Does teaching matter?

I really hesitate whether I should spend my precious hours during the working days composing this blog post. However, I feel I should. I wrote down the title several days ago but I felt some pieces were missing to formal a relative concrete post. However, today, the miracle happened and I can finally complete my puzzle.

Several days ago, I feel quite frustrated because there is a homework due for one of my classes and I have no clue how to finish it. I dig into the books on the subject and try to research the solution out. The most frustrating part isn’t the whole process of seeking answers. It from the lectures. The class is quite popular among the CS graduate student and no matter what areas of their research, everyone I know in the program will take this class sooner or later. The professor for the class is quite famous for his research but I have to say that the quality of the teaching is controversial. By controversial, I mean there is a debate in my head on whether his style of teaching is good or not. If you are familiar with Prof. Andrew Ng’s CS229 lecture videos, then his style is exactly opposite of Prof. Andrew Ng’s. Unlike Prof. Andrew Ng’s mathematical teaching style, professor in my class skips most the f derivations of the formulas and in some cases, he will read through the slides and talk loud about some steps of the derivation. He usually ends the 90 minutes lecture 30 minutes early and in-between he may make some jokes or take a diverge into his research areas that might seem related to lecture topic. The good side of his teaching is that he may offer some intuitions or insights on why we perform those steps and sometimes those few words may help you connect the dots. His teaching style may look like a good fit for someone has a solid background in the field but if you are relatively new to the field, you may have some hard time. This “twisted” class partially leads to my question in the title: “Does teaching matter?” For me, under the context of trying to finish the homework, I cannot see any good from my professor’s lecture style.

The reason that I now look quite peaceful in accepting his lecture style is because of some new insights into research. In a nutshell, you just really don’t have enough time getting everything figured out all at once. Once you’re inside the graduate courses, you will start to read research paper immediately. There can be a lot of background knowledge you need to clear up especially you are new to a field. However, can you say “let me take a pause and get everything figured out at the first.”? No! There are unstoppable piles of papers coming to you and all you need is try to iteratively make best out of the paper. If there are mathematical formulas you don’t understand, in most cases, that’s ok as long as you get a big picture of the paper. The formulas matter the most when you actually start to build your own models. But, that’s not like I have to super clear about every bit of variables appeared in the set of formulas. Many of times, you can take them as given and go straight to use them as basic bricks to build your own building. This feels a lot like playing with LEGO: you don’t care how each piece is made of. You simply use them to build your stuff. The way of looking at knowledge is totally different from your undergraduate where you are tested out every bit of information taught in class through the exam. This observation may look easy but it is really hard from psychological perspective especially when you are a strict person who holds tight to your knowledge system. This psychological barrier is hard to break when you have relative enough time to read through a single paper. You may really hog onto the background or related work section of the paper and you may think there is always a piece of information that you find yourself unclear. Then, you take several months to study the material in order to move a few words to the next sentence of the paragraph. That’s exactly the beauty of the graduate school where you get bombarded by the papers. You just simply don’t have enough time to get everything cleared up before moving on. Classes are heavily centered around the papers and you are sort of expected to figure out on your own by adopting an iterative approach to the knowledge understanding. Take PCA algorithm as an example. The first pass of the material may just simply know how to follow the algorithm and implemented it. The second pass of the material may involve understanding the intuition behind the method and some mathematics derivations. The third pass of the material may actually need to dive to figure out every bit of information and so on.

Now, let’s get back to the question: “Does teaching matter?” It is sort of yes and no question depending on the perspective. From the undergraduate perspective, the hand-holding strategy is probably the must because that’s how we help students build the solid knowledge foundation and allow them to have the basic strategies to survive in the water. Now, for graduate students, it’s debatable whether we should go freestyle of teaching like my professor of the class or we still proceed somewhat like hand-holding but with modification. I guess that depends on the information that the instructor wants to deliver: knowledge itself or how the research is done.

P.S. The miracle happened to me today is during the calculus discussion section, a bunch of freshman chats out loud when I try to explain the solution of the problem to the class. That brings me to think whether the education quality of public system relatively weak compared to the private institutions is due to the quality difference of students. People may think that the reason why faculty in public universities don’t really care about teaching that much is due to the lack of the incentives. But, I’m now starting to think whether that also probably involves another party as well: the students who in short give the wrong signals to the faculty who try hard to achieve teaching excellence. That’s probably an another post in the future.