Teacher as Student
It’s been a long time since I learned something challenging. I recently decided to learn “R” online. R is a stat package. It requires some programming skill. I felt intimidated but willing to learn. Writing code isn’t one of my strengths. Despite the teacher’s gentle encouragement (This can even be fun!), I felt overwhelmed within the first 20 minutes. At this point I realized “Holy cow, this is what students feel like!” I forgot what an awful feeling it is to believe that you are in over your head. How did that happen so quickly?
Jargon. Words were used that have no meaning/context to me: “command terminator;” “concatenate;” “style guide;” “packages.” I felt like an idiot. Clearly, the teacher expected I could handle the lingo. I kept pausing the video. If I were not so determined to learn R, I would have quit. Discouragement can take hold quickly. How much jargon am I using during the first few weeks of my courses?
Unrealistic Expectations. “Write your own code.” This was, seriously, the first “practice” recommendation. How could I do that when I was lost about the commands? I had no idea how the input is handled or output is presented. I decided to ignore that advice. Sound familiar? If students don’t have a clue about what we want or how to do it, some will quit. Or skip it. How guilty of this practice am I? Are my early-in-the-course expectations reasonable? How regularly do I try to reassure students about the preliminary awkwardness in learning something new?
It would have been so helpful to start with an example. Here’s some data. Let’s analyze it. Then the teacher could have provided a small data set and asked students to practice. A short list of the most basic, fundamental commands would have also helped. Instead, the teacher kept piling on information about R’s various tools and capabilities. It was like receiving a training program to prepare for a marathon while the runners are still getting ready to run their first 5K. Too much information is counterproductive. Discouraging. Overwhelming.
Background Knowledge. The next step was to import csv files from Excel. Save the Excel file on my desktop in csv format. Write the command to find the file and import it to R. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. Even simple tasks can be problematic for beginners. In order to write the command, you need to identify the file’s location. I was always a PC person. File address is written C://…. How is this handled on a Mac? I never needed to know this. This isn’t part of the tutorial because a certain level of background knowledge is assumed. Eventually, I figured it out. But not before I experienced some panic about my background ignorance. How often have I made assumptions about background knowledge?
Cognitive Load. I got discouraged. I spent 90 minutes working through 35 minutes of tutorial. I was slowed by doubts. How would I remember what to enter? Would I be able to use this program on my own? Concerns increase cognitive load. It was like my brain kept interrupting itself. “OK, yes… but what about THIS?” I could not see how things fit together. Anxiety slows learning. Do I routinely consider cognitive load as I plan my courses?
Prior Negative Learning Experience. I see the words “write your own code” and I am transported to an MIS assignment in sophomore year: Write a simple program in BASIC. Well, it wasn’t basic to me. I could not get my program to run. HOURS in the lab. Failure each time I ran the program. Eventually, my boyfriend rescued me. He revised two lines of text, reordered a couple of commands, and completely eliminated one line. I think it took him five minutes. I was incredulous. But he was right, and I would have never found the mistakes on my own.
That was 30 years ago but the memory is vivid. When a teacher asks me to “explore the code” I don’t see the need to try, because I don’t believe I can write code. How often have my students experienced this in math, writing, public speaking, high stakes testing, or in my classes? How can I minimize the effects of prior negative learning experiences?
Early Success. When I finally got a command line to produce a correct result, I was PSYCHED! It was trivial, but for me it was a major breakthrough. After that success, I felt like “Hey, I think I might be able to get the hang of this after all!” It feels great to learn something after struggling. But it’s miserable going through the early confusion. What can I do to ease the messy and difficult beginning to reach achievement and success sooner? I have a few ideas:
- Build in early collaboration.
- Introduce a tutor, prior students, or other resource folks at the start of the term.
- Establish a culture where fears, confusion, and difficulties can be aired without worrying about looking foolish.
- Establish a place where successes and failures are shared.
- Be real by being vulnerable about my own learning struggles.
- Structure learning incrementally to build knowledge and confidence.
- Ask students about necessary background knowledge and the inaccurate assumptions I’ve made.
Please comment with your ideas and suggestions for easing students into new learning experiences.