Matching students to classes, lessons to students

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Two articles caught my eye this morning: TeachPaperless’ decision to not plan out classes until he meets his students and Freakenomics’ recent discussion of matching students to schools at Maastricht University.

Both articles discuss optimizing the match between class material and student.  The Freakenomics post is a bare-bones mention of the problem and a request for help.  It does link to a study by one Alvin Roth: see if you note any familiar names in the ‘cited by’ list.

A.Faire Alchemist, at Teach Paperless, describes a similar problem and his solution.  He is preparing a student-guided class, investigating issues in modern history and human geography.  Students will explain what they want to learn in class, but also on twitter and in a wiki.

As he is, as described, in a paperless classroom, he does not have to worry about his students spending money on books they may not use, which is a big plus in a student-guided class with several likely but ultimately unpredictable outcomes.

I have two problems with his plan, possibly three.  Let’s get rid of the third problem right now as I hope it is trivial.  In the early days of assembly lines, efficiency managers operated on the belief that workers were inherently lazy and uninterested in their work.  They had to be prodded by sticks and encouraged by carrots as they would not work otherwise.  In my dark days, I sometimes feel the same way about my students.  On good days, my students drive me to work harder.  I understand that my job is to increase the number of good days I have, the number of days where my students are asking for more knowledge and instruction.

Alright, now to the first of my two, more pressing, problems.  I do not feel I have the same freedom in preparing class material.  For one thing, my students are judged partially by their results in a university wide exam so my teaching must focus on specific material to some extent.  For another, there is a specific text for class and a university wide (suggested) curriculum that is given out at the beginning of the year.

Perhaps the problem described above is partially mitigated by the second one below.

It seems likely that many students will want the status quo.  In my class, they will want three or four verb tenses, basic conversation models and some understanding of idioms they may encounter.  Most ESL texts for basic students cover the same material after all.  There must be some reason for that.

So, I don’t have freedom to change the material much, but there is a good possibility that students will want only small changes in the original material anyway.  If this is the case, my lesson plans already have space for some student-suggested material anyway.


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