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Focus on Education: The Key to Success in Astronomy

The one quality which sets one individual apart from another – the key which lifts one to every aspiration while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity – is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness; it is self-discipline. With self-discipline, all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.
– Theodore Roosevelt

Do you know why we have seasons on Earth? If so, you are in a distinct minority among Americans. Most people, if they have any idea at all, incorrectly guess that seasons arise because Earth’s distance from the Sun varies during the year.

The problem with this answer is obvious if you remember that the Northern and Southern Hemispheres have opposite seasons, since seasons would have a single, worldwide pattern if they resulted from variation in the Earth-Sun distance. Seasons actually arise from the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which causes sunlight to hit different latitudes at different angles at different times of year. In June, for example, the Northern Hemisphere is tipped toward the Sun while the Southern Hemisphere is tipped away, so it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. (See any astronomy textbook for a more detailed explanation.)

The question of the seasons raises an even more important question about education. Many Mercury readers will recall the famous study in which even Harvard graduates gave the wrong explanation for the seasons. Yet the seasons are taught somewhere in almost any school curriculum. So why do so few people understand them?

Part of the answer comes from misconceptions that people bring to the table, as has been well documented by Philip Sadler, Matthew Schneps, and others at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (see A Private Universe Project, or view their short documentary, A Private Universe). But I believe another issue is at least equally important. Even if you offer students the great activities developed by the Harvard researchers, or the great activities in ASP’s teacher resource book, The Universe at Your Fingertips, your students still won’t learn anything unless they work hard and think about their work.

The necessity of hard work to learning may seem fairly obvious, yet it has been sadly neglected. Billions of dollars have been spent on curriculum development, teacher-training programs, standards and assessment, the creation of “hands-on” activities, and, more recently, in creating the latest cool computer animations and interactive simulations. But none of these are worth a hoot unless they are also accompanied by hard work on students’ part. Unfortunately, my own informal studies of this issue show that, if anything, students are doing less work today than they did just a few decades ago.

For example, I tell my students (in a three-credit-hour college class) that they should expect to study six to nine hours per week outside class. This expectation is nothing more than the old rule of thumb that students should study two to three hours outside class for each hour in class. Nearly every professor I’ve ever spoken to is aware of this rule of thumb. But, by and large, students have never heard of it. Moreover, the rule directly contradicts their experiences. Students did not work this hard in high school, and they rarely are expected to work this hard in their college classes outside of science and mathematics. The latter fact gets hammered home on my end-of-term course surveys: my non-science- major students generally say that they did study six to nine hours per week for my class, but often add that it was more than they studied for all the rest of their classes combined.

When I discuss the issue with students and other faculty, I find that the main problem is not an unwillingness to do the hard work. Many of the students are used to working hard in non-academic areas, such as sports, music, or jobs. It’s just that no one has ever expected them to put in the same kind of effort in academics. We can hardly blame the students for the problem. Students can rise to meet our expectations only if we make the expectations clear.

As teachers, we have an important role to play in motivating our students to learn and in developing curricula that will enable them to study effectively and efficiently. Yet we cannot pour facts into our students’ heads. If they are going to learn, they will have to do it themselves, with our aid and encouragement. The key to success in astronomy is the same as it is in everything else: hard work.

Look again at the Teddy Roosevelt quote above. The best thing we can do for our students is to help them learn the self-discipline needed for hard work. Set your expectations high. Assign plenty of homework. Lay out a clear, tough, and fair policy on grading. Always be willing to help your students when they need you — but only if they are holding up their end of the bargain on the hard work. Once your students start putting in the effort, you’ll be amazed at how much they can learn.

A final note: if you are interested, I have a handout called “How to Succeed in Your College Classes,” which I give to all my students; find it online here.

Jeff Bennett is currently a full-time writer in Boulder, Colorado. He is lead author of two textbooks for introductory astronomy: The Cosmic Perspective and The Cosmic Perspective Brief Edition, both published by Addison Wesley. He welcomes email correspondence about these columns and other issues at