Education Includes Personal Growth

I think there is a trend among the students who perform poorly in class, but fail to show up to office hours to get assistance: I believe they might be suffering from poor study skills. Now, because they don’t show up to office hours, and because I’ve never actually interviewed those who do about their learning methodology, this post is pure conjecture and speculation. However, it maintains internal consistency, and brings together some interesting phenomena.

Let’s suppose that you are a student, struggling with some subject. The fact that you are struggling means that you have likely had some negative feedback, either in the form of low grades or lots of red ink all over your papers. These experiences can sour your mind to the material. You might find yourself, reacting negatively to the idea of studying, focusing or improving any skills involved. You might have developed an ugh field. At this point you stop studying, because you just can’t bear to think about the topic. This results in continued poor performance.

It’s really surprising how easily, and often this can happen. I’d conjecture that it’s a bug in how our brains learn (Temoral Difference Learning). But, there are ways of getting past it (Defeating Ugh Fields in Practice). Clearly low grades, while providing a strong indicator that current performance is slipping or below standards, provides a negative reinforcement that can disengage a student altogether. And no amount of teaching, regardless of the methods, will get a student to incorporate the material into their mental world if they aren’t emotionally prepared and psychologically willing.

From a strictly rationalist perspective, a student receiving a slipping grade should realize that immediately redoubling their efforts into studying is the necessary remedy. Humans are not strictly rational, and have built-in cognitive short-cuts and emotional biases, so it is vitally important for any educator to make explicit what is expected. And not just in terms of course material, but in terms of performance. We need to catch students early, before it becomes too late.

Furthermore, I think that teacher intervention is necessary. I think, related to the Dunnign-Kruger effect is the inability (or denial) of students to realize their situation. I conjecture that poor performance in the classroom is strongly correlated with poor aptitude in ‘life skills’. The cognitive biases that lead a student to ignore the grading indicator, also leaves em feeling helpless. Ey likely don’t realize (because ey is used to having everything pointed out by a teacher) that remedies exist, and are readily available. Information about improving any aspect of your life is out there, just do a web search, but most people (esp. the ones that need to) don’t think to do it.

So, I believe, knowing these aspects about human cognition, that the educator bears a responsibility to remind the student, that they had better get back on track before it becomes too late. That a bad grade on a quiz or a homework servers as an indicator mechanism, not as a judgmental sentence. To recommend learning resources, time management classes, study skills exercises and find out which of these is appropriate to the situation. To show a student that ey are not powerless. All of this, must happen before the formation of an ugh field, or the incorporation of inability to the students identity (“I’m no good at math.”).

We also do a disservice to our students every time we propagate some common cultural myths.

  • Becoming an expert isn’t innate, it’s a result of 10,000 hours practice.
  • It’s possible that you’re practicing wrong. If you’ve hit a plateau, seek strategies to move beyond.

So, if you feel overly frustrated, and that is getting in the way of your learning. The first thing to do is try extra studying. However, even this attempt could prove ineffective. If you, you might have to admit that the material is beyond your ability to assimilate or understand it, and that, for the time being, you might not be prepared for it. It should be OK to spend 3 months focusing on something else, and then revisit the topic. The experiences you have in that time will likely have prepared your mind for the material. (Not everyone is ready to assimilate a message at the same time).

However, I think it would help our education system enormously, if we just taught students that hard work, and concentrated effort really do pay off. Let’s look again at that book I’ve been reading, Standards for Our Schools, for a good example of what I’d want changed.

One of the interesting differences between the Japanese approach to elementary education and the American approach is the way each nation thinks about study skills. We Americans tend to think that students will somehow pick up the study skills that they need on their own. The Japanese do not believe that and devote time and effort in the early years to direct instruction on the subject of study skills.

Teachers in Japan routinely teach first graders how to organize their desks, use the bathroom, and other activities. Later the students are taught how to organize their pens and pencils and still later how to take notes that will enable them to summarize and reconstruct the logic line of a lecture or conversation, make an outline, organize a notebook, and so on. They will teach them, too, just what is expected of them in the classroom.

My personal experience.

In one sense I’m lucky. I was a smart kid, I liked the academic environment. I got good grades. I attended advanced placement classes. I wasn’t valedictorian, because I learned laziness. I found most lectures boring, and I didn’t practice any material. I was even able to figure out how to do math problems I’d never seen before, during a test. (That actually only happened once, but how often can you say “I know more coming out of that test than I did going in”?). As soon as I hit college, and the material got more challenging, the competition raised the bar; my lack of study skills, and poor education habits took began to show.

I strongly feel that I should have been better prepared, esp. since I was one of the ‘smart’ students from my High School. I’d done well enough, for long enough, that I didn’t lose my engagement entirely or acquire a learned disability; but I did stop enjoying my classes, and I did begin to feel that I’d gone astray. However, even though my grades started slipping; they never got low enough for a counselor to point me at better study habits or workshops. Consequently, I feel that I’m now just mediocre (but in academia, I’m comparing myself to really awesome and amazing people, so it’s a very high bar).

But, I believe it is possible for people to change, and become better. Else, why have an educational system at all? We really need to incorporate classes surrounding the aspects of personal development and interaction. And we need to do this at the High School or Middle School level, so that everyone can benefit. No matter what profession we end up going into, they all share a need for effective time management, positive attitude toward change, and a commitment to continuous learning.

It’s not enough for educators to have a strong background in teaching methodologies, but we must also know how the brain learns, how positive and negative reinforcement affect readiness to learn, the psychology of learning, and incorporate that knowledge into strategically counseled guidance. To really be an effective educator it’s not just about knowing how to present the material, it’s also about showing/demonstrating/explaining how knowledge is acquired.

So, I have to leave with a quip.

Geniuses aren’t. They practice, and with better techniques. They’ve learned to teach themselves.