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.


  1. Jannalou said,

    11 July 2006 at 17:33

    I took a peek at the entry linked to by JohnL, and about the only thing I have to say is that I learned to read when I was three years old, using a visual teaching method. By the time I got to grade two and we had to do phonics worksheets, I was bored. “Phonics” makes little to no sense to me as a method of instruction for reading, because it came quite naturally to me. Teach me some sight words, and I can sort out how the sounds work. Apparently.

    Whether or not there really is such a thing as learning styles, my brain is so active that I do need to keep it engaged visually if I am being expected to learn something aurally. It’s interesting to me that the visual actually takes up enough processing ability that if I’m being taught visually, I’ll be able to focus my attention much better than if I’m being taught aurally.

    Of course, I’m not “normal”, and I never have been. (Obviously.) Regardless, when I do a talk for a youth event or design (as I am doing right now) a study for a small group of young women, I try to take into account all of the senses. I want everyone to feel like they’ve come out of the experience having learned something, and so I want to access as many different modes of learning as I possibly can.

  2. 9 July 2006 at 7:47

    I have reservations about the “learning styles” concept. As appealing as it is at the belt and heart level, it lacks several necessary elements: (a) reliable and valid diagnostic instruments, (b) experimental evidence that matching instruction to learning style produces better outcomes than not matching. I’ve posted about this on Teach Effectively!.–JohnL

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    5 July 2006 at 18:29

    I meant to say, FUNDAMENTAL Attribution Error.

    (damn this intractible headache!)


  4. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    5 July 2006 at 0:55

    Going back to the point made by Sharon, regarding the ‘credit and blame’ issue (brilliantly identified by Andrea as an attribution error)… I remember reading a book by a (probably long-dead now) British physicist-turned-educational-psychologist, Patrick Meredith, in which he mentions this same attribution error in 1972! Evidently little has changed in attribution practices in half an average life-time!

    Being an educational psychologist myself, and having been a mainly remedial mathematics teacher too, I find Zola’s comment post very interesting… especially the bit about demystification. I used to do that too. If we took a topic on, say, Pythagoras, I’d go through the work needed for that to be sufficiently well covered, and then I’d ‘show them heaven’… I would tell them that – in order to get a basic handle on relativity theory – all one needed was to know Pythagoras’ Theorem (this is an approach that makes the idea of relativity more accessible, since the whole gamut of miserable differential equations can be avoided at this level). Then, I would show them. And they liked it.

    And, Zola…

    “A lot of the time, at least in math, the issues arrive because one of the crucial building blocks is missing. For example, a lot of people know to perform an operation on both sides of an equation, but they have no idea ‘why’ they are supposed to do it, and thus forget and mess up their problem.”

    I went to find out why we were getting students coming back maybe five times to take GCSE Maths… a lot of it was poor teaching at secondary level: based on not knowing ‘why’ they were doing what they were doing. I used to work piecemeal though a problem in order to make things clear. The intimidation thing comes mainly from the institutional mystification of the subject, and the failure comes from those issues clouding the view that the student could otherwise get if maths teachers at school would stop taking shortcuts in teaching and actually teach mathematics. And, of course, if the legislative and administrative bodies involved would actually bloody let them, instead of moving the goalposts every few years.

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    4 July 2006 at 10:36

    Jannalou, I had similar experiences in college, as alluded to in my earlier post, “I Didn’t Ask For That”. After having difficulties, I explained some of my (undiagnosed) learning difficulties to my advisor and graduate committee, got reassurances from them. Later on when I was suffering from endometriosis (I had to postpone the hysterectomy for after final exams) and my difficulties became more apparent due to my reduced coping abilities, my advisor wanted to drop me from the research program. I ended up having to switch advisors and topics because my first one lacked the flexibility to work with my needs. Like in your situation, my professors could not understand why I was having problems, despite being an obviously intelligent person. I can report that having at least some official diagnoses and getting accommodations makes a big difference.

    Zola, your excellent tutoring process exemplifies much of what I was trying to impress upon the tutors at that inservice presentation. Unfortunately, not all tutors are that understanding and sympathetic of their tutees!

    Sharon, you make an very important point when you say, “It seems to me that when children are at school, when they are doing well, the teacher takes the credit and when they do badly, the pupil is blamed.” It’s the whole educational version of the primary attribution error!

    Susan, thank you for describing the problems that the auditory learners can have. I think the auditory learners outnumber the visual learners in the classrooms, but as you point out, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all the material is going to be accessible to them. I’ve also worked with dyslexic students for whom I’ve tape-recorded materials.


  6. Susan said,

    4 July 2006 at 9:48

    As a teacher, I have had a lot of 20/20 hindsight in regards to this question. There is now no doubt in my mind that I am an auditory learner. This fact began to show itself as a preschooler with a love for music. I began reproducing songs on the keyboard at the age of 3, much to the surprise of my parents. As I got older, while I loved to read, I had to read aloud in order to process complicated materials. I did wonderfully in classes that were lectures…and when I re-read my class notes, I “heard” the lecturer in my head – as if I was rewinding and replaying a tape. Maps and assembly drawings gave me grief…and I was totally appalled at society’s need to reduce all data to “US TODAY” graphs -the visual equivalent of a sound byte. At the ripe old age of 47, I am still struggling with assembly diagrams, and totally freaked out when I took an ASL course…because what I was seeing and processing was NOT what the communicator intended. Still, I plod along. I’ve been an A (and occasionally B) student all my life…obviously I’ve learned to compensate. My words of wisdom to other instructors out there – honor the student’s learning style. Let them write an essay instead of creating a chart of graphs. If they have to read aloud – even as an adult – help them find a quiet spot to do so. And don’t hesitate so slow down, and break into small, imitatable segments, any string of information that may be visually overwhelming to a non-visual learner.

  7. Sharon said,

    4 July 2006 at 3:15

    Hi Andrea
    I’ve just been reading through and really enjoying your great blog.

    You make lots of great points in this post which are relevant to me as I teach my 3 children at home now. It is important to always remember that a learner does not understand something because they are not trying hard enough. It is usually because it has not been explained well enough.
    It seems to me that when children are at school, when they are doing well, the teacher takes the credit and when they do badly, the pupil is blamed.

    I studied physics at university. I hated it when a lecturer spent the lecture writing everything he was saying on the blackboard with his (they were all men) back to us. It was hard when they used badly made overhead projector slides with too much content and tiny illustrations. It helped when they gave us a handout of the key points in the lecture so that we could jot down more notes and diagrams as they spoke and wrote.

    I tutored undergraduates when I did my postgrad studies for a while. I was to go through a set of problems (in physical mechanics) they’d been set and work through any difficulties they’d had. These always went well. I was only 2 years ‘ahead’ of the students and I reckon they thought, ‘If she can do them, they can’t be that hard!’

    I needed to use as many diagrams as possible to understand concepts and still need to write things down and draw pictures if I’m to learn something new. I use lists and mind-maps too.

  8. Zola said,

    3 July 2006 at 20:37

    I have tutored Algebra (up to precal) and Statistics.

    I don’t think I ever had a person not learn, but being an Aspie, I guess my approach is different. I would sit down with the person and have them do the problem, even if they said they “got” it. I did this so I could see where the error was happening.

    In many cases, their misunderstanding was at a different place than they thought it was. I found that one of the things that the tutee often needed most of all was encouragement that they could and would indeed learn this, they weren’t stupid, nor were they “hopeless” at math.

    A lot of the time, at least in math, the issues arrive because one of the crucial building blocks is missing. For example, a lot of people know to perform an operation on both sides of an equation, but they have no idea *why* they are supposed to do it, and thus forget and mess up their problem.

    I would fill in those gaps by explaining why it happens. In the case of “doing the same thing to both sides” I would start with a simple equation like 2 + 3 = 5, then SHOW them that if you add 1 to both sides, for instance, then the equation is still true. 1 + 2 + 3 = 5 + 1

    When I then said “you can manipulate the equation any way you want, the only rule is to make sure you do the same thing to both sides so it stays true” you could practically see the lightbulb go off.

    Intimidation is also a factor in math. I would have tutees freak over word problems. I would give them an equation and ask them to read it to me. I would say “you used *words* to tell me that equation, didn’t you? You didn’t say “1 + 1 = 2”, you said “One plus one equals two,” and I would write it out. The numerals, I said, were just shorthand because it would take forever to write out the words.

    I would teach them to look at that word problem and convert the words to symbols, and then it was just solving. But as you can see from this example, what was holding them back was not realizing that the word problems were something they already understood.

    So I teach by

    1) reassuring that while it may currently seem like a complete mystery, it will soon become easy. This is CRUCIAL. The internal dialogue that people can get going can doom them. It’s as if you were trying to carefully walk across the room carrying a very fragile cup with someone shouting in your ear “don’t drop it! don’t drop it!”.

    2) Making sure the foundation is adequately in place by watching the person attempt to solve the problem and identifying what knowledge is lacking.

    3) Explaining any “missing” pieces to assure the person is thoroughly grounded in the skills they need

    4) Having the person practice so that the steps are familiar.

    5)Repeat until they are confident, reducing my input slowly but surely until they are doing it on their own.

    And as you can likely see from this entry, I learn best when I have examples with which I can draw parallels, that is what makes it concrete for me. This seems to help others as well. I will often draw on real-life examples to help show why this skill is useful. I also use it to show that what seems esoteric, mysterious, and strange is really something very ordinary that the person is already familiar with.

    “If you’ve ever halved or doubled a recipe or calculated the miles you got to a gallon of gas, you used algebra,” I tell them, and de-mystifying it is truly the major part of the battle.

  9. Jannalou said,

    3 July 2006 at 18:33

    I do best with a mix of visual and kinesthetic teaching styles. If it’s going to be mainly auditory, I have to be allowed to do a puzzle book or draw or something throughout, or I won’t retain a word. (Trust me on this one.)

    I failed music history second term of first year university because of the listening component. I nearly failed grade 11 social studies because of the teaching style; with the right teacher (the man I had in grades 10 and 12), I was a solid 76% student (that’s the highest I’ve ever gotten in social studies, though on the standardised “achievement exam” we had to do in grade 9 I placed in the 91%ile for the province).

    I think having a more concrete subject matter is helpful, too. I can learn theories and so on, but if it’s not laid out in a concrete style, I’m more likely to forget it. So in psychology, if too much emphasis is placed on the facts etc. of studies or on knowing dates and people’s names and the like, I’m not going to do very well. On the other hand, if everything is written more in story form, I will retain it forever. (Well, actually, I retain everything and will pull random facts out of the air and be surprised I knew any of what I just said; it’s more that I have more accessible knowledge when it’s a story or case study.)

    I totally flunked out of the music therapy program I was in at Christmas. I crapped out on all of the exams, because the questions weren’t clear enough, or they were asking for information I didn’t know I should study because we never even touched on it in class, or the information was only given orally (and even though I wrote it down… good luck). When we did the Interpersonal Skills exam, we had to write down miscommunication we saw in a scene from a movie that I’d never watched before (nor even read the book). I completely messed that question up, though I’d been working incredibly hard in that class because I knew I was weak interpersonally. They showed the scene more than once, too; I just couldn’t get it. The worst was when I knew where the answer was in my notes or in the text book, and I could see the page in my head, but I couldn’t actually read it. I finally just started writing that down in the test booklets, because otherwise I was going to sit there trying to think of answers to questions that I was never going to be able to answer.

    I was diagnosed with ADHD three years after I flunked out of that program, which teachers were all (and I do mean all) certified music therapists. Even with them not being able to actually diagnose a disorder, I am fairly certain that they ought to have been able to identify that there was more going on with me than just stress or anxiety or depression.

    I have plans to burn all of my notes and test booklets from that course. And I’m still toying with the idea of writing them a letter, but I don’t know what it would say. Whenever I write about it or talk about it, though, I want to write them something scathing and let them know what complete idiots they were to have missed the possibility that I might have a learning disorder. Since, as the head of the department said, “I experience you as a very intelligent person.”


    (I apologise for the bitterness. I need to deal with this.)

%d bloggers like this: