Field of Science

Please, sir, can I have a study guide?

Over three decades of teaching evaluations have told me a lot about what students like and dislike, about me, about my subjects, about my attire, about my sense of humor, about my course organization, and about exams and grading. I have learned very little that would improve my teaching, and much that would improve my popularity.

Presently my classes are mostly populated with 3d and 4th year undergraduates, people that used to be called juniors and seniors, or upper classmen. These are students who have weathered the dreadful common curriculum and the deadly core courses. With some good reason you might expect them to have gained a bit of educational sophistication, to be effective learners, to provide some give and take to keep their aged professor on his toes.

So why do such students continue to complain that I do not provide study guides?

Please understand, a significant part of each exam consists of open-book questions distributed a week ahead, and for which my expectations for reasonably good exposition are reasonably justified. These would seem pretty self-evident areas to study. And to avoid condusion on my part, I ask, "What do you want a study guide to assist you with?"

"We want to know what to study for the exam."

Now that seems fair enough doesn't it? But here is the problem. This also means students want to know what NOT to study, some subset of the information presented that can just be conveniently forgotten now, as opposed to later, a strategy very similar, although not quite so truncated as Father Sarducci's "5-minute university" where you only learn what you would remember 5 years after graduation anyways.

What such students fail to understand, and if they do not get it by now, there is a good chance they will not be getting it ever, is that in my due diligence I have prospected mountains of material to mine only the richest veins of knowledge, presenting them with just the choicest nuggets of biological understanding. And then they ask, what of this can we simply avoid learning? Which nuggets can we discard now just to save us some time.

Now this is very different from asking, "DrA, what is the best explanation for phenomenon A, or why do we hypothesize B instead of C?" Nothing could please me more than answering such study guide questions. But the need-a-study-guide students are not far enough along to ask such questions, and the ones who are that far along do not need or want a study guide. To fairly and honestly tell them what to study for the exam would require that I write out the entire narrative of the lectures and discussions. Wait, I've done that! They have my book!

So I am resigned to such criticism. My evaluations will probably not improve markedly no matter what. So I tell them, "I expect you to know and understand it all. Nothing less, and I know such outstanding students as yourselves will not disappoint me", until time comes for evaluations that is.