Realism and Being in College

You're in college now. And this is a university level science transfer class. There are plenty of students here who are mature, intelligent, and find Cabrillo a cost-effective way to get their lower division work done for an unbelievably low price compared to the university. But then there are others too - and they're the ones I'm talking to here. K-12 schools especially in the Bush era and beyond, have taken to "teaching to the exit exam". Education too often has become memorizing factoids. If you're angry about that and feel ripped off - that's good! That's the healthy response! You'll find my class a refreshing change. But I've been disturbed lately by finding more and more students who have so totally bought into that paradigm that they feel the World owes them factoid exams worded exactly as the teacher told them they'd be, with no thought or reasoning or learning of anything beyond exactly what limited questions will be asked. Pause for a moment and ask yourself this - do you think that any employer anywhere, wants to pay salary and healthcare and all the rest, to someone who only knows how to give back factoids? In this world of Google and Wikipedia and amazing computer networks - it's obviously dirt cheap to get more factoids than anyone could possibly need - for free! Nope - employers will only pay for people who can grasp logical connections, who can see and imagine processes, and create new and useful knowledge. Good studies implicate the failure of our lower grade schools to encourage reasoning as a prime cause of the persistent unemployable - something we may be living with for a long time. In this world, you'll need to learn how to learn, and demonstrate the process of taking what we know and reasoning to creative new ideas and conclusions. Like all classes at Cabrillo College, Astro 3, 4 and 7 have gone through the process of design and approval by the Cabrillo Curriculum Committee with heavy emphasis on teaching critical thinking and on testing students' ability to use critical thinking on coursework. It is a requirement of a college class. Not only do I not want to teach a high school style factoid class, I could not get such a class approved for offer even if I did. Expect exam questions to be worded so as to test your understanding of the ideas, and not much rote memorization. I test for ideas, for accurate visualizations. I'll want you to know the meaning of Wien's Law, not that it was Wien whose name is attached to it. To see how something can be expected to move under gravity, not that Newton was the discoverer of how it works. For more on how and why I trust your mind's ability to really "get it", read Chapter 0 - an exposition of what and how understanding happens.

You may look at my grading scale and think it's easy, but based on past experience, my guess is that we'll end up with a reasonable approximation to a standard grade curve, with a fair number of C's, fewer B's, some A's, as well as some D's and F's. It's not a trivial class. As a 3 unit lecture class, I'm required to expect students to do two hours of outside homework for every in-class lecture hour. For Astro 3, 4, and 7, that means 6 hours per week spent studying the material, plus the 3 hours in class. I enjoy helping students who want to learn and ask me questions about astronomy or about the process of visualizing and reasoning. I enjoy teaching! You may feel the world owes it to you to reduce a class to just some factoids and to be told exactly the questions you'll be asked and nothing more. That's not college, and it's not life either. Your choice instead is to either accept the class that's given (or convince me to change it useful ways), or to drop it and try another. This is not to say that the class is monumentally difficult. The nominal workload is low. I've seen re-entry grandmothers as well as students still in high school, get A's. But I also get students who don't take the interest and focus in the classroom to learn science, and who earn "F"'s. You might want to ponder the statistics in this study for a sobering review of the state of education in the U.S. nowadays. I've actually had a student stand up, when I explained how my exam questions usually require reasoning ability, and say to me belligerantly, "well no one's asked us to think before!" . What could I say, except to let that statement hang in the air so that he and the rest of the class could really hear it. The notion that a piece of paper (your degree) is all you need to have your "ticket" for life, is very unrealistic. Yet that attitude has become pervasive as genuine learning gradually disappears in America. I assume the best of you have had enough of mere factoid-dispensers. I'm here to show by example of how careful reasoning and observations have discovered our knowledge.

Finally, sometimes I find a question on my exam which I worded poorly and must be eliminated from the exam. I will always strive to do the right thing. Sometimes that means giving credit for more than one answer, sometimes it means dropping the question entirely. You can disagree with my decision, but only I can change it, so please respect that.

Feel free to ask me any questions - my first impression from question-askers is that they're curious, and have the nerve to be assertive about their learning - both are great qualities and impress me!

-Rick