How do students learn?

Dice roll, and so do balls, cylinders and cones – each in its own way.  To assume that cones will roll like cylinders or balls is as preposterous as assuming that just because all these objects roll, they should be treated in the exact same fashion. 

The metaphor is Plutarch’s, not mine (I just added dice for kicks).   He uses it to explain the uneven delivery of divinely inspired texts, but the metaphor is rather productive in discussing the classroom situation.

In an earlier post, I said that learning, a process as natural as breathing, is not something you can switch on or off.  So when students come to your classroom, they learn, although it may not be the learning you intended.  There are those who disagreed, by responding to that post or in conversations, saying that some students are just unable to learn, or simply don’t care about learning. 

Now, if learning is as natural as breathing, it still happens, regardless of what we think.  Students may not know how to do it properly, but that’s one of the reasons why they go to school – to learn how to learn in the most efficient way.  And the most efficient way for them may not be the way you have in mind.  To use another analogy, not all people who fall in love end up writing sublime love poetry like Sappho’s – some end up writing in prose.  Plato’s dialogues on love are sublime too.

Ah, but teachers can’t focus on working with each and every student because they are underpaid and overworked.  This one cracks me up, especially when it comes from people who profess their love for Socrates (who, mind you, taught for free).  Teachers are underpaid compared to whom?  Fairness is a relative concept.  If teaching really tugs you, you do it, regardless of how much you are paid.  If it doesn’t, change your job.  Teaching is not about you, the teacher – is about your students and what they learn.  You are just a little tiny cylinder-shaped transmission tube.  Or does your ego tend to clamp onto the exit, turning you into a cone and hampering the flow of learning?

Teaching is like chess.  At least 75% of it entails divining how to get your knowledge across.  Even if both you and your students are balls, your diameters may be different, which means that one of you will be still ending the first roll while another is on his or her tenth.  In this sense, teaching is very much like an entrepreneurship – you have to keep your mind open and adjust, learning from setbacks and enjoying it all.

If you haven’t done it already, learn how to read your students’ body language and microexpressions.  In this way, you will know when is the time to edutain in order to hook wandering minds.  One caveat: edutaining is delicious, but if you do it gratuitously, your students will know.  Also, get over the frustration from having to repeat something you’ve just explained in full detail.  Face it – none of us listens attentively at all times, and even if we do, not all information seeps in right away.  

Again, the focus is on students.  So make an effort and learn about how your students learn.  Observe what you yourself do when studenting.  You may find out, for instance, that spacing out is a common phenomenon.  Very often, something in the class discussion or lecture stirs memory chunks of previously acquired knowledge, and you may not even realize that while you integrate, the class goes on.  Encourage students to record their insights – you will often gain unexpected perspectives on your subject, while at the same time respecting your students’ learning processes.  In this way, you’ll truly be doing the Dum docemus discimus thing, not just paying lip service to it.

Sometimes I just don’t have a clue about what the professor is trying to say, and while I’m feverishly trying to make sense of his/her words, I begin to fidget and stretch.  Don’t make assumptions about my mental state but appreciate the amazing harmony between mind and body.  The mind is in distress, and the body is trying to make it feel better by delivering the extra oxygen supply.  Instead of resorting to incorrect speculations about my mental state, think of some better ways to convey your knowledge.  I will not even mention the countless occasions when I’ve been erroneously sure I understand what the prof is saying and eager to show it off by malapropistic nodding.  Hey, I’ll be the first to laugh at myself now, but this was not always the case.  Be gentle with your students when that happens.

As a student, I’ve had aha experiences that in retrospect should have come much earlier.  I am thankful for those aha’s and to the teachers who planted the seed.  French cooking, indeed – infuriatingly slow at times, but oh the aromas and taste at the end!


7 thoughts on “How do students learn?

  1. Bottom line: if you think teaching is a vocation (the “tug” you refer to) then you also think they don’t have to pay you to care; if you don’t think it’s a vocation, then they do have to pay you to care. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this point. But I’m still going to insist that the “teaching as vocation” argument is pernicious because it undervalues the sheer amount of effort it takes to do a good job, and allows people to take advantage of teachers’ well-meaning enthusiasm.

    I was a very good teacher, truth be told; they simply weren’t paying me enough to keep doing it.

    1. Hey, Johanna, welcome! Glad you checked this post – maybe now my comments/questions on your blog make sense.

      I had to google comprehensive schools vs. grammar schools. From what I understand, the difference is that students compete for entrance into grammar schools, while comprehensives are open to all is that right?

      If so, we are discussing here colleges and universities, where the entrance is (supposed to be) competitive. The funny thing is though, some high achievers from high school function poorly in college. I am not sure why this is so. Any insights?

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