CTL Blog

A is for Awareness

February 14, 2011 | 4 Minute Read

The second step in preparing to teach is Awareness.  As a practical matter, this means:             

·     understanding the students' priors about the material in a course. How well prepared are they?  Do they have misconceptions?

 So, the first question is whether there is a prerequisite for the course?  If there is, how is the prerequisite structured?  Is it structured to get students to memorize a lot of facts so that they should be familiar with the vocabulary of a course but may not understand the concepts deeply enough to use them in new and creative ways?  What is the variation in the grades in the prerequisite?  Have students practiced using the concepts before? Have they worked with the concepts at the level of explaining them and writing about them?  Have they just done problems but not had to explain their work?  There are so many things that will vary about students "priors" with respect to the course materials.  A pre-test could be given, although this is not something that I am a fan of doing.

However, the pre-test concept does have the value of indicating whether the students have an existing mastery and may help to turn up misconceptions.  There are other ways to get at misconceptions.  In the process of having students introduce themselves, they could be asked about impressions.  

When I work with students in the Doctor of Nursing Practice program, I like to ask them what they thought of economics before I have the read a book called The Economic Naturalist by Robert Frank.   The students in such a program are bright students.  They usually have day jobs in which they are managing departments or otherwise in leadership positions that require a lot of thinking.  However, they consistently indicate that their priors are that economics is highly mathematical, or very abstract, or has lots of jargon.  Few have ever taken more than a single economics course.  They think largely about macroeconomics and all sorts of confusing things that they hear about monetary and fiscal policy on TV or on the radio when it comes to economics.  They do not think about economics as a basic motivation for decisions in our lives.  They don't think about basic incentives that firms face every day.  When they have read the book by Frank, they comment that economics can be creative, or that they find it down to earth, or that the concepts really aren't all that hard, or that it actually makes a lot of sense.  This process of re-orienting their awareness prior to trying to lecture them about health economics is key to my working with them over the next several weeks.  It is also rather painless and opens them to the learning experience.

I have another great example of my "Aha!" moment when it comes to awareness and priors and nurses.  I was speaking at a local Sigma Theta Tau research conference in 2005.  ??? is the nursing honor society. On that particular day in 2005, I was the second of two plenary speakers in a row.  I listened carefully to the speaker before me and found a way to link what she was saying to my presentation.  I spent about 5 minutes at the start of my presentation making this linkage.  I had not planned to do that but it worked.  As I then went on to describe economic evaluation, the attendees facial expressions and body language suggested that they were understanding me in ways that other audiences (of nurses or otherwise) had not when I had tried to make similar presentations before.  That was the moment at which I realized just how important starting from what the audience knew and building a bridge was so important.  It was ironic as I had been working with nurse researchers for six years by that point, but every time I tried to explain what I did I used lots of graphs and calculus and tried to explain things but never really tried to build a bridge piece by piece.  My approach had been more like throwing a rope wildly that the nurses on the other side of the knowledge gap were supposed to catch and hang on to rather than building a solid bridge from what they knew already to what I wanted them to know.   

Looking at my own teaching, I may be taking for granted that students have a higher level of understanding of microeconomics when I try to teach health economics.  I may need to go back and reassess how I am teaching so that I can help to solidify the basic microeconomic concepts.  Then, I could put my own approach into practice in all the courses I teach and not just in some of them.