When I’m hanging out with friends and I have the audacity to ask them how school’s going, the conversation always comes to “Ugh, this course is kicking my ass, dude.” Aside from the endless caffeine-induced study sessions and trying to snatch a few minutes of a professor’s time in office hours, sometimes I’m inclined to ask, “Why is it going so rough?”, and the answer I get is, “I have no idea, I just can’t grasp the material like everyone else.”
I have never related to something that much in my life, bro. Believe me.
This answer got me thinking. Why is it that sometimes, even though we consume all the material provided to us, solve every single practice problem, and finish every single lab assignment, that a concept just doesn’t click in our heads?
The obvious conclusion, which everyone loves to jump to, is “I’m dumber than everyone else in this program.” Statistically, in a program where an acceptance requirement is a 94% average from high school, I doubt that lack of intelligence is the issue for someone who managed to get into the program in the first place.
“Maybe I’m not working hard enough.” If you’re using all the material given by the course coordinators, that’s doubtful too. (Of course, a significant amount of us do suffer from procrastination and binging before a test, but that’s an entirely different issue.)
Then what could be the problem?
The answer didn’t hit me until I was taking CIV100 for the second time in the winter semester of my first year. When we were working on a fairly simple 3D force problem, and the solution just didn’t make sense to me, I went up to ask if there was another way they could show me to make it more sensible. The response I got was “This is the expected solution, you don’t need to explore much further.”
And that’s when it hit me. I needed to explore further to be able to learn. I needed different ways for that sort of material to make its way through my thick skull.
When we reflect on how information is presented in an average engineering course, there are a few methods that immediately come to mind: lectures and lecture notes that include formulas and how-tos for assignments and labs, followed by textbooks that elaborate further with those formulas and how-tos, concluded by tutorial notes that show us how to apply those formulas and how-tos. Almost all course material is completely built on audiovisual platforms. And this got me thinking, maybe some of us learn some material in different ways than others do, and we’re simply not provided with the opportunity to learn those ways.
After a bit of research, I discovered there are seven generally accepted learning methods.
- Auditory and musical
- Visual and spatial
- Logical and mathematical
- Physical and kinaesthetic
- Social and interpersonal
- Solitary and intrapersonal
It could be sensible to assume that most people in an engineering environment are logical, visual, and auditory learners… if we lived in the world of Divergent where people have as much depth as a cardboard cutout. But research shows that most people are inclined to have way more than just these three learning styles. This is why it is so important to understand how we personally learn. In this program, we are learning skills that we will need throughout our careers, and we better learn it well right here, before we get tongue-tied at an interview.
So what is the real problem here? Is it that students don’t know how to study or that professors don’t know how to teach?
It’s a bit of both.
I believe that the education system itself must start with learning how people learn and teaching us how to find and extract the information we need. So instead of relying on textbook readings or lecture recordings (if the course coordinators feel generous enough to provide them, of course); we must know how to obtain that information from other sources. This may sound far-fetched, as most of you guys reading this might be thinking “What now, is studying not enough to be a good student?” I assure you, when you’re working on some code due soon at 2:30 am on a cold February night, you might be inclined to call your APS105 professor and ask them, “How do I debug this [expletive] code?”, but you won’t have the chance. At that point, Google and Stack Overflow might be your best friend (or your worst enemy).
But let’s not tip the scales in favor of the professors here. When I exit a class after having stared at a OneNote document on a projector screen for 50 minutes, the most prominent information I retain from that lecture is, “Yeah, the classroom lighting really sucks.” And of course, I do not deny that most educators go through some form of pedagogical training and learn how to optimize their teaching style, but the problem lies within the lack of inclusivity of those training sessions to begin with; especially in more formal educational environments like university classes, where multifaceted teaching styles are very rarely implemented. I’m not suggesting that we sing the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus to the tune of Happy Birthday or build an electrical circuit model out of colored macaroni. However, with a bit of research, it’s trivial to understand that the properties of different learning styles require some adjustments, albeit minor, to the classroom environment. For example, explaining a formula and its elements in words for a verbal learner, or including movement cues for a kinaesthetic learner can make a huge difference for certain students.
So after all of this discussion, what am I suggesting?
One idea is including tools to ensure all learning styles are supported in at least some way in the syllabus, so that students can determine which learning style works best for them, before falling back 5 weeks just before a midterm. Another idea is perhaps to just modify lectures to better take advantage of the voice, colours, movement, social interaction and other similar factors that can change the entire course experience for certain students.
In essence, I’m suggesting that educators be willing to learn how to teach, and students be willing to learn how to learn.
Okay, don’t get too worked up; you still have that problem set due Friday! Sit your ass down and start studying, I’ll grab you a Red Bull!