Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How we learn

Jonah at The Frontal Cortex just published a great post about how much college has changed in the past decade. When I went to school, we sat around with pencils and notebooks taking notes. Some of us were eager beavers [raises hand] and brought a tin of colored pencils to keep up with the profs who lectured with colored chalk. Nowadays the vast majority of lectures are powerpoint with a copy of the slides being distributed and students take notes (or not) in the margins. This whole topic kind of makes me see red. I feel really strongly that there are going to be some surprise consequences of this. I know change is inevitable and colleges are hardly about to revert to chalkboards, but I still feel pretty freaked out about it. It also was very eye opening for me, especially in light of becoming a teacher. I have a lot to learn about how other people learn!

Here is my comment to his article (also posted on his site):

I am a "senior" grad student (35 year old PhD candidate) and recently made the same (horrific) discovery about how much Things Have Changed. I attended a summer school last year that was 11 days of 9-5 powerpoint lectures (each an hour long) and it became clear that this was the preferred mode of giving a university course. I was horrified. There is no other word for it. I was also exhausted in a way I never have been (in my entire life!) from "learning". I felt like I'd been steam-rolled, and that far, far more material had presented than I could ever hope to assimilate in the time alotted.

I ranted and raved about it for several weeks. This actually turned out to be productive because it was pointed out to me (as is said above) that some people learn best by listening, so for them this is a great improvement--no more need to pretend to take notes, feel bad about not taking notes, or try to take notes and find it hindering. I had never thought much about the variety of learning styles before then.

My concern is that for those of us who learn by the written word (more on this below), we are left with no real options. A lecture given by powerpoint by definition moves at a faster pace than a person can keep up with, meaning there is no way for me to "learn" in class. Just scribbling occasional notes in the margins of a printed slide doesn't do it for me. In college, when I was "in training", I could write nearly verbatim the professors' words using a kind of shorthand I developed over the years. The lectures went at the speed of the explanation. What concerns me is that a lot of students probably don't realize they are learn-by-taking-notes types, and might not discover this when notes are handed out.

A further note about learning by writing--in my case, this is very specific to writing, not typing. Typing is too abstract for me and somehow my brain doesn't process the information. When I've tried to take notes by typing, I come away with nothing (except irritation at how loud my keyboard is). And yes, I still write first drafts of everything on actual paper with an actual pen.

To summarize: People who learn by listening can listen in on old school lectures and new school lectures. People who learn by writing and taking notes are now left with a reduced set of options.

This issue is a huge pet peeve of mine. I've actually been trying to figure out some kind of little study to do on this, because I think the impact on people with different learning styles is pretty profound. I'm concerned about the usage of powerpoint in grade schools. I don't mean to be a luddite, but I do think the questions need to be asked.

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