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03/31/92

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Etchemendy: Trying to teach analytical reasoning skills

STANFORD -- Effective teaching involves a lot of hard work, says John Etchemendy, associate professor of philosophy and director of Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information.

"Even in a course I've taught over and over, I find there is nothing as disastrous as thinking that because of that, I can just walk in and teach it on the fly," said Etchemendy. "I always re-prepare my lectures, even if only by sitting down and rewriting the notes I've used in the past."

Good teaching calls for spontaneity, he said, and there is an inherent conflict between teaching the same course year after year and maintaining spontaneity.

"You can do it, but you have to have recently thought through the material - you can't rely on what you did a year or two ago," he said.

Etchemendy knows exactly how he will use the $10,000-a-year prize money he will receive as a Bing Fellow: to pay for student programmers who assist him in the development of courseware.

He is working on a system for teaching analytical reasoning skills, "which is, on the one hand, the most important thing you can teach and, on the other hand, something we don't know how to teach. It's something students tend to learn, but we're not sure how."

Although logic is taught in philosophy, mathematics and computer science departments, the use of symbolic logic as a way of teaching reasoning seems to be a failure, he said. To work on that problem, he and former Stanford colleague Jon Barwise, now a faculty member at Indiana University, have developed a system of teaching logic that uses diagrams or pictures, as well as sentences.

"All of modern logic has simply paid attention to reasoning using sentences," Etchemendy said, "and diagrammatic and pictorial forms of representation have been ignored."

For the past three years, he and Barwise have been working on a program, Hyperproof, that allows students to use both diagrams and sentences to reason about problems.

They want to go on to a second program that allows a much more general use of graphical representation, Etchemendy said. This program will have a tool box that allows users to set up problems using graphical devices, "so that, faced with a question - about assigning office space, for example - the student can quickly diagram the situation, state the constraints and then reason within the system."

Etchemendy finds that he "engages students most successfully in classes where the content of my teaching is continuous with the research I'm doing. When I teach an introductory course, I don't see any reason to simply cover the things that were done 100 years ago in the field. I also try to cover at an introductory level things I'm doing right now in my research."

A good example, he said, is his work on the logic program using graphics.

"It's very new, but there's no reason not to teach it to undergraduates. In fact, they often pick up on it a lot better than people who've been in the field for some time."

Like other Bing teaching award winners, Etchemendy feels that he can always learn more about how to improve his teaching skills. He has called on staff members at Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning during his nine years on the faculty, particularly when he is teaching a new class or when things don't seem to be going well in a class. Doing this not only gives him needed help, he said, but also "lets the class know that I care."

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