The ultimate goal of my teaching is to instill in my students a feeling of self-confidence in their ability to deal with the unknown experiences that lie ahead of them. Most students, with the exception of a delightful few, seem to arrive at the University with a view formed during their elementary and secondary school years that education is nothing more than memorization and regurgitation. They have a vast pool of knowledge in the right side of their brain, but cannot solve problems unless they are nearly identical to ones they have been shown how to solve previously. Their problem-solving skills are hampered by their need to follow a memorized path through the problem, rather than by using their left brain to analyze and deduce the answer. They are weak in self-confidence and are afraid to answer a question because a wrong answer further undermines what confidence they do have. Building confidence in these students requires the concerted effort of a number of professors; each one of us will be moderately successful only if our colleagues are working simultaneously toward the same goals.
Even though at the lower-division undergraduate level there is a certain amount of right-brain material that still must be memorized, students at this stage need to be presented with laboratory and field problems that require logical reasoning processes of the left brain to arrive at an answer. They need to have demonstrated for them that with many real-life problems a wide range of sometimes opposing viewpoints is acceptable, provided that a path of logical reasoning is followed in arriving at the conclusion. It is important at this point for professors to accept all answers, regardless of personal biases, and concentrate on analyzing the reasoning process by which the conclusion was reached. When students' left brains are stimulated in this way and the students realize that their opinions are valued, their confidence in their abilities will begin to grow.
I continue this process of confidence building in my upper-division and graduate-level laboratory and field courses by avoiding published hypothetical laboratory exercises from laboratory manuals and creating exercises based on real-life, never-been-done-before, research problems. By gathering the necessary information and analyzing and interpreting it, the students learn what to expect in real-world situations. Most importantly, they learn that the answers to scientific problems are very subjective and interpretive and must be supported by logical arguments if they are going to pass the test of time. These students graduate and enter the work force with these experiences behind them and are confident of their ability to be successful.
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