Iatrogenic Teaching – Firsthand Evidence I

Over my 20 years as a professor, I have experienced many instances of iatrogenic teaching and the problems it has caused.

Over my 20 years as a professor, I have experienced many instances of iatrogenic teaching and the problems it has caused.

I teach a course, “Math Methods in the Physical Sciences” that requires the use calculus to solve challenging physics problems.  Recently, one of the physics majors in the class was really struggling with a physics problem that required basic understanding of calculus.

After class, I looked at the student’s transcript to see what math courses he had taken and the grades he received.  It turns out that he had not only taken Calculus I, II and III, he received an A+ in each.  I was shocked.  He had no idea what the term dx represented. 

He was a victim of iatrogenic teaching, which involved training the students how to follow procedures to get answers without any fundamental understanding of the concepts involved.

Upon further investigation I found worksheets from his calculus classes that state in bold letters across the top, “Raise your hand if you are stuck or need a hint instead of spinning your wheels in the mud.”

This is exactly the opposite of what the student needs to become a contributing member of society.  Inefficient struggling is necessary.  Students need to make every mistake they can in school.  They have to develop the habit of trying something and learning from the result – whether it worked or it didn’t.  Problem-solving is an iterative process.  The interventionist teacher is sending the message, “Don’t try anything yourself because it might be wrong.  Let me show you how to get the right answer the first time.”

This produces students who are afraid of doing anything because it might be wrong and the only problem-solving strategy they have is to sit and wait for help. 

How is this student ever going to be able to independently come up with a creative idea to solve a challenging problem?  These “fragile” graduates are easily exposed such in job interviews.

Getting good grades in courses for which no deep, sustained thinking is required is not simply neutral, it is debilitating.  It is iatrogenic.  This is especially true if a fundamental understanding of the concepts is needed for future courses. 

As a former research scientist and recruiter for Imperial Chemical Industries (11 years) I understand the significant transformation that the students must undergo while at the university in order to be able to contribute new ideas to solve challenging problems.

Many professors who have not spent a significant amount of time outside of academia do not understand the necessity of struggling in order to improve.  Indeed, at a recent faculty meeting I mentioned that a student whined to me that he was, “on the struggle bus” in my advanced physics class.  A newly hired professor that was sitting next to me gently put her hand on my arm and said, “Now Ed, have you considered that your problems are too hard for our students?”  Yikes! 

If students are going to develop into contributing citizens, the best place for them to be is “on the struggle bus.” Working hard, trying to figure it out for themselves.

I teach a course, “Math Methods in the Physical Sciences” that requires the use calculus to solve challenging physics problems.  Recently, one of the physics majors in the class was really struggling with a simple physics problem that required basic understanding of calculus.

After class, I looked at the student’s transcript to see what math courses he had taken and the grades he received.  It turns out that he had not only taken Calculus I, II and III, he received an A+ in each.  I was shocked.  He had no idea what the term dx represented. 

He was a victim of iatrogenic teaching, which involved training the students how to follow procedures to get answers without any fundamental understanding of the concepts involved.

Upon further investigation I found worksheets from his calculus classes that state in bold letters across the top, “Raise your hand if you are stuck or need a hint instead of spinning your wheels in the mud.”

This is exactly the opposite of what the student needs to become a contributing member of society.  Inefficient struggling is necessary.  Students need to make every mistake they can in school.  They have to develop the habit of trying something and learning from the result – whether it worked or it didn’t.  Problem-solving is an iterative process.  The interventionist teacher is sending the message, “Don’t try anything yourself because it might be wrong.  Let me show you how to get the right answer the first time.”

This produces students who are afraid of doing anything because it might be wrong and the only problem-solving strategy they have is to sit and wait for help. 

How is this student ever going to be able to independently come up with a creative idea to solve a challenging problem?  These “fragile” graduates are easily exposed such in job interviews.

Getting good grades in courses for which no deep, sustained thinking is required is not simply neutral, it is debilitating.  It is iatrogenic.  This is especially true if a fundamental understanding of the concepts is needed for future courses. 

As a former research scientist and recruiter for Imperial Chemical Industries (11 years) I understand the transition that the students must undergo while at the university in order to be able to contribute new ideas to solve challenging problems.

Professors who have not spent a significant amount of time outside of academia do not understand the necessity of struggling in order to improve.  Indeed, at a recent faculty meeting I mentioned that a student whined to me that he was, “on the struggle bus” in my advanced physics class.  A newly hired professor that was sitting next to me gently put her hand on my arm and said, “Now Ed, have you considered that your problems are too hard for our students?”  Yikes!  I worry about the students in her classes.

If students are going to develop into contributing citizens, the best place for them to be is “on the struggle bus.”

Working hard, getting better.