Slices (Episode 1)

The best definition of “poetry” I’ve ever encountered is, “Poetry is life condensed”. In a similar way, cartoons condense a slice of life into just a few panels.

All four of these reflect different aspects of dealing with the social world, from blocking off unwanted interaction to the absurdity of Read the rest of this entry »

Centenary Retrospective

“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
~ Carl Rogers

Wow. The other day I was looking at my blog stats, and it said that I had 22,000 hits. I have also recently written my 100th post since June; that’s close to thrice a week, for the mathematically disinclined. So I thought I would take a step back and review what has gone by, to see what kinds of topical trends emerge, and pull up some of what I think are the better posts, for those of you who are newer visitors.

Bloggers are usually loquacious and opinionated, a description I do not fail to meet. But why do I blog? Some bloggers just natter about their lives, others blog as an outlet for kvetching, some are pushing a specific agenda, and still others like to analyse what they see. I do a little of all the above, but mostly I like to analyse. I am less concerned about persuading you than I am about giving you something to think about. After all, if we all believed the same things, the dialogues would get pretty dull!

Now that there is data from which to draw a pattern, what kinds of things do I blog about? In a way it is hard to sort posts into single categories, because topically there is an n-dimensional hypervolume of intersecting sets. But as an approach, I like to explore themes from personal experience or news events, and also from philosophical perspectives. I feel that philosophy loses some of its significance without grounding it in the phenomenal fields of people’s lives. And telling stories of lives without examining the what and wherefore of those events falls short of the ultimate value of storytelling: revealing the patterns in human relations, and learning from them.

Some of the greater categories revolve around education, from both student and instructor perspectives, and they revolve around the politics of disability and advocacy. In contrast, there are some themes that connect those categories. One of the most important themes is taking the traditional understandings of how social systems work, and taking those apart to reveal very different perspectives on what is happening.

These systems include how we communicate, such as when the language of “choice” is really just a distractor, or doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation. These systems also include power paradigms, including how we “help” people, how people miss the mark when trying to create “inclusiveness”, and why pity is such a evil force because it creates distance between people. (There is no need to congratulate me for having “bravely overcome” the insults and artificial obstacles that people put in my way.)

I also look at how the assumptions we make determine how we define groups of people, from the way that we create diagnostic labels, to the sometimes-absurdities of “person-first language”, and concepts of “tolerance”.

In the end, we don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

Our perceptions of the world influence how we act, including how we view and understand others. Sometimes people mistake better identification or newer kinds of identification with “epidemics” of autism, AD/HD et cetera. But I bet if we’d had these kinds of identifiers decades ago, a lot more of us would have been better understood. Hyperactive kids are kind of hard to miss, even those who otherwise do not misbehave. (You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to sit inappropriately!) More boys than girls are diagnosed, but I have to wonder if that isn’t due more to diagnostic criteria than actual prevalence rate. Why didn’t we see kids with these kinds of “needs” in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn’t even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions. Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn’t – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

When we make these changes in understanding systems and in our perceptions, they can be outwardly expressed by seeking to become a better advocates. Being able to create a new rôle for one’s self includes being able to learn about the various rôles that others have played. (But just try to find sources on disability studies at the local bookstore!) Advocacy requires overcoming inertia and moving into commitment, and moving into commitment and inclusiveness. We also have to be able to recognise our own sources of ability and power, especially if we’ve been convinced otherwise.

Advocacy is complex, and the concerns of parents for the futures of their disabled children is an important part of that. Unfortunately, people whine about how hard it is to have an autistic child, or any kind of exceptional child. All too often there are terrible news reports about parents who have killed their handicapped or autistic children because they were such a horrid burden. Even more horrifying is when the press perspective or quotes are full of sympathy for the murderer because killing your own child is “understandable” because a person can’t help but be insanely stressed from dealing with the child’s abnormality.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights. In light of the fact that many things have a genetic basis, then hating disabilities in our children involves a curious kind of denial and self-loathing.

Distraught parents also need to understand that there is a difference between getting cured and being healed. The unresolved grief leaves parents susceptible to errors of judgment, and these well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense. Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to weed out the “Astroturf” of faux grass-roots efforts.

Advocacy efforts include those in our schools, and involve administrators, educators, parents, and the students themselves. Sometimes teachers and parents worry about school accommodations because they fear it will leave the students unready for when they have to venture into the “real world”. Or, by misunderstanding the differences between equity, equality and need, teachers fear that giving accommodations “wouldn’t be fair” to the other students.

Parenting our students with learning difficulties is not easy – the traditional methods do not work, which is often why the students end up in “special” education. In turn, the students also get frustrated, and attempts to deal with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and effect in misbehaviour is important – we need to address the causes to resolve problems.

The teaching end of things can also be rife with issues, and college professors can sometimes fall prey to pedagogical myths. Equally absurd is how learning difficulties are often not recognized until the student has been failing or near-failing for a while, thus allowing the student to get further behind and more entrenched in negative mind-sets. On the flip side, we identify exceptionality by contrasting it to what’s common for the group, or by how well a person functions. But what if our sampling group is far from average, or if the environment is less disabling?

Tutoring and teaching is another means of engaging in advocacy, and one of the best means I have is to share with my students the tools for how they can solve new kinds of problems in the future, for themselves and by themselves. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly learn from my students. During this co-educational process, we often need to figure out where in the learning process they are getting stuck, then come up with different ways of helping them learn new information, and different methods for studying. Sometimes the educational changes we make can be as simple as the way a test is typed up, making it more accessible to all the students. The way the audio-visual equipment is set up also makes a significant difference, including the kinds of computer monitors and lighting used. As a tool for engaging your students’ attention, novelty can be a big help. It can also backfire in unexpected ways…

On the more personal scale, I’m always seeking better ways of dealing with my own challenges of “Executive Functioning”, like dealing with all the stuff, stuff, stuff that piles up, losing something in the Dreaded Safe Place, coping with the inertia of task paralysis, or just getting “stuck” when the Plan B falls apart or I unexpectedly get engrossed in something. In worse cases, this means pulling myself out of an awful case of the Betweens, which condition you won’t find listed in any manual, but one that any ADD or autistic person will surely recognise. Regardless, it still helps to remember that strategies for compensating are just that – and that when there’s too much load on the system, those strategies won’t all succeed. That makes it difficult for me, but sometimes others’ lack of understanding is the greater problem.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Doing things “normally” is very important to the general public. People with a wide variety of differences go to extreme effort trying to “pass for normal”, but this can be perilous. Some parents spend great effort to ensure their autistic children learn how to do “good eye contact”, but this may be a poor goal for some unexpected reasons. People can get hung up on developmental timetables, or they worry and wonder why their child likes to spend lots of time lining things up (it’s a good thing, really).

Adults can come up with some pretty off-the-wall assumptions about what is, or is not, going on in a child’s head; we cannot always assign mental processes to the results we see. Then there’s the situations that an earnest-yet-clueless ADHD or Aspie kid can find themselves in, such as failing to cheat. The really scary part is how these children who have difficulties socialising with their peers will fall prey to bullying and abuse, and general depression. Then we grow up into adults, and there’s the whole sticky territory of trying to make Small Talk, and the repercussions of just having a different sense of humor.

On the lighter end, a few posts are just for fun; about once a month there’s a “Recess”. Recess means we take a break and play – it’s important to do that once in a while. During dinner our family discusses why “resistance is fruitile, and how to be “underly pedantic”. Meanwhile, I have fun with repeating words, and enjoy taking photographs of improbable things.

My thanks to you for stopping by, and please to leave comments!


Special Tips for Life Sciences Students

Well, another semester is revving up, and I’m collecting tutees again. I tutor a variety of subjects, generally getting students taking introductory writing and biology classes. The number of tutees always increases right after they have sat their first exams, and discover that taking college classes is not just a shorter-school day version of taking high school classes. So for all you students out there who are facing your introductory Biology and so on, here are some friendly warnings.

A “survey” course means broad and shallow waters, so start paddling now or you will be left behind! Survey classes (100- level Biology, Botany, Microbiology etc.) cover a wide variety of material, but do not go in depth on anything in particular. The in-depth part comes in the next levels of courses about specific subjects. Because there is such a large quantity of material to cover in a limited number of weeks, the class will be going through roughly a chapter per class, depending upon how many chapters the text book is divided into, and the number of meeting days per week. This is not high school where you took a week or two (meeting four or five days a week) to go through a chapter. It’s not so much a question of “don’t get behind” but rather of “stay on top of things and look ahead”!

Vocabulary is going to be an integral part of studying, so find a way of memorization that works well for you. Although every field of study has its own terminology, the life sciences are positively riddled with new words to learn. Most of these words have Greek or Latin roots, so learning what those prefixes and suffixes mean is important, because then you can decode other new words.

Cramming doesn’t work well as a study method when taking identification classes. Students who try to cram do not do well on tests. There are certain subjects that have mostly vocabulary and identification, such as Anatomy (human or veterinary), Taxonomy (plant or animal), and courses like Woody Plant Materials. Don’t mistakenly think that these are “easy” just because “all you have to do is memorise stuff”. Learning hundreds of names, exact spellings, and how to identify hundreds of different birds, flowers, or micro-organisms takes repetition. Learning takes lots of repetition. Plan on studying daily. Be there during all the open-lab time going over models and specimens. Learn to recognise your organisms (or parts thereof) by generalising from several examples, otherwise you will only have learned to identify your particular Acer saccharum leaf, rather than any sugar maple tree anywhere.

When an instructor puts up a graph or diagram, don’t just sit there watching, but make notes about what is significant about the graph, and how that is determined. You will either have a copy of this illustration in your handouts, or else the instructor will refer to a graph on a particular page in your text. If the latter, be sure to write down both the page number and the name or number of the graph. Remember, you can re-draw the graph in your notes after class, but you should do so as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh in your mind.

Your job is to take notes on both aspects that being explained about the graph: firstly, what the significance of the graph is, and secondly, how we know that. For example, in ecology, the k-values of lines in a graph describe the mortality rates over time – that’s the “what” significance of the graph. But the “how we know that” part is related to the idea that the closer the slope of an individual line is to a value of 1 (a 45° angle), the more important is the particular mortality factor. When you get to the test, you will need to know not just that the graph describes mortality due to various factors, but also know the latter part and be able to tell which factor was the most important!

Science courses are about understanding the principles and concepts particular to the specific discipline. “Understanding” is not the same thing as memorizing. The details of human understanding of events and processes change over time, so there’s no point in memorizing everything in the text book. Instead, you need to learn what the concepts mean, and how things interact with each other, and then be able to apply your understanding to problems and to new situations.

One of my math teachers said that, “Life does not hand us a page of math problems to be solved. Real life more like word problems, where you have to create the equation and there are no answers in the back of the book.” We have to do the same thing with science in real life.

You may be shocked to discover that in college, multiple-choice (MC) exams are not automatically easy exams. You cannot rely on simply recognising the correct answer. Instead, you will have to take those new concepts you have learned, and apply them to new situations.

The reason that some people find science classes to be difficult is that not only does a person have to memorise material, but also to apply and analyse and evaluate the concepts, especially in lab experiments.

Speaking of taxonomy, the field of education has a system of classification as well: Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a hierarchy of cognitive processes, often diagrammed as a pyramid. There are six categories with number 1 being the simplest level at the base of the pyramid, and number six being the highest. Each step builds upon the previous.

1. Knowledge – the ability to define, recall, identify, recognize, knowledge of methodology, principles, generalizations, trends, facts, terminology, theories, and structures.
2. Comprehension – translate, rephrase or restate, interpret, extrapolate
3. Application – apply, generalize, choose, organize, develop, use, classify
4. Analysis – analyse relationships; to deduce, compare, discriminate, categorize
5. Synthesis – derive or create a set of abstract relationships
6. Evaluation – to judge, assess, argue

What this means to you as a student is that basic survey courses (such as 100-level Biology) will be mostly at level 1 and 2, but the more specific junior and senior courses will be integrating the content from several basic courses and requiring you to operate at levels 4-6. This means that cramming and memorizing material won’t work. (Do you detect a trend here?)

Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.

Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.

Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …

Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!

Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.

Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.

Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.

When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.

The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.

Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.

Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.

They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)

We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.

This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.

Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.

We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.

We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.

We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

Where’s My Shelf?

I was at one of those big chain-bookstores the other day, with a gift certificate burning a figurative hole in my wallet, just begging to be used. I’d even planned ahead for the inevitable “Error 404: File Not Found” of name retrieval, and written down a list of authors and titles of the dozen books for which I was looking. Not that I had really expected to find all of those books, but not that the gift certificate was that big anyway.After pausing to check out all the spiffy bookmarks (“Ooh, shiny!”) I wandered over to the rack between sociology and history.

“Women’s studies, Men’s studies,” (small section, that) “Gay/Lesbian studies, African-American studies, Latino studies, Hawaiian Islander studies,” (wow, we’re no where near the Pacific) “Native American studies … History of Ancient Egypt.”

Wait a minute, missed it. Given my profound ability to be “nose-blind” and miss seeing something right under my nose, I back-tracked and started over. Nope. Okay, maybe the books I’m looking for are filed under some other category. Just because something makes sense to me doesn’t mean it’s true – after all, the grocery keeps the baked beans by the tins of luncheon meat rather than with the tins of vegetables where I would expect to find them …

After duly waiting in the Information queue, I hand my list to the clerk who patiently pecks the names through the store’s search engine. By the time she has reached the end of my list, she is frowning in sympathetic frustration, and informs me that they only have one of the books, which has to be ordered from some distant warehouse. I politely decline, realizing that instant gratification is simply not going to be had, and decide to do my own search-engine pecking with the county library system.

What I found odd was not that they did not have the particular books for which I was searching – I tend to read offbeat stuff, not the latest poolside romance. Rather, what I found odd was that there were not any books on disability studies to be had at all. The section simply did not exist anywhere in the store, not between sociology and history like the other group-studies, not in the psychology or the special education or the history sections.

You want to hear some interesting numbers?

In the United Kingdom there are 9.8 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 7.
In Canada there are 3.6 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 8.
In the United States there are 49.7 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 5.
(As with any epidemiological information, census definitions may differ slightly.)

Either way, that’s a LOT of people; the largest minority within most populations. So how the hell do people go about referring to “them” like they’re rara avis, some minor, marginal sector of sub-humanity? Everyone must know several people with disabilities, whether they realise it or not.

So why are disabled people so invisible and neglected by history? The answers are complex. Part of this is due to the fact that the largest minority is also the most diverse: disabled people include babies, the elderly, people with sensory differences such as the Deaf or blind, people with learning disabilities, people with cognitive processing differences such as autistics or the faceblind, people with developmental or acquired physical differences such as cerebral palsy, people with chronic health problems … Some disabilities are highly visible, and many are invisible.

Another part of the issue is that disability is something feared, shunned, and to be avoided. It is seen as abnormal, defective, deviant and pathological. Disabled people until very recently were shut away in institutions (and often still are), were not schooled (and often still are not) or were segregated in separate schools (and often still are), and no matter what the disability were seen as imbeciles and therefore not deserving or needing status as full citizens capable of making their own decisions (and often still are). The disabled are considered only as, and are seen only as patients and clients. They weren’t people to be considered as a positive and common group, or a social force.

But just as one can now find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Women’s Studies, and find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Gay & Lesbian Studies, we can now find find histories and university programs and –

– well, histories and a few university programs about Disability Studies.

I’m going to buy myself another bookcase. I need more shelves.

Techniques & Tips from a “Professional Student”

It’s too easy for blogging to end up as nothing more than a series of rants, so here’s something positive.

It’s that time of year when millions of people (leastwise, those in the northern hemisphere) are starting new school years. As someone who tutors (other) students with ADD and learning disabilities, I thought I’d share a bevy of helpful ideas I’ve scraped together over the years.


Put the material into the Big Picture. Before starting a chapter/ module/ unit, review your syllabus to see how the content of this one fits within the logical flow of the previous unit, and how it might be important to the next unit. This helps the material make more sense and seem less like a giant pile of loose facts.

Read the textbook backwards.
Start with the Summary in the back of the chapter; this is the “TV Guide” version to what the chapter is about, so you know what you’re heading into before you dive into all the excruciating details. Read over the new terms in the Glossary, so when you encounter them in the text you won’t have those unintelligible speed-bumps that interrupt your understanding of the reading.

This is helpful if this subject is entirely new to you and you have little or no background in the concepts and terminology of this particular field of study.

From the first day of class, create a personal glossary of new terms and their definitions. This is imperative if you are starting a new field of study because you will soon find yourself in possession of a swarm of new words for which you are responsible. Trying to look up a word for its definition by flipping through masses of notes, handouts and textbooks only slows you down and makes you frustrated. Staring into space, pacing, rocking or banging your head do not aid in remembering new terms, so having that personal glossary will give you a ready list to access. Don’t forget to add helpful tips to your definitions, such as cautions about similar-sounding words that you might confuse, or terms with complementary or opposite meanings.

This is especially helpful if you are slow at recalling words, or have difficulties with spelling.

Block off distracting printed material with a mask. Use a half sheet of thin cardboard, a 3/4 sheet cut into an “L” shape, or two blank index cards to mask off distracting graphics, or simply to block off everything but the single question, objective, or paragraph you need to focus upon.

This is helpful if you are someone who is easily distracted by fascinating pictures, or if you have reading difficulties.


Assign a particular color to each class. I like to have the binder match the textbook color, so when I’m getting things together for class I only have to grab “two red things”. After the test, keep the notes and handouts in the colored binder or manilla folder. Use that color of ink to mark due dates for assignments and test dates on your calendar. Use that color of manilla or pocket folder to keep all the stray bits of useful stuff you are collecting for a report/project – having that special “parking place” will help organize and reduce the “file by pile” mess on your desk, floor, table, window ledge and other random surfaces…

Buy a hole punch with a trap. The trap collects all the “dots” so they don’t litter the floor. A 3- or 4-hole punch (depending on whether you use 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 paper) is vastly easier than a single-hole punch, as it not only reduces the number of clenches you have to perform, but also because it makes hole spacing that is perfectly even for the binder. Hole-punch all of your handouts and put them into the binder with your notes, so the two can live in wedded bliss.

Buy several packages of index dividers so you can separate the different chapters/units in your binder and more quickly flip through them for studying.

Make liberal use of colored sticky-notes. These are the greatest invention since the microwave oven! They will save tremendous amounts of time from having to endlessly flip through textbook, lab manual, handout, and note pages to track down important information.

Use colored sticky-notes to mark where important graphs, lists, charts, and diagrams are located in the textbook – write a key word on the external, flagging end of the sticky.

Use different colors of sticky-note for different chapters/modules/units, to make studying easier when you have tests that come after you have begun the next chapter/module/unit.

Use sticky-notes to mark chapter sections for those classes that skip around a lot within a textbook. If you are only using section 3.2 of a chapter, then you may begin by reading the summary for just section 3.2 of that chapter, but it might also be helpful to briefly review what the rest of the chapter summary has to say, to understand how the ideas in this section are connected to other ideas.


Always take notes in black ink. There is nothing more horrifying during Midterm or Final Exams than discovering that a semester’s worth of pencil-written lecture notes has turned into a smeary, unreadable mess. Oh, the horror… Also, some kinds of blue ink are close to “non-photo / non-repro” blue, a color that’s nearly invisible to many photocopiers; this is usually not a problem unless you need to photocopy those notes for any reason.

Always date and/or number your note pages. Of course, if you live a charmed life and never have sudden “gravity fluctuations” in your part of the planet that cause you to drop or spill note papers, or you never own binders that lose their “bite”, then don’t bother. Otherwise, dating the pages lets you keep track of what was lectured on at a particular time (handy if someone asks to borrow your notes from last Tuesday). If you take more than one page of notes per day (which is nearly always) then numbering the pages instead of or in addition to dating them makes it even easier to put spilled pages back to rights.

Title each page.
Even if it’s just by abbreviation, describe the page of notes by the lecture topic, the unit or chapter title. This not only makes it easier to find the right notes when studying for tests, but it also helps you remember what the overall pattern of ideas is during the course of the class across the semester.

Take notes in two columns: the left side for listing the main idea titles, important names, terms, dates or formulae, and the right side for all the regular details and sentences. If there is a page in your textbook, lab manual or whatever that has a particular graph, chart or listing, write down that page number on the left side as well, as well as a word or two to title why that page number is important. This speeds up your test studying because you can glance through pages of notes to find the one that has the specific information you’re looking for.

Use the Objectives listed in the chapter/unit/module as your study guide for the test, and write out a full answer to each one as though it were a question. Pay attention to key verbs such as Describe, Compare, List, Define or Identify – these can give you an idea of what kind of test question could be asked. Writing these out does two things: it not only helps you self-test your own understanding before you get to the class test, but it also changes your answers from something you have to invent during the test (which is time-consuming) into something you just have to recall during the test (which is much quicker and easier).

Writing out answers to the objectives in full sentences is especially helpful if English is not your first language, and/or if you are slow at remembering words,and/or otherwise have difficulty expressing the knowledge that’s stuck in your head.


Turn lined paper sideways to have ready-made columns for keeping your place-values straight in big arithmetic calculations. Another option is to use green “engineer’s paper” that has graph squares on one side and is blank on the other side, but the graph grid is still somewhat visible on the blank side, and the green tint is more restful on the eyes.

This is especially helpful if your handwriting tends to wander around or slope down a page, and will keep your numbers and decimals in order.

If you are doing mathematical equations or other things that are processes, write out your own set of numbered directions describing how to do the process. For instance, it may not be as obvious to you as it was to the author of the formula that you need to determine the value of “C” before you put the other values into the formula. So in your own directions, you should note “Find the value for “C” by ~ ~ ~” as one of the earlier steps.
Whenever you solve an equation or do a statistical analysis, write out in a complete sentence what the answer to the calculations MEANS in regards to the original problem/story/question given.

These are especially helpful if you are more of a “words” person than a “numbers” person.

If you have several different formulae , make yourself a flow-chart (meaning, a series of decisions) that helps you figure out which one you use for different kinds of circumstances. When you are studying a chapter or doing that day’s homework, it’s obvious which one you need to use – it’s the one you’re learning that day! But come test time, you will need to be able to understand which one you use for each kind of situation.

This is especially helpful if you are one of those people for whom “all the formulae look the same”.

Use name and address labels on everything, and add your phone number or email as well. Put them on your textbooks, lab manuals, various notebooks, calculator, data CD, flash/keychain drive, assorted binders, notepads, calendar-organizer, each piece of art & drafting equipment plus the carrying case, and all the other things that you need to survive as a student, to help guarantee that the person who finds them can help get them back home to you.

This is especially helpful if you are forgetful, distractible, prone to leaving things in various places, and/or are juggling a variety of classes and jobs. (You can imagine why I know this.)


“It’s a ganglion cyst,” announced my doctor, after gently squeezing and manipulating my right index finger, and feeling the lump below the middle knuckle. I’d felt kind of silly going in to the doctor just for a stiff, persistently swollen finger, and had put off the visit for a month until I realized that it was not only getting worse, but also affecting my ability to grip things. Then the doc went and fetched a foam-padded aluminum splint and some bandage tape. So now my right index finger is immobilized through the middle of September, in hopes that without physical aggravation from everyday activities, the cyst will subside and I won’t have to see a specialist to have it aspirated or operated upon.

Fortunately, I don’t rely on my right hand for everything. In fact, there’s very little I can’t also do with my left hand, aside from obvious stuff like wear right-handed gloves or type YUIOPHJKL;NM,. Most lefties are ambidextrous just because they have to live in a world full of things designed for right-handed people (sewing machines being a rare exception). I have lefty scissors (which stay nice and sharp because no one borrows them), a lefty can opener, and my pen jar lives on the left side of my desk.

Which is odd because I don’t write left-handed. I’ve been writing right-handed for the past forty years because that’s the way I was taught, per my mother’s request. I could never figure out why some of the other kids in my classes got to use the lefty scissors, but I didn’t. She could never figure out why my penmanship was poor.

So here I am, learning to keep my pen in what has been, for penmanship purposes, not my dominant hand, but my dormant hand. Heaven knows which is my “dominant” hand (I need to ask my psychologist friend, David, what was the final analysis on that random question). The things I learned as a child I do right-handed, the things I learned as an adult I do left-handed, and many things I do with either hand.

I can write left-handed, but not surprisingly, my penmanship looks like a first-grader’s, and it’s slow going from lack of practice. I’m also finding, much to my surprise, that I have resurrected not only dormant writing skills, but also dormant writing problems: I get b d p q mixed up again. I know how to spell and I can read okay, but something gets scrambled in the writing process, not unlike the way my numerals get mixed up sometimes. The ways of the brain are mysterious, indeed.

Today is Monday, and sometime tomorrow I need to decide if I can either scribble fast enough or type fast enough on my laptop to take notes in my Thursday class, or else must request a note-taker via the college’s disability access department.

Which all is kind of humorous, in a cosmically ironic way. I’ve been a note-taker for other students, in classes where I was already very familiar with the subject, so I wasn’t spending quite as much effort understanding the teacher. Equally ironic is that this class I’m taking is on the “Exceptional Child” – it’s all about different kinds of disabilities.

My Top Myths in Teaching

I was going to do a Top Ten, but these are sufficient, really.  (Listed in no particular order.)

If all the students answer a test question correctly, the question is too easy and should be dropped. 

If the question properly assesses the mastery of knowledge, then when everyone answers the question correctly that means that the teacher and the students have all succeeded!  If one repeatedly drops such questions from tests over the years in favor of those that students cannot consistently answer, it may be that the students are not getting dumber over the years, but rather than the tests are getting more difficult.

Students nowadays are lazy and need more challenging classes so they’ll learn.
There’s a difference between challenging students and just making things hard on them.  Challenging students helps students by “scaffolding” them up to the next level in their learning by providing a level of difficulty that can be surmounted with a reasonable amount of effort on the part of the student and with the aid of the instructor.  Just making things difficult for students is pointless.

Student grade point averages should fall in a normally distributed bell curve, or else the grading scale should be changed to fit a normally distributed bell curve.
The normally distributed bell curve requires that for a number of students that do better, an equal number must do worse! It is not necessary that the curriculum be “dumbed down” for all the students to master the subject material. Nor is it required that good grades be a commodity in short supply. What is the goal of learning?  The goal is the transfer of knowledge.  This goal applies to all the students.  It is NOT wrong for all the students to do well! Likewise, if so many students are doing poorly on a test and the mass of poor grades need to be curved to create a new grading scale, then something is going seriously awry in the teaching-learning-testing process.

Student behavior is best shaped by rewarding correct behaviors with positive reinforcement and punishing incorrect behaviors with negative reinforcement.
If a student is not behaving (socially or academically) in the way we expect, we need to find out why.   Students who are having problems need to be helped, not punished. No long-term benefit is gained by reacting to the symptoms produced by a problem; the cause of the problem must be addressed.  “Helping” is not necessarily doing something for a person (which increases their sense of incompetence), but rather aiding them in figuring out how they can help themselves by either removing the cause of their problem or finding some way to compensate for it.  Teaching them self-help skills not only gives the student tools to solve future problems, but also builds self-esteem, which in turn improves the student’s ability to learn the curriculum.  Punishing the student for having problems not only further breaks down the self-esteem, but can also reinforce learned helplessness.  Furthermore, this kind of system turns the motivations from learning (intrinsic) to getting the reward or avoiding the punishment (extrinsic).

We’re not here to entertain the students!  
No, but we are here to engage them.  An instructor must have enough enthusiasm or thought-provoking information about the subject to create interest.

We need “flunk-out” classes like introductory chemistry or physics to weed out the less-than-stellar students.
Um, I thought the point of education was to teach students the things they don’t know?  The purpose of universities is to serve your student clients, not to remove them from the local populations within various colleges.  When students know (or just perceive) that there are “flunk-out” classes, this dismotivates them, and you end up with fewer students in necessary fields (like engineering), rather than more students and a greater diversity of students in particular fields.


My phone rings, and I am scheduling with one of my new tutees. I am meeting with this particular person less for the more common “content” tutoring (explaining concepts in Biology, or editing strategies in Composition) than I am for “process” tutoring: figuring out what kinds or organsational methods will work best for her, and helping her figure out how she can solve future problems on her own.

I turn on my calendar program, as yet mostly comprised of blank squares for this month. “We can meet once a week for 90 minutes, or break that up and meet twice a week.”

“Well, what do other people do?” she asks, a tone of uncertainty in her voice. I wonder if the uncertainty stems from the scheduling logistics, from the process of getting tutoring, or some other element in her life. Maybe it’s just being tired from what she’d described as getting in late last night from a trip.

“It doesn’t matter what most other people do; what’s important is what you need,” I assert.

There is a pause while she digests this thought. Perhaps it’s a new and dangerous idea, where one’s needs outweigh having to do what everyone else does.

I explain the options a bit, “Once a week might work better because of time constraints, or twice a week might work better so you can review stuff and go to class and then review stuff again. We can also try it one way, and then as things change over the semester, try it the other way and see if that works better. I’m flexible. It’s not carved in stone.”

Perhaps the uncertainty comes from not knowing what her needs will be. That kind of prescience comes from experience, of which freshmen and sophomores have less.

This is, I have found, one of the paralyzing concepts facing people who don’t have as much experience in making decisions about their own lives. There is this myth that you should know what you’ll need in the future, and have to make The Best, Correct Decision – Right Now, and that once made, you’re stuck with it forever. That somehow there’s not enough grace in the world to change things and adapt them to your own changing needs, or your changing understanding of your needs. Worse, that if you make the Wrong Decision, or even a Less Useful Decision, then you have screwed up and this reflects poorly upon your character and your intelligence, rather than the fact that wisdom is a pathway trod throughout life.

We all want to do the right thing. We all need to learn how to make decisions about our lives and to advocate for ourselves. Doing that takes practice. Practice means that teens, young adults, and even older adults will need to have the opportunity to make mistakes along the way, learn from them, and then try again.

Practice means that one has a certain level of support system so we don’t fail to the point of endangerment. The baby learning to toddle is given a safe environment, a certain level of freedom, and encouragement. They are also the opportunity to fall down BUMF! on their diaper-padded butt time and again, to get up and cruise along the furniture until comfortable enough to strike out independently across the floor, and then eventually out the door into the big world.

What we don’t need is some people trying to keep us down by using the occasional failure as “proof” that a person is unable to be self-sufficient, and therefore must be bounded and trapped in “care” situations. As Carol Hanisch said decades ago (regarding the feminist movement), “We’re messed-over, not messed-up.”

My tutees are not the only ones practicing. I’m a practitioner because I’m also practicing. After a tutoring session I reflect upon what transpired to plan for next time. Sometimes I find that I must take different approaches than those traditionally recommended. This isn’t surprising, because the very reason I’m with these students in the first place is because the “usual methods” are often not adequate to their needs.

What this does is require me to come up with novel ways of applying what I know about the person and their situation. This means that for the student, the method I’m proposing has to in some way be partially based upon something they are already familiar with, so it will make sense to them, and so they can begin from a point of comfort derived from familiarity. Then we can take the method and do something different with it.

Much of doing this is an interactive process where I am providing the medium for the student to explore what they need, and how they can achieve that for their self. The end point is to help them learn how to problem-solve new kinds of situations, and thus eventually make myself “unemployed”.

“It wouldn’t be fair.”

Well, it’s that time of year again when I sign up for another class. Being that I’m taking this class at a different college, I have to once again go through the process of filing paperwork with the office that provides access services for students with disabilities. (I’ve long since learned to scan the diagnostic documents into pdf files so I can hand out copies, rather than risk losing or damaging the originals.)

Going through this process leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m relieved that someone takes seriously my persistent difficulties with some processes. I’m glad to finally get the accommodations I need. On the other hand, this whole process of getting accommodations, and indeed the system of special education, is a tacit acknowledgement that the current educational system simply doesn’t work well enough for large numbers of students.

The absurd part is that I really don’t need anything extraordinary in the way of accommodations. The things I need aren’t expensive, nor do they require the instructors to do anything radically different in their instruction methods.

My accommodations are to give me “preferential seating” (I sit up front to better see and hear the professor and the board they are writing/projection upon); to have the captions displayed when videos are shown so I can understand all the narration (the students with hearing impairments or who do not have English as their primary language also benefit from the captions); to get copies of lecture notes or PowerPoints so I can be sure of understanding and not missing any of the material being presented, and to have 50% extra time to take tests.

What these do is to allow me to do is to acquire the information being presented, and to demonstrate my mastery of the subject material, at levels on par with my peers. These don’t give me a superior advantage over the other students, but rather help bring me up to the same level. (If many of the other students find they would also very much benefit from these things, then the instructional and evaluation methods need re-assessing – there’s a difference between challenging students and making things hard on them.)

Much of the resistance I have gotten from instructors has been on the issue of “fairness”.

I have failed – flunked – big red “F” on the page – more math tests than I care to remember. Suddenly I am getting A’s in College Algebra and Calculus! So, I am not innumerate. But what the hell happened? I got much better teachers who were able to teach with a variety of methods geared for different learning styles, and they let me take the time I need to finish the tests.

Then I get to a graduate-level statistics course, and talk to the professor at the beginning of the semester, explaining my particular difficulties with transcription errors and such, and ask if I might be able to have extra time if necessary so I can finish my exams. He refuses. He feels that would be “unfair” to the other students. “Everyone gets test anxiety; you will get faster with practice,” he says.

I sigh heavily at this familiar refrain, and throw myself into the subject. Like calculus, statistics lives in a theory world of its own, but I find that I understand the concepts. I read the textbook. I take excellent notes in class (people like to borrow my notes when they miss lectures). I do all the homework. I join a study-group. I do the programming projects and get A’s on them.

Then I get D’s on the first two tests. (Oh no, not again!) I go back and explain my problems once again to my professor – I did not even have time to finish one of the tests! I ask him again for extra time, which he refuses. Finally in high frustration, I end up discussing the situation with my grad school advisor, who pushes through a class Drop (even after the official last-drop date; amazingly, it can be done). I retake the class the next semester, this time with my official paperwork filed so I can have half as much more time to take the tests, and therefore will be able to finish them and be able to double-check my calculations for transpositions and such. I get a perfectly acceptable B grade. I just wanted to be tested on my understanding of the material, not my computational speed!

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said the professor. He missed the point.

Ann Welch* makes some excellent distinctions about the different concepts that are lumped together under sometimes misleading heading of “fairness”.
Equality is about treating everyone the same way because people have the same rights.
Equity is about recognizing and responding according to the amount of effort given by or achievement of a student. Equity can be best determined when everyone has the same equal opportunity.
The third of course is need. Not everyone needs the same things. (After all, no one complains that it’s “unfair” that I get to use bifocals when the rest of the students don’t.)

Highly competitive cultures place great value on equity; you get what you deserve. (The corollary being that you deserve what you get, and if taken to extremes, that if you’re somehow “substandard” you must have deserved it. It’s the old sin model of disability.)

It’s not that people aren’t terribly concerned with fairness. Indeed, children are almost obsessed with fairness, watching every last gram of sweets being doled out, or time and opportunity with entertainments being shared. That sort of fairness is about equality.

Fairness is not just about treating everyone the same; it’s also about giving people what they need.

* Ann B. Welch. 2000. “Responding to Student Concerns about Fairness.”  Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, (2) 36-40

A, B, C, D and F

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

How bad does it have to get?

At what point does a student’s difficulties with schoolwork demonstrate that they are having significant problems, and therefore need help?

Should a student have to fail classes before someone realizes or decides that there is a problem?

Why do we rely on failing – or near-failing – to signal academic difficulties? By the time a student has slid that perilously low in achievement, they have been struggling for a long while, and are getting further and further behind, thus making it even more difficult to catch up and succeed.

Furthermore, all that time spent struggling and generally not understanding why they are having problems, only creates even greater frustration. Stress doesn’t always push students to rally and succeed – too much stress rather, just serves to flatten their spirits.

Being told (directly or indirectly by all sorts of adults and peers) that they are simply “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “stupid” or whatever, only serves to further mangle the esteem and create greater frustration. It’s a recipe for depression, for withdrawal, and/or for acting out.

Bright students apply their natural intelligence and create coping strategies around their various difficulties. Oft times this is an unconscious process; it’s sheer adaptation to the world because they are expected to be able to do what everyone else does, and because in many ways, they have to approach tasks differently.

But coping strategies can only compensate so far. When the student is tired, or is sick, or is overwhelmed by other events in life, or is having to spread not enough compensation over too much difficulty, it breaks down. And then the student “suddenly” can’t do what they’ve always been able to do. Teachers, parents and others can’t understand why the student isn’t performing well. It’s easy to make those dread attribution errors: “You just need to focus. You just need to try harder. You just need to pay attention.”

For the student, sometimes they can’t even understand how or why it is that they can do things some days, but not others. Or why they can only sometimes do things well. It seems irrational. It’s easy for the frustrated student to make attribution errors of their own: “The teacher hates me. The work is too hard. The subject is just stupid.”

Students who are both very bright and have learning disabilities or learning difficulties or even marked learning style differences, face a terrible Catch-22. For years they will get by on sheer brains, compensating for their problems in ingenious ways. But eventually the complexity of the subject materials, the increasingly higher taxonomic levels of assessment, and the increasing study load all combine to bog down the effort. (The distractions of adolescence certainly don’t help, either!)

These “twice-exceptional” students may do well, but struggle to achieve what they could do. The learning problems, which affect both the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, can cancel out the exceptional qualities. What everyone sees, instead of a bright student with learning problems, is just an ordinary student with erratic and scattered abilities.

Once someone finally cues into the fact that there is a problem, it’s the disparity between ability and achievement in test results where the learning problems are diagnosed. But even before that, it’s the erratic results in the grades (even in the same subject!) and the uneven scatter of abilities that should send up flags.

It’s not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to be uneven — the “easy” things may be difficult (such as taking 4+ years to learn multiplication tables) and the more advanced stuff may be easy (e.g. physics or calculus concepts). If people insist that the student “master” the preliminary steps before they can move on, the student will be bored and not reach their academic potential. Bored students can act up, either withdrawing, being class clown to get attention, or getting frustrated and angry.

Even after testing, there can be confusion all around. None of the test results may show a severe problem of any one kind. But we have to remember that problems are cumulative. On good days, various problems may merely be additive; on bad days they can be multiplicative. So a student with some ADHD organizational problems and some Auditory Processing Disorder problems and some Asperger’s socialization problems and some difficulties in reading and some periodic tics and some depression and occasional migraines … doesn’t have any “major” problems. But what that student does have is a major conglomeration of interacting problems. It’s no one thing – it’s everything!

One school person said this student didn’t need an IEP because they were “coping so well”. Drr? the last report card ran the entire gamut of the alphabet, from A through F.

Yeah, right.

How bad does it have to get?

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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