AngiePen (angiepen) wrote,

Modes of Learning

Jason Scott has an interesting post on different modes of learning, with links to some research.

Jason's personal issue with learning is that he can pick up just about anything written down, but has a very difficult time remembering things he's heard. He's figured out some work-arounds, but standard educational modes (with a room full of students and a teacher talking at the front) didn't work so well for him.

I have a similar(ish) problem with learning, but mine has to do with the type of information I'm working with. I'm better with written info, yes, but almost as good with what I hear so that's not a huge deal. But my brain resists taking in individual data items as though throwing up defenses against an enemy seige. :P

If I hear or read about a chain of events, I can remember the basic line of what happened, and discuss or write about how the various antecedents came together to cause the events, what happened at the time, and what the ramifications were for however long. Give me a larger framework where things interlink logically and hang together and I can remember that, and even some of the individual bits, because all the different bits support one another to form the logical framework, which sticks in my mind easily. I'm really good with big-picture and analysis type tasks.

But don't ask me to remember my phone number, your birthday, names and dates in history, foreign language vocabulary, mathematical or scientific formulas, or any other individual data items you have to "just memorize." :P

I was taking this math class in college and we were doing conic sections. (Which, note, I had studied a number of times before, in previous math classes.) All the exam problems were of the type where they give you one of the foci of an ellipse and the distance from there to a point on the ellipse, or something like that, and you have to figure out where some line would intersect the ellipse, or whatever. (I used to be able to do this, really, but it was like twenty years ago.) If you knew the formulas, you just plugged in the givens and out popped the answers. I could only remember the formulas for lines and parabolas, though (having studied them over and over since junior high, they'd finally stuck), which left me a tiny bit lost when it came to circles, ellipses and hyperbolas. But I could remember all the definitions of the various sections (because those were logical and made sense) and using that info I re-derived all the formulas on my scratch paper. I was one of the last ones to turn in my exam, but I got 100%. :P

I didn't figure out what the problem was until I was about six years into a two-year degree. [cough] None of my teachers ever figured out what the problem was, including the one teacher I had for two years -- third and fifth grades. She called me "the absent-minded professor;" everyone knew I was "Gifted" but I had inexplicable [cough] trouble with certain subjects or skills. I was twelve before I realized I hadn't had to look up any multiplication facts for a while, for example, which most of my classmates had memorized four years earlier, and the other gifted kids even sooner.

By junior high or so, my study habits sucked swamp water, I freely admit. I'd learned that doing the thirty-problems type of homework was a useless waste of time. Either I listened to the teacher's explanation or read the textbook and got it, right then and there, and could pass an exam, which made the homework -- the sole purpose of which is practice to imprint a skill into your brain -- a useless waste of time, or I listened or read and didn't get it and doing the homework wouldn't help any, which made it a useless waste of time. I'd rather be reading on my own, which is what I did. My PSAT score was the second highest in the history of my high school, and my SAT a bit higher, but I graduated with a 2.6 GPA. (And an abysmal deficiency in my knowledge of conic sections. And Spanish vocabulary. And key names and dates in US history.)

No one figured out what was going on. The consensus seemed to be that I was lazy, and that if I "only applied myself" or "would just try" it would be easy for me. You're so smart, Angela, this should be simple for you! Why won't you even try, Angela? If you'd just do all your work you'd get straight As, what's the matter with you?

It was true that if I'd done all my work I'd have gotten better grades. It's hard to develop a habit of doing something which is not only boring but also useless; at least all the other students (so far as I know -- there might well have been others with my same problem) had the satisfaction of knowing that if they did their boring homework, they'd have learned something at the end of it. Mine was boring and pointless both. It's hard to get into that, when you're a kid.

And the fact is that I wouldn't have gotten straight As if I'd done all the homework. The Re-Derive The Formula trick only works up to a certain point. By my mid-twenties, I'd absorbed enough general knowledge and skill to be able to do that, at least in some situations. At fourteen, not so much. And all the things you have to Just Memorize in history and Spanish and English and whatever all else, wouldn't have stuck with me any better if I'd done the homework exercises. I know this for a fact, because once I worked out what the problem was, I did some experiments.

Now, I know what it takes for me to memorize things. In math, for example, if I can't pick up a procedure right off the bat, it takes somewhere between five and eight times as many homework problems as the toughest teacher I've ever had ever dreamed of assigning, to get the procedure for solving that type of problem to stick in my head. And at that, I have to do them all within a day or two of the exam; if I want to remember after that, I have to keep doing them periodically after as well. For foreign language, I developed a flash-card system for vocabulary which works for me. It's pretty brutal, and I have to do it for a couple of hours each day, spread out across the day in shorter chunks to keep battering at the gate of my long-term memory over and over.

I don't know whether I'd have had the discipline to do this when I was a teenager. I can do it now if I have to because I know for a fact that it works. I'm willing to make that larger investment in time and focus because I know I'll get the prize at the end. When I was younger, I was expected to make an investment which I knew would pay off nothing, and I dug in my heels. I wish I knew then what I know now, but at the same time I can't completely condemn my younger self for not wanting to waste twenty-some hours every week doing homework that didn't help me.

But no one else picked up on the problem either, despite years of sub-standard report cards and frustrating conferences with my mom and teachers, punishments and groundings and lectures and nagging. The assumption is that if you're "Gifted," you're obviously a genius with everything, and absolutely any subject, any skill, any mode of learning should be *EASY!!* for you. In reality, not so much -- intelligence is a combination of a number of skills and abilities, and you can be above average in one or more, and still be below average elsewhere. Teachers don't look for that, though. Once you've got the label, that's it, and any difficulties after that point are assumed to be moral failings. :P

All this is known, but it's not used. It's easier and cheaper to just feed everyone the same input, in the same mode, in large groups, and let the (report) cards fall where they may. We could work out what each student needs and give them the best education for their needs, in the optimum mode, while teaching them strategies for coping in their weaker modes. But that'd be expensive, and right now we're not even doing a great job at the beans-and-rice level of education; I can't imagine anyone being willing to pony up for the prime rib level any time soon, no matter what the benefit to our society in the long run.


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