Monday, January 28, 2013

The Antiquated Method of Learning by Repetition

Over the holiday break, I took notice of just how often I ask my three-year-old daughter to say "please" and "thank you".  I probably remind her to do so about ten times per day, while my wife might be closer to twenty.  This has probably gone on for the past year.  This means that my daughter has been reminded to be polite more than 10,000 times over the past year.  And, the truth is, it's just starting to pay off.  She probably remembers to be polite one third of the time these days.

This method of "teaching by repetition" is slow and can prove frustrating, but it does yield results - eventually.  A colleague ascribed it to a gradual rewiring of the brain: attempting to create a new normal.  I think of the process as inefficient hypnosis.
Does this method of teaching work for adolescents and adults as well?  Yes, to a certain extent, but it is not the most effective.  It can, however, compliment a well-rounded learning process.

When thinking back to my science classes as a teenager, I recall doing redundant exercises.  It was during this extremely unengaging practice that the material sunk in.  It wasn't pretty, but it kind of worked.  Exercises are an appropriate term for them, as they are reminiscent of the kinds of drills athletes at all levels undergo in order to rewire their brains to suit their sport.  I would argue, however, that regardless of what is being learned, it is most effective if the mode is varied; the content, when viewed from many different angles, sinks in far deeper.

Traditional science lectures go like this: (1) teacher tells students stuff, and (2) students attempt to reproduce said stuff over and over again.  It is a painful way to learn, and also an inefficient one.  One can make the analogy to a muscle training routine.  You can stick exclusively to one training regimen for months and months.  The muscles do experience noticeable gains.  But, at some point, the muscles plateau and require a new kind of challenge to keep strengthening.  Our brains are similar in this regard.

Are instructors then cornered into a choice?  Must we choose between "teach it well" and "teach it often"?  Of course not.  Teaching it well means approaching the material from many points of view.  And students can learn it well if they have the opportunity to navigate it on their own through diverse means.  Physics is anything but a dry subject, but its inherent richness is circumvented when students are asked to solve redundant problems according to some recipe.  The key is that concepts are understood - they may then be used to solve problems.

When it comes to understanding physics concepts, my focus is always on communication.  Can my students express their understanding in words?  How about through speech?  Can they explain with precision where their understanding falls short?  Reading, writing, and oral presentations are an integral part of my courses.  Yes, my courses involve much problem solving.  But, the focus is on the concepts; if the concepts are clear, then their use to solve problems becomes, dare I say, a pleasure.

Some say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  Well, I'm an engineer, and instead choose to see the learning process in terms of its efficiency: "If it ain't efficient, optimize it."  Yes, teachers can provide a bunch of exercises and hope that the content sinks in as they are solved.  But, why not put the odds in our students' favour, and navigate them efficiently through the rewiring of their brains?       

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