I have wondered for a long time how to apply my ideas about human evolution to teaching. My theory of human evolution says that specialization and trading are central to human evolution and includes a mechanism that increases diversity of expertise. The more diverse the expertise of you and your trading partners, the more you gain from trading. If I make knives and you make knives, we will gain less from trading than if I make knives and you make baskets.
I also discovered — independently — that the more choice I gave my Berkeley students (junior and senior psychology majors) about what to learn, the more they learned. It was as if they had an internal drive to learn all sorts of different things and the more I allowed that motivation to push and guide them, the more they learned. To see big effects it wasn’t enough to merely give them a wide choice of term paper topics (as many college teachers do). I pushed them out into the “real” (off-campus) world (they couldn’t do a library project) and said learn whatever you want. In this situation they learned an enormous amount. The connection with my theory of evolution was obvious: something inside of them was pushing them to be diverse in what they learned. What they learn = what they will become expert in. What they become expert in = what they will have to trade.
The more I allowed the underlying diversity of my students to be expressed, the more they learned. Yet almost all college classes treat all of the students in the class the same: same material, same assignments, same tests. The diversity of the students — especially the ways they differ from the professor — is a nuisance. So my theory suggests that standard college teaching is greatly at odds with human nature. It assumes one size fits all when that could hardly be more wrong. It should be possible to greatly increase how much is learned by doing a better job of recognizing human nature. My experience so far supports this prediction.
Recently I thought of a new way to deal with diversity among my students. Next semester I will try it. One of the courses I am teaching (at Tsinghua University) is Frontiers of Psychology, with about 25 students. It’s required of freshman psychology majors. Here’s what I’ll do. For the first four or five class periods (one class per week), I’ll cover a wide range of psychological topics, ideas, and methods. There will be reading assignments (e.g., choose one paper out of 30 and do a class presentation) but no grading. Then every student will draw up a list of “learning goals” for the rest of the semester. The goals can be whatever they want (related to psychology). They can read a book, read some articles, collect some data, give a talk to a high school class, whatever. Each goal will have a deadline. The assessment will be binary: goal completed/not completed. Their final grade will depend on how many goals they completed. The goals will be ordered. The further down their list they get, the higher their grade, with each level of completion assigned a grade at the beginning. They will make class presentations throughout the semester about their progress: what they are doing, what they have learned.
For the students, the benefits (compared to conventional teaching) are that (a) they get to learn exactly what they want yet (b) the grading criteria are very clear and (c) they are still motivated to work. For me, the benefits are that it should be a lot easier to judge if a goal has been completed than to grade homework essays, which is what I’ve done recently. Nor will I have to worry about what happens in class each week.