Hindered by Success

The favor of your reply is requested.

The other year when I was giving the annual Inservice training to the other university tutors, I asked them how many had flunked a test or a class. Only one person of the dozen-plus raised his hand, and he too had some kind of learning disability/difference. I was amazed, and thought to myself, Is life really this smooth for everyone else?

All the other tutors were there as tutors because they really knew their stuff, they were good at it, and it was easy for them. None of the others knew the panic of not being able to do something today that they were able to do a few days ago, or not being able to retrieve knowledge they knew, or not understanding test questions correctly (and thus providing the wrong sorts of answers). Hardly anyone knew what it felt like to fail, and how crushing it was to work very hard, yet still not achieve.

I also had a classmate in a College Teaching course who worked as a Teaching Assistant, and who confessed that she got really impatient and annoyed with students who had trouble in the subject; it was easy for her, and she couldn’t understand how it wouldn’t be for anyone else! Oy.

Of course, for tutors they want people who have a good command of the concepts and details of a subject, and who can communicate those well. But they also need people who are able to be flexible in how they explain things, and who are empathetic with their tutees.

Sometimes the tutees seem unprepared. But we have to assume the tutee wants to improve; why else would either person be there? Asking the tutee, “Why aren’t you prepared? Don’t you want to get better at this?” is patronizing. It’s easy to mis-attribute the lack of progress to laziness or similar moral failing.

Tutees may be “unprepared” because they have gotten “stuck” at some fundamental level. For instance, they may have not completed the assigned reading because they are not understanding terms, or there are different definitions of familiar words that are specific to the particular discipline, so the text makes no sense even thought they “know” the terms in some other context.

Oft times our students cannot pinpoint just where in the process they are having problems. These are the students who will swear up and down that they are doing everything the right way, but aren’t getting the results that are supposed to happen. Insisting that the student merely needs to “try harder” is profoundly unhelpful. It’s not a question of how hard one is working, but rather how one is working.

Some of those students are the ones who are really smart and have mostly skated through primary and secondary school on sheer intelligence, and who have not developed many study skills. Or, they may be trying to use the wrong study methods because they’ve been told that they are “supposed to” study with flashcards, even though they don’t really learn well with that method. Many students need help developing new organizational or planning approaches to handle the greater or more complex work loads.

They may also have processing difficulties that are not readily apparent. For example, a student may spend so much of their cognitive energies listening to a lecture, remaining focused despite distractions, understanding the auditory input, and/or making sense of the concepts as they are presented, that they are unable to retain the information in their long-term memory, or to be able to simultaneously take effective notes. Despite having attended very carefully, later on they will not be able to explain what the lecture was about, or have useful notes to refer to. But this lack of “results” isn’t from a lack of effort; indeed, that student may be working twice as hard as their peers.

This is profoundly frustrating, and at this point the students either turn the frustration inwards and consider themselves failures because they are stupid at a subject, or else turn it outwards and insist the teachers are making things impossible just to flunk some of the students, or that the subject itself is useless. In cases like these, the student needs help figuring out how they learn best, and how they can advocate for themselves to have access to the material in a way that works best with their individual learning style, and thus be able to work with their strengths.

Differences in learning styles is hardly a novel concept, yet there are instructors, those professors, graduate teaching assistants and tutors, for whom this idea is mostly theoretical. The professor who is an auditory, sequential learner and who did well during their own school days when taught by the lecture method, will likely just lecture to their own classes. To them it’s a “natural” way of teaching and learning. Obviously there are students who are “smart” enough to “get” the content this way. It’s “proven” because it’s traditional. Writing a few key terms on the board and projecting an illustration or two in an hour’s monologue seems like sufficient effort for visual learners. Once again, the instructors are so personally successful that they can’t truly understand why others aren’t.

Students get tutoring because they are unable to learn subjects the way the subjects are taught, or because they have great difficulty doing so. They seek out tutors because they want to do better, not because they are lazy. Each of us has different tasks that find easy or difficult, and it behooves us to remember that these are different for each person.

At this point, I’d like to be able to explore this dilemma with other members of the blogosphere, so we can all improve our understanding. My question to you is:

What sorts of teaching and learning methods work best for you, and what kinds of situations have you found that particularly hindered your ability to learn? Feel free to provide concrete examples, as people have been through a variety of schools in different times and places, and good understanding needs context.

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