My Courses and How to Approach Them

A Guide to Students and Potential Students

Gary H. Merrill


Practical Ontology

An Overview of my Approach to Teaching and Course Conduct

My overall goal in any course is to ensure, so far as possible, that the students learn the content of the course and come out of the course with useful knowledge and abilities that they did not have when entering the course.  It is important that this be demonstrated both to the student and to the instructor in some objective manner, and that is one of the purposes of evaluations such as quizzes, tests, papers, and projects.  Consequently, it is likewise important that these evaluative methods genuinely reflect the course material and level of understanding expected, and so are not "tricky" and do not require the student to "stretch" beyond the bounds of what has been covered in the course.  You will therefore be aware in each instance of exactly what is expected on each quiz, test, paper, etc. prior to its assignment, and each assignment will be reviewed after it is handed back to provide clear examples of what a "good answer" or "good paper" would look like in that particular case.  In addition, I will often use one test or paper to prepare you for the next so that you get some degree of "practice" before you must turn in an assignment that is worth more of the course grade.  I do not view teaching as a contest between instructor and student.

What I really hope for in students is a particular attitude.  This attitude includes a genuine interest in the course and its subject matter, and a willingness to work at learning that.  I can guarantee you that I will do everything I can to get you through a course with as good a grade as you can get -- without compromising standards.  Realistically, on occasion a student may just get in over his or her head, and withdrawal may be necessary.  But this should be a highly unusual case, and I will do my best to ensure that you have timely and detailed feedback early in the course so that you can see how you are doing.  I am fanatic about getting assignments back to students as quickly as possible and with worthwhile feedback.

This attitude colors my view of who should be allowed to take a given course in terms of prerequisites or prior knowledge.  Some of my course will have "hard" prerequisites -- meaning that you genuinely must have taken the listed prerequisites (and done well in them).  But other courses will have "soft" prerequisites -- meaning that students may be allowed into the course even if they have not taken all (or on occasion any) of the listed prerequisites.  The best approach here, if you are interested in a course and do not meet the prerequisites, is to contact me directly about it and we can decide if you could handle the course and benefit from it.  It does neither of us a service to admit you to a course that you will find too difficult and unpleasant.  But it does neither of us a service to prohibit you from taking a course that you could handle and enjoy.
My one-sentence advice about prerequisites for my courses is "Take the prerequisites seriously, but don't necessarily be scared off by them; and see what I say about them explicitly in the course description."  Also, talk to other students who know me or have taken my courses.  Then make your decision.

As for fundamental expectations of students, I have few.  I expect my students to have the highest degree of integrity in terms of the work they do, and to do their own work.  I expect that a student will contact me and seek help before it is too late to correct a deteriorating situation.  I expect students to devote the necessary work to the course as the course progresses -- and not to put off work to a later time when it will be too late to catch up.  I expect every student to write well enough and clearly enough that I can understand what is being said and can consequently evaluate it and respond to it in a reasonable way.  I expect work to be turned in on time unless there is some significant and demonstrable reason to pardon tardiness (which should be agreed to beforehand).  I do not at all like the idea of an "Incomplete" grade and will grant one only in an extreme and documentable circumstance.