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My Alternative Message to My Freshman Students

  • This is a riposte to the article in Huffington Post  by a Professor of Philosophy, written to students as “Message to My Freshman Students”.

    This article left me shaking my head. I am a professional university teacher, with an interest in pedagogy and in particular, managing the crucial transition year from High School to University.  I have been teaching introductory level courses in physics for many years, and many of the views propounded in the article are exactly the opposite of what I would do and say. The crucial difference between us is that I do not have tenure, or even a permanent job. My teaching has to be good, or I would be out of a job. A tenured Professor has a perfectly secure job and poor teaching has little or no career consequences. It is sad that tenured professors earn at least three times as much as I do, and shows the low priority placed by many institutions of higher education on their teaching.

    Here is my opening speech:

    Welcome to my class in introductory physics. This may be your first class at University, and I can tell you that there is a big difference in academic work in High School, and work at a University. I am here to help you manage that transition successfully, so that you can progress in your studies and learn to learn effectively. This is even more important than the course content which I will teach you.

    If you look around you, you will see that the class size is far larger than you are used to in high school (my classes vary in size from 100 to 350 students). One important consequence of that is that, regrettably, there is much less time for me, as the teacher, to take a personal interest in your own particular studies.  You will have to be more proactive than you are used to, in asking me for help, guidance or assistance.  I will do what I can for any student who request help, and I will be holding office hours, when you can see me face to face in my office, and I can be contacted by email. Because there is only one of me, I am not available 24 hours a day, but I will make the utmost effort to return an email within one working day. Remember, I have a family too, so if you email me late on a Friday evening, I may not be able to respond instantly. But I always do my best to meet a student, when requested.

    In a University class, much of your study has to be self-directed, with the teacher giving guidance on what to do. This is a sharp contrast to high school, where you would be told exactly what work needs to be completed and when it needs completing by.  I do assign work, but this is the absolute bare minimum which you need to pass the course.  In this course, problem solving is the key to success, and the key to problem solving is to build up a body of knowledge, “How the Universe Works”, and then be able to apply this knowledge in solving problems.  I will help you build the framework, but fluency in problem solving comes with practice, as in most other subjects.  Since this is your first class, I will use a mix of assigned work which must be completed, and a set of suggested work which ought to be completed.  You will have to find the time management, will-power and determination to do the latter work.  This is part of the character building which is so essential in any degree, in any subject, and is one of the things that future employers will be looking for.  You must become a self-directed learner, rather than an automaton.  This change will not come quickly, and may take several years to accomplish, but we will make a start on it in this course.  To help you with these skills, our University puts on seminar series for students on learning skills, time management, CV building and many other things.  I will expect you to select and attend appropriate seminars.  You may think it has no direct bearing on your chosen subject, but these so called “soft” skills are utterly essential to any profession, and must be mastered as part of your degree program.  I am here to help you do that.

    In my classes, you will listen to me explain, you will explain to your peers, and have them explain points to you. You will carry out group activities as well as solo study. You will learn as much from each other as you do from me. I will put full trust in you, as an adult, to work in class, but that comes with the responsibility of carrying out your work, submitting it on time without reminders, and allowing others to study whilst present in the classroom. My role is to help you grow intellectually, to master the subject, and master the skills of learning, as you move along your own personal path to knowledge and enlightenment.  I can show you the way, but you must make that journey.

    Thank You


    This article is also published on my blog "Precarious Physicist" 


  • Melissa  Hudler
    Melissa Hudler Like Professor Burns, I, too, like your focus on learning--and not just the content of your course. It's so very important for faculty who teach freshmen students to understand that the learning of their course content is dependent, to some degree, on stu...  more
    May 21, 2015 - 1 likes this
  • Julie Gunshenan
    Julie Gunshenan Students need to be active learners in all classrooms but especially in large classes. They need to be told, several times, that they need to ask questions and discuss assignments when they are unclear about directions, etc. Written and auditory directi...  more
    May 21, 2015 - 1 likes this
  • Susan Farber
    Susan Farber Kudos for bringing this topic to our attention!
    I sense that Mr. / Dr. Parsons' comments also include his reaction to many political and stakeholders' decisions to point out the stark differences between high school and higher education (which you have ...  more
    May 24, 2015 - 1 likes this
  • Andrew Robinson
    Andrew Robinson Thanks for your comments everyone. I think an important point in the explanation is not to blame the students for the possible shortcomings in their secondary education. Point out the differences and how "we" are going to manage the transition. ...  more
    May 24, 2015 - 2 like this