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The Real Deal on 8.02 TEAL

Arun Agarwal

So far, dialogue has started between the class administration and students regarding the inadequacy about 8.02 TEAL, and several articles have been published in The Tech regarding the issue. Still, however, the flaws with the class haven’t been adequately made known, and the letter published by TEAL administration in Tuesday’s issue doesn’t reflect an understanding of the extent of problems with the program. TEAL has some major issues to work out, if the goal of the program is to teach students. In addition to the computers that freeze during presentations, the lights that bleach out whiteboards, and the PRS system that doesn’t even register, TEAL has to change.

For starters, the administration has serious flaws. The biggest problem here is with the material written for the class. The slide shows generally have typos, which is somewhat understandable but also frustrating. In addition, often the problem set questions are vague. You may be asked to calculate how much work is done, but you aren’t told by whom, right after the professor tells you how important that is. Another major issue is with the amount of time it takes to get -- or in some cases, not get -- work back. It can take weeks to get a problem set back, and as far as experiments and workshops go, they are never returned, so we can’t even learn from our mistakes.

What I have listed so far, however, are only the fixable administrative issues. Now I would like to turn our attention to the meat of the issue: the flaws with the teaching, and the intrinsic, unsolvable problems with TEAL. Basically, the idea behind TEAL, is that students “learn on their own.” Before each session we have required reading, and we then go in and have short presentations on the topics in the reading, and then perform experiments and workshops. The presentations don’t hold a candle to a lecture, because they simply highlight issues from the reading, through quick board work and some PowerPoint. They are mainly there to make quick clarifications before we do the experiments and workshops.

The problem, of course, is without a lecturer, students who didn’t understand the reading cannot gain anything for the experiments or the workshops. Thus all this time is wasted. This is a key issue. The way traditional education works is you read something, someone explains it to you, and then you apply it. With TEAL’s removal of the intermediate step, the application process is almost completely lost. This is even a greater issue for students who haven’t even taken 18.02, because they have to teach themselves all the math too, with nothing but review packets to aid them. If that isn’t bad enough, TEAL has no recitations, so people who don’t understand the reading can’t even get help during their five hours a week. They have to spend extra time going to office hours. Thank Goodness that students can watch Walter Lewin’s superb 8.02 lectures from last year on the Web. Now, however, we’re talking about even more out-of-class time. To alleviate this issue, some students have even resorted to watching these lectures during class.

There are also issues with the group work. The workshops, for example, usually simply get done by one person, because the others are often clueless.

So with so many issues, one must ask, how did TEAL get instituted? As it turns out, a comparison test showed that TEAL was better than the old format. A big problem with this, however, is the fact that this test was written and administered by the TEAL staff, and inevitably highlighted issues that TEAL emphasized. In addition, the variables during the tests weren’t fair. As the TEAL staff states in pride, half the kids didn’t even go to the traditional 8.02 lectures. TEAL sessions, however, are required, which confuses the issue. Does TEAL lead to more success, or is that an effect of requiring students to attend class? It’s my prediction that if 8.02 lectures had been required, students in that test group would have been much more successful. By similar logic, if TEAL wasn’t required, that test group would have done much worse. Most people only attend TEAL because 15 percent of their uncurved grade depends on it.

There are other issues as well. If the test compared last spring’s TEAL and lecture classes, I’d argue that only people who though TEAL would be good would take it in the first place. If it used the students who took TEAL this fall, then I’d argue those were students who placed out of 8.01, and thus have exceptional physics ability. It has never been compared as one mainstream class to another, and it will never have the ability to do so, because now freshmen are on grades rather than pass/ no record, which we all know has a huge impact.

Hopefully, the physics faculty won’t see the progress of students in 8.02 under the TEAL program as because of TEAL, when it will really be in spite of TEAL. The issue here is that they are dealing with MIT students, and if the TEAL class they’re in is inadequate, they aren’t going to just lie down and fail. They’re going to do whatever it takes to get the grades and learn the material. The difference is that with TEAL, they have to spend 5 hours a week in class, and a very large additional amount of time teaching themselves everything that the class fails to do so.

So the bottom line is, regardless of how great it looks in the news or on Web sites, TEAL doesn’t function. Students spend numerous hours outside of class reading the book, watching Walter Lewin’s 8.02 lectures, being tutored by their peers, and struggling through problem sets. I recommend that the physics department invite all 8.02 TEAL students to send their candid opinions about TEAL to the head of the physics department directly. The physics department may want to further experiment with TEAL; however, in its current state, it should not be forced on the majority of the student body, and the traditional 8.02 lecture format should be reinstated.