computer read me something while I read along or I copy a whole article and produce an MP3. When I am off to teach tutorials, I listen to a whole 30 page journal article. That way I have heard everything, and I can go back and take relevant notes later on.

But it helps that I am very much an auditory learner.

 
At 11:01 AM, April 24, 2009, Anonymous John Galt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 6:04 AM, April 27, 2009, Blogger Zac said...

"After I wrote Price Theory I tried the experiment of telling the students to read the chapter, then come into class and tell me what they didn't understand or wanted to discuss; if nobody had anything to discuss we could go home. The students didn't like it, so I reverted to the more usual approach."

This is my preferred approach, speaking as a student. When I have classes of my own, this is my plan. The classroom is a perfect time for discussion of ideas, clarification of concepts, or the introduction of new material. If the work requires some sort of end of chapter exercises, it can be useful to walk through some of the more difficult ones. Sometimes you might want to add some background to the next reading assignment.

Once I find out a class has a lecture format that simply mirrors the book, I usually stop going to class and instead pay close attention to test dates and office hours.

 
At 9:07 AM, August 16, 2009, OpenID hudebnik said...

I tried the experiment of telling the students to read the chapter, then come into class and tell me what they didn't understand or wanted to discuss; if nobody had anything to discuss we could go home. The students didn't like it, so I reverted to the more usual approach.

I've tried this a few times. The most common outcome is that nobody has anything to discuss because nobody has done the reading, so I go home.

I do think, however, it's often useful to present the same material in two different ways -- at least different sensory modalities, and ideally different wording or sequence as well -- so students with different learning styles have two chances to "get it".

 

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