Shaking Hands with a Learning Bogeyman

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scary creature

Not as scary as he seems . . .

If you’ve been exposed to the fashionable education set, you’re likely aware of its widespread aversion to “rote learning.” You may have heard, for instance, the inhumane, even fatal implications of such practices as “regurgitation” and “drill and kill.” I know I’ve heard these terms over and over, dark clouds seemingly floating out of the K-12 system and into the minds of students who come to fear the memorization bogeyman. I’ve observed the bogeyman continues to haunt at least some college students, who recoil in suspicion when they’re expected to commit something to memory, and may argue that requiring “regurgitation” (as they see it) is bad teaching.

And I say no . . . not necessarily. In my own case, I mostly taught college writing and literature survey courses, and memorization wasn’t a large part of our curriculum. I did, however, try an experiment in which I offered an opportunity to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class. A few students took me up on the offer, and the assignment seemed a small personal triumph for them. I also had students comment to me that they were required to memorize some Shakespeare in high school, and rather than recount the incident with disgust (as you might expect from those who’d “regurgitated”), these students seemed proud of their accomplishment and grateful to be challenged that way.

Of course, such assignments as memorizing and reciting verse were commonplace in elementary school years ago. Why is this kind of teaching out of fashion? I think, for one thing, the word “regurgitation” suggests that acquiring knowledge isn’t always pleasant. I hear repeatedly that “learning should be fun,” especially for children; but it’s not always fun. That’s okay (is it realistic or humane, in any case, to raise children’s expectations to a vision of unending, lifelong fun?). In fifth or sixth grade, I may not have enjoyed memorizing and reciting all the US presidents, but looking back, I am glad to have done it; of course that knowledge has come in handy. Likewise states and capitals – countries and capitals – all the prepositions – the multiplication tables – again, surely this “drilled” knowledge doesn’t “kill” students or their souls; it doesn’t suck the love of learning from them and doom them to a stifling life of un-fun, robotic un-creativity.

That’s another reason folks aren’t in favor of rote learning: it’s said that students’ creativity, comprehension, and reasoning skills suffer under “drill and kill” techniques. I don’t agree. I believe creative thought, deep understanding, and reasoning spring from a mind grounded in knowledge; and certain basic facts are tools serving as foundational, gateway knowledge on the path to higher comprehension. We also must admit (mustn’t we?) that some facts, serving that foundational purpose, all educated people should know. And how could one master these mental tools if not for learning by rote? (One could argue, very persuasively, that our enabling students’ ignorance of such basic facts is one real “killer” in American education.)

Obviously, deep, well-rounded learning and critical thinking cannot stop at memorization, and I wouldn’t advocate for Gradgrinds in the classroom. But memorization absolutely can be and often should be an important step on the way to deep learning, and memorization can be a useful, edifying, and even beautiful activity in its own right.

Image via mrg. bz /jeltovski

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Students: How to Remember What You Learned This Term

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Student studying

Ah . . . final exams are over and you’re ready to close the book on subject X and relax. School’s out, after all, and you deserve a break.

I hear you — but wait! By pausing to take just one more end-of-semester step, you can create a very helpful reference for yourself. Save this information and it’s quite likely you’ll be able to use it in studying for future classes, in compiling your résumé or portfolio, and perhaps even in writing requests for recommendation letters or scholarship applications.

Best of all, this end-of-term activity is fairly easy to do while classes are still fresh in your head:

For each class you had, compile a one-page summary of what you learned.

A few guidelines:

*if you have a course syllabus, start there. A syllabus typically lists the course objectives and a list of units and assignments, so you can use this information as an outline.

*whether or not you have a syllabus, go through your textbook and class notes unit by unit. Look for major concepts and lessons, taking note of what particularly challenged you and what particularly stood out for you in any way.

*make note of any special projects you did: perhaps a major research paper or oral presentation, for instance. Any such projects serve to build your skills (e.g., in writing, research, or verbal communication).

*you might include a brief reflection, as well: what did you practice repeatedly in the class? How do you think you improved? What were your major mistakes and frustrations? How might you build upon your progress in the future?

While these one-page summaries do indeed have practical applications, remember they are primarily for your own benefit (most likely, you’ll be the only one ever to see them). But the activity of processing your recent learning is worthwhile in any case; and considering that you already devoted hard work and time to learn, you owe it to yourself to “save” your academic memories in an efficient, organized way.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Jump in There and Make Mistakes!

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erase boardStudents: what is your attitude toward failure? How do you react when you make mistakes? Recent psychological research indicates the answers to these questions are far more important than you may have imagined.

Published Tuesday in Wired Science Blog The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer’s “Why Do Some People Learn Faster?” discusses the brain science behind our reactions to our own mistakes.

The new study heralded in the article explores how one’s belief about learning affects one’s performance: people who are open to making mistakes and understand that mistakes are part of the learning process end up performing better. The study, to be published in Psychological Science, was led by Jason Moser of Michigan State and builds on other research in the field, notably Carol Dweck’s of Stanford.

Reading about Dweck’s research in the article, you’ll also discover why it is not such a good idea to tell bright children how bright they are (this actually impedes kids’ growth).

Exciting material for all who yearn to learn (and teach)!

Image via mrg.bz / jdurham

Drawing on Your Memory: A Test Prep Method

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The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s exam review time, and you’ve got multiple dates, events, people, and places to know. You’ve been an attentive student and hunger to do well in the class, but the collective knowledge seems a bit overwhelming. Well, lots of us have been there; and believe it or not, you can turn such a seemingly stressful study challenge into an enjoyable experience. Here’s how: draw yourself a cartoon as a mnemonic device. This can be amazingly effective, particularly since you use your own ingenuity to create the picture (that in itself is a form of meditation on the material).

First, gather your course notes and creative palette (paper and colored pencils are great, though cutting up old magazines could suit your purpose; or for digital panache, you could use a tool like Glogster).

Now begin your studying project: use copious amounts of color, dialogue bubbles, and humor. Need to remember something about a historic figure? Sketch him or her clutching a symbol of whatever you need to know. Need to remember an important date? Draw it and drape a symbol over it, under it, or around it. For example: start with a large “1066” and to indicate the Norman Conquest, sketch in some victorious soldiers and name one Norman. To indicate the linguistic significance, you could draw something that reminds you of France or use dialogue bubbles if you know French.

The trick, of course, is to focus your creativity squarely on the lessons you’re trying to cement in your brain. Don’t get so wrapped up in the art that you forget the matter. Also, in order for this to be an effective method, the cartoon should serve to jog your memory about something you already have studied. That is, the cartoon-drawing shouldn’t be the only time you’ve touched the material! In the end, if the above example doesn’t remind you that 1066 was the date of the Norman Conquest, significant because it heralded the infusion of the French language into English, then the cartoon isn’t helping you.

This project works especially well for History, Humanities subjects, Politics, Geography – and anywhere people and symbols are relatively easy to envision in space.

P.S. Read more about the Norman Conquest here (scroll to “This week” – and on the way down, stop to read the featured poem!):
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2008/09/22

Related posts:

Cool Learning Tool: Turn “Boring” into “Amazing”
Mangle a Song for Memory’s Sake

Mangle a Song for Memory’s Sake

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Barry Manilow may write the songs that make the whole world sing, but have you tried writing the songs that make your own brain remember?  Song, rhythm, and rhyme are mnemonic devices dating back to antiquity, so why not use the wisdom of the ages to enhance your own studies?

Here’s how: next time you’re studying for an exam, set your studies to a song you know.  Of course, you could search google to find a mnemonic song someone else has created, but I strongly suggest creating your own.  It’s fun, and creating lyrics forces you to boil your studies down to the essentials.

True, your songs may turn out weird, but weird could even be best, as it might be harder to forget.  I am not kidding.  Off the top of my head, I still remember a “functions of the stomach” song my Anatomy & Physiology lab partner and I wrote (to the tune of a ‘60’s folk song) . . . alas . . . and we thought of it around 20 years ago.

Image via mrg.bz / paulabflat

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