Glancing around the classroom after an accidental doze, I see the contagious circulation of swallowed yawns, gulps of lukewarm coffee and the unintelligible comics etched in the margin of my neighbor's notebook.
These unmistakable behaviors are not intended signs of disrespect to the professor; after all, he escapes the topic of discussion as easily as the students do. Rather, these are symptoms of the sheer brutality of the three-hour seminar.
Unfortunately, "even the professor realizes - toward the last hour at least - that there tends to be a loss of focus," College junior Jessica Deimel said. "And they tend to do less taxing things, and less learning goes on."
English professor John Richetti confirms Deimel's statement. He agrees that students "run out of steam," and the "back-breaking" length of such a course makes it "almost impossible to keep it going" and comes at the cost of student learning.
"Scholars who study memory have long known that cramming is a poor way of learning new information," Psychology professor Michael Kahana said. "By distributing study time into smaller chunks, one can learn much more quickly and retain information over longer intervals."
This clinically researched tactic is missing from the seminar classroom.
It is time for the department chairs to rectify this issue. Although certainly tempting, they cannot blame students entirely for our drifting minds and drooping eyelids.
Only holding one session per week also hurts students who need to miss class occasionally. "One missed class constitutes a whole week of absence," English department associate undergraduate chairman David Espey said.
Interestingly, between his own semiweekly course and his three-hour class, Espey sees little variation in attention span. In the lengthier course, he teaches about novels and their film adaptations, commenting that "showing film clips helps to vary the activity." However, film viewings by nature require lengthier classes, and movies provide refreshing and dependable breaks from ongoing discussion.
"If a class is naturally broken up into a variety of activities, or if students are conducting experiments that require a long time to complete, then a three-hour class can make sense," Kahana said.
As Kahana said, this type of class does not occur frequently. Professors who elect the three-hour schedule for typical seminars should reconsider their choice and evaluate the sincerity of their commitment to students.
An additional glaring truth may be escaping the eyes of Penn's department chairs.
During three-hour sections, professors often teach their students for significantly less time then their semiweekly counterparts. Deimel explains that last semester, her professor "let us out up to a half-an-hour early, so overall the amount of time spent in class was not equivalent to a class that's broken down throughout the week."
Tuition dollars are wasted, and more important, our time for learning decreases.
The three-hour class is a routine experience for graduate students - nearly all of their courses meet only once each week. Does this mean that they have superior attention spans? Well, I would assume so, considering that most of them intend to make a lifetime commitment to their intended fields - yet these students are also only human.
Many graduate students would actually prefer the semiweekly breakdown. A visiting student from Japan, Asako Yoshino is a third-year English graduate student at Osaka University. Here at Penn, she faces three-hour seminars that normally occur in two 90-minute intervals at Osaka.
"I cannot concentrate all the time," Yoshino said. "It's too long."
According to Richetti, this "completely shameless" choice of inefficient teaching may exist for "the convenience of the faculty to get it over with." While his suggestion may unfortunately be correct, I can only hope otherwise. The brilliant scholars here at Penn should want to spark interest in their areas of expertise, by cultivating young minds in the healthiest and most productive environment possible.
That cannot happen when professors are satisfying their own interests at the expense of their students.
Sharon Udasin is a College senior from East Brunswick, N.J. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Shed a Little Light appears on Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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