March 16, 2015

To the student who left the scathing review on RMP - thanks and I'm sorry

I'm not really in the habit of checking up on my "Rate My Professors" (RMP) page, but coincidence led me there on the same day that this post was made by a student in one of my algebra-based physics sections from what I assume is this semester.  I suppose that I am a bit heartened that the student was at least thinking about physics on Pi Day. 

I want to be very honest - I have two messages for this student: thank you and I apologize.

Thank you for leaving your feedback before the end of the semester. Too often I find the feedback on RMP left in the days or weeks after the course ends. Thank you for voicing your frustration before the end of the semester so that we can work together to make the rest of the semester go better for your entire class.

Although I sincerely want to thank you for leaving this message, I wish that you would have come to me directly with your concerns and complaints. I try to treat all students in my classes as adults and expect that we can interact with each other civilly as adults via direct conversations on the phone, in person or over email. By leaving an anonymous message on RMP, you clearly did not agree. For that, I wish to apologize to you.  I apologize that I did not work hard enough to foster a classroom climate where you felt comfortable enough to come to me directly. It is my responsibility to provide a rich learning environment in which you can freely discuss any issues with me. I have either failed to do that, or I have failed to communicate that intent to you. Either way, I intend to increase my efforts to offer avenues for all students to communicate with me.

In your comment you claim that there have been "Literally no lectures or notes in the class." I am not sure if that is hyperbole or not. Each time we begin looking at a new conceptual objective, I have filled the chalkboards with introductions to the objective as well as countless examples of how to do problems related to each objective.  I apologize that I was not more clear about the blurring together of lecture with what might typically be called a recitation. At our college, we use a Studio Physics approach to learning physics. Studio Physics means that we are always in the lab (or studio) so we can easily bounce back and forth between lecture, recitation, and laboratory. Our college has a long tradition of using this approach, and I apologize that I was not more clear about that. I will try my best to delineate the shifting between different aspects of the class. I admit I believe it will be difficult for me to do better on this, since I had thought that you all were doing pretty well with shifting from one aspect to another, but I will try to be better.

You state that "Everything is based off the multiple worksheets...which we never go over anyways." I apologize that I have not been more direct with you about how crucial I believe your participation in an active-learning classroom is to your learning. By now, I hope that you have read the article written by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman on the superiority of active-learning over the traditional method of only lecturing to students. There are two quotes that I want to be sure you understand. The first:
"In active learning methods, students are spending a significant fraction of the class time on activities that require them to be actively processing and applying information in a variety of ways, such as answering questions using electronic clickers, completing worksheet exercises, and discussing and solving problems with fellow students." 
With the exception of electronic clickers, how does that description compare to our class? The second quote:
"...any college or university that is teaching its STEM courses by traditional lectures is providing an inferior education to its students."
Remember that it is not me who is claiming that our method of learning is superior, it is a Nobel laureate who is reviewing the data before him making this claim. I apologize that I have not been more direct in discussing why we do what we do in our class. I hope that I have rectified this situation, but please let me know if there is anything else I can do about it. Additionally, I have made a concerted effort in the two weeks before your feedback was posted to review ALL of the worksheets that we have done in class. Sometimes I ask you to review the worksheets with other students. I try as hard as I can to make sure that all of you understand the correct answers to the worksheets. Sometimes, I don't want to be the one who is giving the explanation for the questions, though. My goal is to get you to a place where you don't need me - you only need the physical laws and correct application of the concepts to reach correct conclusions. I am truly sorry that my desire for you to know and appreciate the wonders of the physical world has not been made more well know to you. I am constantly looking for better ways for me to convey this to you in a way that is not always me just simply telling you. I will continue to try to improve.

Your statement that I use sarcasm in class is true. I am deeply sorry if you interpret my sarcasm to be a personal attack on you. I assure you, it is not. I do not and will not use sarcasm to demean or belittle you as a person. I have been very frustrated this semester that so few of you have done much of the homework. I have wrongly used sarcastic remarks to vent some of this frustration. I had hoped that the sarcasm would work to get you to think differently about how you can use homework to grow your understanding of physics, but I can see that I was wrong. I apologize for that. I failed to give you a more constructive way to ask about homework questions. That, too, was wrong. Here is how I will change that: instead of asking me "Can you show us how to do problem XX from Chapter Y?" you can ask "I was having trouble with problem XX from Chapter Y. The first thing I did was blahblahblah, then after that I wanted to blah, but I got stuck there. Can you help me get unstuck?" This will show me that you have made an honest attempt at the problem and also help me get a window into your way of thinking about the problem.

In summary, thank you again for bringing this to my attention and for doing so before the end of the semester. We have talked in class about everyone's ability to grow and improve. I have apologized for my failures and outlined how I intend to do better to provide a rich learning environment for you. You still have time left in the semester. What will you do to grow and improve your knowledge of physics?