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It’s all a matter of principles

It’s all a matter of principles

Is a professor’s role to get students through a course or to get through to students? Boon Ong, Sc’69, PhD’78, offers some possible answers to that age-old question.
[photo of Boon Ong]Boon Ong, Sc'69, PhD'78

In his recent article (Issue #2-2010) Peter Taylor talked about Alfred North Whitehead’s three stages of learning as set out in his 1929 book Aims of Education and Other ­Essays:

  1. Romance – lighting the fire
  2. Precision – mastering skills, struggling with problems, acquiring needed informationGeneralization – orchestrating knowledge already learned.

I agree that Whitehead’s work is timeless and perhaps is now more relevant than ever, but it is hardly practical, given today’s reality of “super-market-like repackaging of resources to make them simpler to consume.”

I also agree that class time should be spent on stages one and three, leaving stage two mainly to the students, but this can only be accomplished in an idyllic setting – an answer to Taylor’s question “Is there a way to inspire students to take more ­responsibility for their own education?” 

One such idyllic setting is a class of subject majors or a class of non-majors who are eager to learn something outside their immediate interest. Where classes are big, the subject loathsome, and the audience uninterested or lacking in ability or preparedness, the professor must abandon stages one (romance) and three (generalization) and concentrate on stage two (precision) because he or she now has to do the learning for the students. This is hard ­because each student has a unique style of learning or coping. For many, this ­consists of studying the past year’s exam.

The letter of Scott McCoy, Com’85, in praise of math professor John Ursell in the same issue of the Review was timely. A first-year calculus course was mandatory in the Commerce program of the early 1980s. McCoy says he performed “reasonably well” in Grade 13 calculus, but he was “not prepared” for the quantum leap in ­difficulty of a first-year university calculus course. Because the caring Prof. Ursell held a last-minute “exam prep” session, McCoy managed a passing grade. Many others who had better math abilities, but were not in Ursell’s class were less “fortunate,” as McCoy noted.

Reading between the lines, we find a good professor is one who gets his students through, not necessarily one who gets through to his students. Such good professors are even more in demand today than they were 30 years ago.

The height of frivolity of teaching awards is TVO’s reality show, The Best Teacher. Will there be a winner who ­rejects the award á la Marlon Brando or George C. Scott at the Oscars?

Queen’s courses used to be a full-year with the April exam counting for 100 per cent of the mark. The argument was that students were assessed on their understanding of the course as a whole rather than bits and pieces. Now it is common for quizzes and tests to count for more than 50 per cent to ensure students are studying as they go along. So much for their taking ­responsibility.

Student learning is further marginalized by the requirement that the value of each exam question be printed in the margins so students can strategize. Marking schemes detailing fractional marks for part answers are established to take away the subjectivity of the marker, but in the process we lose sight of the proverbial ­forest for the trees.

I recall the late Physics professor H.M. Love warning his pre-Meds students of their potential danger to society if they passed his course by scraping up enough part marks to make 50 per cent.

Much has been done to compel professors to be better teachers: Course evaluations began in 1967. The Engineering Society established its Golden Apple Award for teaching in 1970, and in 1975 the Queen’s University Alumni Association began ­offering its Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. The Queen’s Instructional ­Development Centre – now known as the Centre for Teaching and Learning – was ­established in 1992 to dispense generic ­expert advice across all disciplines and ­curricula. The number of teaching awards has since increased steadily.

The height of frivolity of teaching awards is TVO’s reality show, The Best Teacher. Will there be a winner who ­rejects the award á la Marlon Brando or George C. Scott at the Oscars?

What university will dare steer away from student evaluations and best-teacher awards and instead require students not only to learn to study, but also study to learn? One of the precepts of learning is that the principle is used in different ­examples or situations rather than that each situation is learned without knowing the principle. Take away calculators and replace the numbers in a problem with ­letters, as many students attack a problem before understanding or even reading the principle first.

A professor’s aim is to teach himself or herself out of a job (i.e. to teach until the student will need him no more). To paraphrase Prof. A.J. Coleman, who headed the math department, 1960-80: “If a ­lecture is too lucid, it leaves nothing for the student to learn.”

All too often, a student’s assessment of a professor is limited to whether or not the professor can teach that student, whatever the circumstance. I know a Canadian exchange student at a university in Istanbul, where lectures and textbooks are in Turkish and there is no special support system. At least our textbooks are in English.

Dr. Boon Ong teaches in the Mathematics and Computer Science Department of the Royal Military College of Canada.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-3 cover]