Friday, September 3, 2010

Are You Giving Your Students Cognitive Indigestion?

One cold wintry Friday, the philosophy professor at a small college looked out at his class only to see a single student. The snow was deep, the wind was blowing, and the rest of the class just was not able to make the long, cold trek to school. Undaunted, the professor launched into the full text of the lecture he had prepared. He was determined to reward the student for his faithfulness and deliver his best lecture ever. He elaborated on each point. He quoted from multiple sources, contrasting their different approaches to the core argument. He gave stirring testimony about the marvelous accomplishments of visionaries who had followed the tenets of the philosophy he espoused. And finally, he concluded with a call to his audience, exhorting him to embrace the difficult but rewarding path he had just laid out. After speaking passionately for two hours straight, the professor was so excited he could not wait to ask the student his impression of the lecture. The student was quiet for a long time before he spoke. “Professor, I have to feed the cattle at my folks this afternoon. If there is only one steer in the barn, I’m not going to make him eat the whole bale of hay.”

I have sometimes been guilty of trying to feed my students the whole bale at once, trying to include every excruciating detail about a topic before they have gained a broad understanding. Information overload can cause cognitive indigestion. This occurs when the listener has a large amount of data without any real framework to organize and understand it. Most people tend to learn in stages, unfolding a little bit of the mystery at a time. The study of electricity is like this. We start with general description and then add ohm’s law to refine the idea. Then after the students have the hang of standard ohm’s law formulas, we add series and parallel calculations. After students can handle these we tell them that ohm’s law is not valid for most air conditioning work because of inductive and capacitive reactance. If you are really sadistic, you will then trot out the LCR calculations. There is method in our madness. If we were to drop all this on the students in the first week, most would become confused and frustrated. It is OK to leave out details and fill them in as the students gain subject maturity. In fact, for most folks it is preferable. It is far better to feel that you are making progress, than to feel that you are drowning in information. One of the ways that I know when a student is really “getting it” is when they comment that they are beginning to understand how much they don’t know. Typically, these are some of the brightest students – they are gaining enough insight to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. It is all right to try to teach your students everything you know. In fact, your goal should be for your students to learn more than you know. It just will not happen overnight. If you guide them well, it will happen and they will return to share their knowledge and success with you. There is nothing more rewarding.

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