Three Questions, One Answer.

In a recent blog post, Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Basically: no, no and no--all for the same reasons.

1. Should you "ban" anything in lecture?

Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?

In teaching we do things for very few reasons.

a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. "We're reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline." "We'll use APA style because that's what professionals do." "You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value."

b. Because they are convenient. "We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due."

c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. "No smoking in the back row." "Grades are due on the 11th." "No sexual harassment."

d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. "You must take up your own argumentative position." "You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down." "Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most." Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.

(I can't think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)

And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate--because that is one of our values.

Once you say "You will not open your laptops," you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.

Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the "three states": put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away--I don't care, just don't distract your neighbor.

You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.

2. See "1" above.

a. What does "mandatory" mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.

We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here--though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)

Extrinsic rewards don't motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.

Why not go the other way? "Go to section, don't. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we'll try to make it valuable." Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can't decide in advance, make it a learning experience.


b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.

Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?

Survey students weekly--did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students' needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose "which activity should we do today?" Make it their section. Meet their needs.

Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say "of course it's totally optional."

3. See "1" above.

a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.

b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.

I once put the students' names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.

Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.

I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on--defended them.

One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: "I knew the answer, I just couldn't think of it, and so I had to show you that I'd done the reading."

And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?

After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.

It wasn't motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn't want that. 

But I would never teach that way again.

4. Learning devolves on human agency.

Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself. 

Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It's tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)

Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.

Yes, we need rules and limits.

But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.

To experience one's humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own's one's successes: this is the heart of education.

--Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.


  1. This is good stuff and I agree with all of it. And I love the cold-calling story. Three comments though:

    1. Students (and even college graduates!) don't always do what's best for themselves. I say this from personal experience. My own productivity goes way up when I turn off my mail for a few hours. In grad school I had a fantastic game theory professor who held classes in a computer lab. Try as I might to pay attention, I still found my attention drift to the Internet from time to time.

    2. Odysseus tied himself to the mast to get past the sirens because he knew he couldn't help himself from following them if he didn't. I guess this is exactly your point: He did it himself. Zeus didn't tie him to the mast.

    3. I love the idea of "real" experiments in the classroom where I try different approaches and see (through formal assessment) what works best. But I don't want to do it now. I want to teach the class once first. I can't exactly articulate why, but I know I have a good reasons. Instead I'm going to try a lot of new things and subjectively assess how well they work. That said, I'm all for surveying students during the course and very open to changing course midstream.

  2. Nice to hear your further thoughts.

    1. Agreed. People don't know what's best for themselves. So I see learning as: experiencing your freedom, including the freedom to screw up and learn from it. What if you thought of ways to help students learn these metacognitive things--like "how do I learn best?" It would be especially good if you could frame it in discipline-relevant terms: choice? benefit? As I often say "make the course processes accessible through the lens of the course's discipline."

    (You didn't suffer so badly from being distracted from time to time in the game theory class, did you?)

    2. Students already do this. They come to class because they know they need the help. Same for section. Some know themselves well enough to know they don't need the lecture or section. So why countermand those with good self-knowledge? And are you really helping those with low self-knowledge to learn?

    I appreciate that you want to prevent students from failing. One might say that this kind of choice devolves on the difficulty of balancing preventing students from failing and helping them to learn.

    3. I have a few thoughts here.

    First, if you teach the class NOT as an experiment, then you are saying: I don't want to do any course correction. In other words: "I'll learn later." What would you think if your students did that?

    And that points to one of my moral frames for teaching: symmetry of teacher and learner. Do what you want your students to do. Otherwise, students are keenly aware of the asymmetry, and it generates resentment (at some level).

    And this goes back to the point of my blog post: technical decisions come to us morally 'naked'; they expel from themselves the moral orientations which guide us. Therefore always going back to a moral framework when making technical decisions about teaching (and perhaps more) is almost always a good idea, a tie-breaker, a compass.

    Second, I hate thinking of evaluation as surveys. Instead, I always recommend finding a way that the student behavior and work itself becomes the metric for success and the information the instructor uses to modify her own behavior.

    If something is voluntary, how many students do it is your first data point. Etc.

    Finally, what if every section ends with feedback (even on index cards) about what they liked best about the section. So micro-course corrections, rather than one big one.

    The great thing is? You are worrying this stuff. Decisions taken are always better than decisions not taken.


  3. I really like how you put this, Edward: "Decisions taken are always better than decisions not taken."


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