July 30, 2014

Feeling Unable to Learn

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

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I’ve just had one of those in-your-face learning experiences. In fact, it was so unnerving that I’m not sure I can even write about it. It all started when I bought a new computer and, as a result, had to learn an entirely new email system. Although not an unusual or difficult situation for most college teachers, it turned into an absolutely awful experience for this learner. I haven’t felt such frustration, anger, and despair for a long time.

Part of the problem is the generation to which I belong. We weren’t born teething on technology, and I was in my late 30s when I got my first computer. At that age, learning something as new and different as a computer isn’t all that easy. Children master second languages in a breeze; most adults struggle and computers are just as foreign as a new language to me.

Part of the problem is I never had any computer training; it wasn’t required or expected. My humanities colleagues and I learned by asking and telling each other. I suspect that continues today. We quickly gave up on help menus. They weren’t written by those who needed the help; still aren’t, as far as I’m concerned.

My new computer arrived, and I paid someone to set it up and transfer my files. He was very much a techie and no doubt highly knowledgeable of all sorts of computer-related things, but I couldn’t answer his questions or understand his answers to my questions. However, I did understand one key message: my trusty old Eudora email program, which I’ve been using for decades, would not work on the new computer.

That wasn’t a huge surprise. I started using it in the late 80s. For years, people have been telling me it wasn’t supported. I now ascertained that meant something different than I had originally believed it to mean. After all, I still supported it (along with the three other people who still used it). So I need to learn the new system; all the while email is accumulating in my inbox as I struggle to find my way around. I don’t try to get help. I don’t have time for that, and besides I’ve been told more than once that today’s email programs are intuitive, easy to use, and offer so many great features. I think that I shouldn’t need help and therefore am reluctant, no, embarrassed to ask.

Part of the problem is that my mind doesn’t work like the minds of those who design software. They must all be visual learners because there are icons everywhere, and the vast majority are meaningless to me. “What’s this stick with a U on the end of it?” I ask my husband. “It’s a wrench.” “What’s the wrench for? I’m supposed to use it fix the damn thing?” “No, it means tools.” “Oh, for God’s sake, why don’t they just use the word?”

But the biggest problem? I don’t believe I can learn it. In fact, I’m sure I can’t and everything I do only proves this foregone conclusion. I get stuck. I try to get the program to work by trying something akin to how the old program ran. It doesn’t work. My mind is so fixed on how it used to be, how, to my thinking, it’s supposed to be, that I can’t conceive of any other way. My inbox now has 36 messages listed by date. I need to get them organized into folders, but I can’t figure out how to make folders. Days pass. Now I have 76 messages, and I’m forever hunting for the ones I need. I still can’t make folders. I beat my fist on my desk. I yell at my husband when he tries to help. I should retire; I am too old. I cannot learn this. I cry, crushed by my utter stupidity.

My husband (who I love for not leaving during this whole ordeal) finally figures out the folders. I get my messages organized, thinking about how it feels when you try hard, when you’re desperate to learn something, and yet you still can’t master it. I decide that teachers need to know how this feels.

I’m recovering. With my husband’s help, we’ve figured out enough things that I no longer feel my career collapsing. But it will be a while before I forget what an otherwise competent, well-educated, modestly successful academic can be reduced to when confronted with what looks like an impossible learning task. I decide that students don’t need to know how this feels.

So what lesson can we take from all of this? To be sure, failure is part of learning, and it’s important for our students to develop strategies to help them push through failure. But that’s not the kind of failure I’m writing about in this post. It’s about struggling mightily to learn something, only to have each attempt met with more failure, frustration, and feelings of futility. It sure doesn’t feel good, particularly when all you hear is how “easy” it is. How do we keep this from happening? I welcome your strategies for learning new things that you know will be difficult. Please share in the comment box.

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Comments

docpipnz | July 30, 2014

Hi Maryellen – you have my sincere sympathy with this! Particularly the bit about the instructions being written by people whose minds operate differently. I well recall one of my early forays into technology learning, back in the days of floppy disks (LITERALLY floppy – that should date me!) The person who was running the course gave us a handout booklet, one of the early instructions of which said "Insert the floppy disk into the machine". Fine, in it went. Further down it said, "Ensure the arrow on the disk is facing inwards". But by then the machine had eaten my disk, and I had NO idea which was the arrow was facing. Instructional Design 101 failed.

Like you, I have a very supportive technology-informed husband, but he has often said he has seen error messages come up on computers when I am using them, that he has never seen with anybody ever before. This is demoralising. But I have found that I just need to keep at it. I got into email when it first came out. I used the internet when it was just fledgling. I make mistakes, many mistakes, and sometimes I still don't understand why things work or don't work. But I'd encourage you to pat yourself on the back for wanting to try, and just keep at it. As my ancestor Robert the Bruce said, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again". Good luck with it!

Kathleen Hagen | July 30, 2014

The worse the learning experience is, the more a student needs human support and kindness. For truly yucky learning situations like you had, help menus, online video demonstrations, and written step-by-step instructions do not work. You needed someone knowledgeable and compassionate to sit with you to deal with your feelings of despair and panic as you encountered each new problem.

Part of what made your situation so difficult is the time pressure you were experiencing. Each passing hour that you could not create folders to deal with your incoming e-mails put more pressure on you. It's hard to learn anything when you're panicking.

The other part of what made your situation so difficult is that your immediate problem of needing to create folders and move e-mails into them was several steps along the path of understanding the new e-mail system. You didn't feel you had the time to learn the system from the beginning, so not only were you learning a new system, you were trying to learn higher applications of the system.

What this says to us about helping our students is that probably when they are most despairing of learning something in spite of trying very hard is that they are missing some crucial bits of foundational understanding. The student who throws her APA manual against the wall because it can't help her may have missed out on learning basic grammar. The student who decides against a career in statistics may never have been clear about the last algebra class he took. The same way you, Dr. Weimer, needed a compassionate outsider to step in and solve the folder problem so you could settle down enough to begin learning the system, our students may need individual help with solving their immediate problems so they can fill in gaps in their learning.

Donna W Bailey | July 30, 2014

Maryellen

I can identify…I am in orientation in a new program and worked several hours on a scavenger hunt that should have taken, at most, 30 minutes or less…it wasn't hard questions but trying to navigate a site that is in between version changes is a nightmare similar to your email challenge…the instructions would say one thing and the reality is that the site had a different label or I kept getting error messages…I never figured out if it was me or the system…when I am working with students, I try to give them a sense of how long something will likely take them and tell them if they are taking longer or are getting struck, to walk away for a few minutes and try again…with technology reloading a page sometimes helps although for me last night, it didn't. I think we need to help learners as we help them to develop self regulation, that when a learning task is so difficult that they cannot move forward after 2-3 reasonable (in terms of time and effort) attempts, it is time to seek help from the resources outlined in the course or to talk to the instructor or TA…when we do this, we are teaching them to use resources appropriately so they will be less "reluctant" (embarrassed) to ask for help…after all, that is what our professional networks are there for, even if it is to say how do you move this thing to this place :-)

Neil Haave | July 30, 2014

This is a powerful reminder of what some of my students must feel like when they are learning biochemistry for the first time. I am sure it doesn't help when I try to encourage them by saying that it is easy if they remember their organic chemistry nomenclature. Great for a successful organic chemistry student – likely not so much for others.

I will be more sensitive to when others experience difficulty over something that I find intuitive and easy. Part of the problem for me as an instructor is that when I find something intuitively easy, it is difficult for me to articulate the steps necessary to master it. I think it was in your book Maryellen, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice ( http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-te… ) that made me understand those four levels to learning/mastering a subject:
1. beginner – doesn't know what they don't know, therefore doesn't understand why they got something wrong
2. novice – knows they don't know something and open to learning what they need
3. intermediate – know what they know and recognize when they need to find additional information and know what needs to be done
4. master – intuitively know what they know and therefore unable to articulate how they accomplish the task efficiently and elegantly

…. or something like that…. Actually now I am beginning to wonder if I read that someplace else this summer….

Regardless, thanks for this post.

Dabareh | July 30, 2014

I can so identify with this concept! I teach professors to use our Learning Management System, which involves extensive computer skills. I witness the feeling you had on many faces. Many of them have not had that "I can't learn this" expression for years. I tell them, "It's good to remember what students experience!"

I encountered this in an online doctoral statistics class. I cried, threw my book off a balcony, fretted, and was ready to give up a Ph.D. because of this one class. A wise classmate (thousands of miles away) offered some advice. She told me to look at it like any other problem and try some creative solutions. After a few days of calming down, I tried some pretty bizarre strategies. I found reading the text upside down made things click. I made an A in the course and am eternally thankful that I can now identify with frustrated faculty members and students.
I don't know if we should eliminate this process for students. Confusion and frustration are the first steps in learning anything. We forget that (especially if we are secure in our knowledge and are imparting it to others). We need to tell our students the truth–learning is hard and requires perseverance through the inevitable stages of panic and despair. We should share with them that we go through it, too (and we have gone through it many times to get to where we are).

Students experience that stage and think that they are the only ones experiencing this block (you thought this, right?). Then, they give up, feeling that everyone else just "gets it." We feel shamed when we can't learn something easily, just as we do when we fail. Students who push through frustration and use failure as valuable experience find learning more rewarding and are more successful.

Maybe we should tell learners up front they might feel this way, that it is natural and not shameful, and that there are ways to get through it (a patient helper, time, taking deep breaths). As Larry Leissner said, "“If confusion is the first step to knowledge, I must be a genius!" Perhaps we should cultivate that perspective!

Virginia Rich | July 30, 2014

I find Kathleen Hagen's observations to absolutely correct that the more difficult the learning problem, the more that kind support is needed. I believe that every teacher at some time should experience this level of challenge and frustration simply to gain the empathy necessary to help students struggling through a difficult learning experience. I can remember that night during college when I was trying to master a calculus function. The feelings of inadequacy, stupidity, frustration, and fear are clearly memorable to this day, many years later. I can't get this, I'll never get this, everyone else is getting it, what is wrong with me? I wanted to throw the book at the wall.

The point is that we become distracted from the task at hand when learning is so difficult. We no longer are focusing on the learning goals but have been waylaid by the visceral response to the process. A breezy "oh but it's simple!" remark from tech support simply rubs salt into the wound. As faculty, we need to remember that what is simple to us can be enormously difficult to students. Putting new concepts in context, providing step-by-step processes, asking students where the learning process broke down for them, and asking them to explain what they do understand — these are all tools that the faculty member can use to help the student past a learning block.

My sympathies, Mary Ellen. If only that computer could talk back to let you know when you stopped following its rules.

Melodie Rowbotham | July 30, 2014

Maryellen,
Thanks for sharing your story. It struck a chord with me about how our students must feel some days. I love to work with the students that are struggling in my courses (if they come to me). I have them do a learning style inventory and then sit down and really talk about how they are studying not just "I studied for….hours". While this helps I have found in my research in student self-efficacy that students must think they can be successful (or learn) if they are going to be. So your thoughts of "I don't believe" is so true. I have to help the students learn to believe they can learn the material. Providing help with studying, taking time to answer questions and showing them they are learning it helps. But they also" want to" to learn as well. What a rewarding experience when they come back and say "look what I did"!!! So worth all the effort on both our parts.

Ellen Smyth | July 30, 2014

How do we keep this from happening?
1. Avoid trivializing tasks by labeling them as easy (something I am guilty of, unfortunately), and respond positively to even the simplest of questions.
2. Provide optional instructional resources to students for tasks that you may view as not complex enough to require explanation. For example, I originally assumed that college students could figure out how to add and subtract using their graphing calculators, but when I provided optional videos for students showing them how to do arithmetic, I was overwhelmed by how many were grateful. And even if I haven't provided the one resource that someone really needs, I've hopefully opened the door to questions by implying that no task is unworthy of instruction.
3. Teach students how to use Google to find many of their own answers. (Something I need to work on…) Whenever there is anything technical (or even not so technical) that I don't know how to do, I Google. I particularly like to search and then click on the video option across the top of Google's page. If I were trying to use Outlook for the first time, I would Google, "How to use Microsoft Outlook 2011," for example, since 2011 is the version I have, and then click Video. If students can get comfortable finding their own answers, they wouldn't be intimidated by asking "easy" questions, and they may even feel empowered by having the ability to solve their own problems.
4. Encourage students to come to you immediately whenever their feelings of frustration start. Tell them that you absolutely want to hear from them – that this is the reason you are there – and that in most cases you will be able to help them. Solicit feedback and frustrations from students often so that you can catch these problems in time to relieve frustration.

Wayne Homer | July 30, 2014

My approach for new learning that I know will be challenging:

1. I accept that there will be a steep learning curve and I will get something wrong.
2. I convert the process and content in a manner that is easier for me to understand and learn.
3. I ask for help when stuck ( I know someone else would have trod on this path before).
4. I privately celebrate every little victory.
5. I stay focus on what I want to achieve by this learning.
6. Most of all I don't give up.

regards,
Wayne Homer

Rose di Benedetto | July 30, 2014

Hi – i can relate to many of your experiences – but from the other end. One of my responsibilities was to provide support for teachers who had a need to learn new technologies. I have also been in positions where I truly knew nothing and had to reassess my opinion of my learning skills. Looking through both lenses I am convinced that it is really about attitude and ego.
The focus when learning something out of our comfort zone is to wrap our thoughts about our "failure". This takes energy away from letting go of our opinions of ourselves and giving in to the task at hand – with the appropriate sense of knowing nothing but having a willingness to allow ourselves to learn. A quote that comes worth thinking about is: How you do anything is how you do everything.

tswann2 | July 30, 2014

You all might want to look at Concerns Based Adoption Model. By being able to determine where a learner is based on concerns expressed you (and hopefully technology trainers) will be able to adjust the support and training materials to the user. The same works in the classroom (F2F, online and blended) All learners have concerns they express – listening for them will help you address the issues keeping them from learning.
Theresa Swann
Instructional Technologist but first and foremost – teacher.

Christine Schwarz | July 30, 2014

I agree with Ellen's points with regard to students. I always remember what my writing professor taught me: "write so clearly that the stupidest person in the world will understand it." I go over and over my instructions, asking myself, "What am I assuming?" And I have a wiki page on the course website where they can communicate with me and other students. Lots of communication offsets despair.
For myself, personally, I gather information about the procedure from Google, printing off instructions so that I don't have to toggle between open windows. Above all, I ask my friends for advice and for them to walk me through the process looking over my shoulder virtually, if need be.
Part of the problem with HelpDesk people is that they have a different discourse from the rest of the human race. It's not their "fault"; they're trained a certain way and this discourse actually impedes them in their task at times.

Gary Pape | July 30, 2014

Thanks for sharing your experience. It reminds me of the concept of self efficacy–believing that you are capable of achieving a specific task. I think this is an underappreciated concept in teaching and learning. My take on your experience is that until you were able to believe you had some possibility of being successful–that you were not able to learn the new system. I believe that many of our student's difficulties can be traced to low self efficacy beliefs. Note: Alberft Bandura has written extensively on this subject.

@docdebiash | July 30, 2014

How do we save our students from this? Make sure we are like your husband – be there for them and don't give up. We can provide them with chances to learn from their failures by scaffolding out larger projects. This gives them the opportunity to learn from our feedback; which should always be constructive and detailed. Allow for more than one submission for assignments and any quizzes. Build their confidence with supportive feedback while letting them know we too are human. Be unafraid to say, as the Professor, "I don't know, but let me check". Let them know we have struggled with concepts (such as Daberah did with stats) and that we feel their pain. And last, but not least, be there. Reach out. Take the extra time to assist them. Or allow students who are "getting it" to step up to be mentors for those who aren't. We sometimes forget that the reason our students are in our classes is to learn. What better way to learn than making mistakes and being allowed to improve?

Colleen | July 30, 2014

It's important to encourage the student at every step. When the student is able to see that you care about his learning process, often the student will begin to make some progress. We all learn at different levels and in different ways. Each person should feel as though they have their own cheerleader. I believe this is important. Helping a student to learn to believe in himself is a major part of learning. Once this occurs, a student will begin to make a path toward success.

Karen McRobie | July 30, 2014

Hi all,

For me, this line is critical: "I think that I shouldn’t need help and therefore am reluctant, no, embarrassed to ask."

As an educator, I find that students who are not willing to be taught are not likely to learn well. In the absence of a teacher-student relationship, a learner on his or her own lacks the teacher's ability to: articulate outcomes; introduce systematic skill-building; assess progress and provide feedback; offer appropriate praise and motivation; diagnose the cause of errors; provide appropriate instruction, etc. While I absolutely agree that "Help" features in virtually every software program I have encountered have been useless (to me, at least), "help" in the form of a teacher/tutor/tutorial lesson/workshop or other instruction is what was missing from MaryEllen's learning experience. Imagine trying to learn statistics by yourself by looking at a bell curve or the equation for a linear regression. Only a genius (maybe) could do it. Everyone else would experience frustration and a lack of progress and would eventually give up, defeated.

MaryEllen's experience underscores why people need teachers! Teachers aren't just compassionate companions in the learning experience. They orchestrate successful learning experiences in spite of confusion and frustration (both of which may be inevitable and part of the learning process). Learning can take place without teachers, but a good teacher would have figured out an approach to learning the email system that would have left MaryEllen less frustrated and more in control of her learning.

Juan | July 30, 2014

Dr. Weimer,

Your story reminds me of the following quote:

"The battles of life are fought, won or lost in the mind."

I teach anatomy and physiology and my biggest challenge is convincing students they can learn.

Melanie | July 30, 2014

I cannot believe this article – it looks like something right out of my personal journal two months ago when I just returned from 'The Teaching Professor' conference in Boston. I was determined to incorporate iPad, apps, and a whole armada of new 'teaching with technology' ideas into the courses I teach at my university. Alas, I experienced the exact set of frustrations, anger, tears, anxiety, feelings of uselessness/redundancy and 'ready to retire!' feelings expressed in this article. My husband, also, was key to my learning a few basic things. He also reminded me to read my 'end of term' student reviews, most of which are positive. I need to be authentic to my own teaching style, and if that means I am a bit 'old-fashioned', well, maybe that isn't the end of my teaching career nor the end of my students' motivation and learning either! Thank you for the article – so great to know others feel the same about the challenges and social pressures to conform to all the technological gizmos.

Barb | July 30, 2014

Your point is well taken and a good reminder. But I can't resist chiming in that I too miss Eudora! I have learned new email programs, I just don't find them nearly as functional for what I want to do with email as Eudora was.

Kate Bye | July 30, 2014

I totally understand where you are coming from! I took a workshop this summer about the Best Practices for Online Learning. The Blackboard page was organized VERY well and the assignments had clear, concise instructions. It is much different when you are on the student end of things and I learned a LOT about what my students must experience. Even with the clear expectations of this course, I still found myself a little bit nervous and overwhelmed trying to get with the program. It got me thinking – our students typically have four or five classes, and while they may all be well organized – they are organized differently and the students must learn to navigate each of the organizational methodologies.

As I prep for fall, this is definitely something that is guiding how I will present the expectations and how I will help the students meet the expectations.

Thank you for posting this article, and reminding us all that it is a good idea to look at life from the student side of things from time to time! My favorite part of this was your comment about how we can help our students push past the failure, to help them find their own way to success.

Joe Montgomery | July 30, 2014

I could identify with the experience of being extremely frustrated in trying to learn something new, under time pressure, that you needed to use. An earlier comment mentioned self-efficacy beliefs, which are very important, but I think Carol Dweck's work on having a "Growth Mindset" (rather than a "Fixed mindset" is really important when we encounter difficult problems. With the Growth Mindset, we acknowledge that we are in the process of learning something new, have the ability to learn, and aren't expected to be good at first. Failure is OK and expected as we learn a new skill. With a Fixed Mindset we believe that we "should" be able to pick up some new skill quickly and easily and, if we don't, it indicates we are stupid and incompetent. Mindsets can change without our awareness– keeping a Growth Mindset is like developing a new habit that needs regular practice and attention to times when we slip into the Fixed Mindset. Students need to learn to maintain a Growth Mindset during their courses– it will make them more risk-taking, less anxious, and improve performance in the long run.

Ambition Within | July 30, 2014

Maryellen, welcome to the world of the student! How many times have we given students what we believe is an uncomplicated assignment, and after they make a mess of it, we say to ourselves (or, God forbid, to them), " I don't see why they (you) couldn't do this. I made it so simple!"

Truth is, learning anything new is difficult. I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who once remarked that when it came to a new writing assignment, we are all novices, no matter how experienced we are. Personally, I'm in the process of creating my first online writing course, and believe me, the process has stretched me in ways I couldn't imagine. I told a friend that it felt as if not only did I have to be an interior decorator (that is, plan the content of the course), but I had to build the exterior of the house as well! I especially understood your experience with creating folders. To avoid long stretches of written material, online course design dictates that information be "chunked" into various folders. Quite often, I would create a folder, but because of the way the university's learning management system is structured, I couldn't always see where a folder went after I'd created it. Finally, I asked a technical staffer if he could provide me with a paper version of a mapping tool, which he did. I went through the course section by section and created a visual map of the entire class.

All of the above and your experiences demonstrate that, technology notwithstanding, learning is multimodal and completely dependent on how clearly we (or others) prepare the teaching modalities. Many of us still need to keep the instructions in front of us while we work, whether we use print copies or dual computer monitors.

In addition to teaching, I co-manage an academic skills center, which includes writing. We plan to add an online writing tutorial, and it'll be interesting to see how students (particularly those with low literacy skills) react to not having a live person around to help them navigate the writing process.

Marguerite Samuels | July 30, 2014

Learning new tasks related to one's profession can be daunting. When technology changes, it is not easy to grasp the new way of doing things. I like logistical steps and I expect every writer of a technical manual or any type of instructional manual to take me through from step 1 to step 100, but when I discover that it does not work that way because the writers of the manual assume that I should know the fifty steps in-between intuitively, I become frustrated. In the late 1980s, my husband and I purchased our first VCR, and we were dumbstruck in finding that the instructions for setting it up were on a videotape and not printed anywhere in the form on a booklet. In all of my corporate positions, I became friendly with the IT department knowing that I depended on them. Now I rely on my two teenage children because they just know about the computer and its programs intuitively. For me, it was the moment my Dad walked in with a colored TV when I was a junior in high school. My husband and I bought our first computer in the mid 1990s, and it took us time to be able to operate it. In the days prior to Windows, I relied on the Control ALT Delete buttons for rebooting and "erasing" my inadvertent errors. How do I learn something new? It is a process for me, but when I eventually come to some understanding and enlightenment, the journey is worth it. It makes me a more compassionate person to have struggled to learn. So, while the process of learning something new might cause some frustration, it certainly builds my character and makes me have a better understanding of my own students and some of their frustration.

Brian Cowan | July 30, 2014

OK, let's approach this situation from a learner perspective. There are a number of points I'd like to make.

First, I remember once seeing a poster of an owl and beneath it was a Will Rogers quote, "Anybody's dumb if you take 'em away from what they're smart at."
You're a university prof, well educated, probably smart and you've spent years learning in your area of expertise. This is where ego kicks in (and everyone has ego). You expect more of yourself than others may expect of you. You've had years to study and learn and struggle to carve out a place for yourself in the world and your perception of your intelligence is a very big part of that. SO …. when you get extremely challenged by something new (don't we all), suddenly your ego is taking a beating. You get frustrated and it only gets worse. YOU should not be experiencing such problems!!
The reality is, we all do. I learned years ago, when trying to learn something new, find the most simple, basic books and explanation you can find. You want information geared to children because, mentally and academically, you are a child in any new learning you take on. Approaching in a child-like manner will give you good, basic information on which you can build more understanding and eventual expertise. You know that. As a teacher, you wouldn't expect first year students to understand third year content. Why should your expectations of yourself be so different. To learn, you must become the child.
Of course, a VERY great problem with new material (computer information is a glowing, incendiary example), books written by computerphiles/experts are usually awful reading. I've known many bright people in a variety of areas (universities and colleges are full of them), but they can't communicate information to anyone who doesn't share their level of expertise -and most of them are even worse when trying to communicate content in writing. Every nerd writes a computer book for him and his friends and colleagues to gloat over -not for learners. It took me three tries to pass a Masters level stats course. It only clicked when I finally encountered a teacher who could clearly communicate the content to me. Granted, some teachers do work better with some kinds of learners, but teachers should be able to adapt teaching to different learners. That's what the job i all about.
Computer "intuitive" processes are verrrry cultural -youth culture and otherwise. The learner mist adapt to their "intiutive" meanings but even then, they are most "intuitive" to those who develop them. That's the great problem with technical writing and instruction writing. They are written by those who know what they're writing about, not those that want to LEARN what they're writing about.
Ignore the myth of youth being "digital natives" who intuitively pick up on computers and all things digital. You mention how children learn new languages so effortlessly. True, but what else do they have to do?! It's the same with their ability to pick up new things in the digital world -what else do they have to do? They can't earn a living. They can pay a mortgage or put meals on the table or clothe themselves or make sure they're safe or …. Their minds are uncluttered and unfocused compared to adults. They are protected, safe, have their basic needs fulfilled and free to explore and learn. Their only daily time constraint is bedtime. Their egos are not as overly- developed and easily hurt as adults' egos. They are used to a lot of failure and don't see shame in it like we do. They adapt and carry on. Adults need to relearn that -even if the consequences of their failures are greater than a child's failures. Demands on our time are far greater than on a child's and that impedes the time we have available to learn. But, if after all this you still think they are more adept at learning new things -how about letting them drive your car? Many of them will believe they can do it. I remember my son loftily informing his mother that he could drive a stick-shift car. He'd learned on the internet.
Age is NOT a barrier to learning something new. Fear of failure of embarrassment is. Remember, "Anybody's dumb if you take 'em away from what they're smart at."

Chrstina Gotowka | July 30, 2014

Remember we are DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS and it may take awhile to assimilate with the DIGITAL NATIVES.

Natalie Manbeck | July 30, 2014

So glad you posted this. I feel exactly the same way about computers, even though computers have been part of the majority of my life and I just turned 65. My parents were math majors, so I was exposed to rudimentary computing from birth. I learned the binary system in grade school and how to program computers in junior high and have used numerous computers, computer systems and e-mail programs for the past 35 years. I no longer am intimidated by new software or systems, but have reached the point in my life that there are better things to do with my time than learn yet another new program. Spending time with people particularly grandkids is much more rewarding. Thanks for sharing your frustration.

Don Davies | July 30, 2014

I have found that learning is like driving a car with a manual transmission (stick shift). You need to adjust your speed and expectations according to the situation at hand. Learning generally begins in 1st gear, while gaining familiarity with new subject matter. As familiarity increases, higher gears can be obtained. However, sometimes along your journey, you come to a large hill or a topic that requires greater time, effort and patience, requiring a shift back to a lower gear. Bottom line is it is generally a bad idea to put a time limit on the learning process. Everyone needs to go at their own pace.

Chuck Wilson | July 30, 2014

One of the best posts that I have ever read! Of course, I identify totally with Dr. Weimer's experiences with technology. Continuing one's education as an older adult presents many challenges. Juggling multiple responsibilities, new technologies and generational differences all present a number of significant challenges for most of us. Going back to school is definitely like a long journey—-you need to love the adventure, enjoy the ride, and not be stressed with the unexpected. Learning involves high levels of frustration and sacrifice. No one told me about being frustrated or the level of sacrifice or pain that I would face as I pursued a master's and doctorate in my 40's!

Jack P. Macfarlane | July 30, 2014

What a wonderful dialogue! I rarely jump in and participate but this conversation hit a nerve. Let's remember that our generation (or at least mine) developed the technology in the first place. What we have today is savvy young users but let's give ourselves some credit. Dr. Weimer, I think your statement "I welcome your strategies for learning new things that you know will be difficult," explains part of the problem. We often 'know' things will be difficult before we even try them! Just as negative expectations lead inextricably to poor outcomes, the opposite is also true. Go Baby Boomers!

Glenda Cloutier | July 30, 2014

Honestly, I think you did just fine and I commend you for sticking with it. I have experienced this same "conversion". I agree that it's good for us teachers to experience it, and to know that our students experience this process as they learn what is familiar to us. So we can celebrate this, after a glass of wine. Which helped me. A lot.
Here's even better news: the whole process WILL be repeated, wait for it, good news now… but the time it takes to go through all the steps gets faster and faster until you can at least fake your students off that you know as much techno think as they do. But don't get your hopes up, we'll never fool our own kids. They know the advantage is all theirs!

Renee Kilpatrick | July 30, 2014

I felt your pain and frustration as I read your story, and my mind immediately went to the students I teach. A lot of them are second language learners. Some of them have picked up a little English here and there, and they try to maneuver through this thing called a writing process. However, the one component that you have is a husband (a support system). I live in Miami and some of my students are in this country by themselves, so the only other support system they have is each other. When learning something new, the very first thing has to be learn the language. I, too, continue to try and learn the language of Text messaging, and the young people that I encounter think it is a blast that I have not mastered it. However with their long suffering patience I'm learning, and the I really believe the key to learning is admitting we just don't know..

fergdoug | July 30, 2014

"why don't they just use the word?" Precisely. A huge pet peeve of mine. Blame Steve Jobs, who thought icons were cute.

A well-designed program should show you the word when you hover over the useless icon with your mouse cursor. Most do, but you still have to hover.

xiousgeonz | July 30, 2014

http://resourceroomblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/… ‎

I think it's *really* important to remember that I have a pretty big foundation of expecting eventual success… my students who secretly think they really are too dumb (we just haven't caught 'em yet) generally fail and disappear a lot earlier in the process.

xiousgeonz | July 30, 2014

Yes!!! to providing extra resources. Students come to us with all kinds of odd little gaps…

Ed Wiley | July 30, 2014

Hello, this is a good example of how to approach something with the beginner's mind. The more accomplished one is, the more difficult it often is to realize that our accomplishments don't make us experts at everything. That can be an awareness that one has avoided for years! How to learn something new, as mentioned it is great to have someone show you how to do. As Ellen Smyth pointed out, Google is very helpful with suggesting a plethora of YouTube videos that demonstrate how to do 'something'. The skill comes in determining how to phrase the question so as to get an appropriate answer. Ellen's example about specifically searching for how to use Outlook 2011, will provide more appropriate responses than just asking how to use Outlook.

In a recent article I was reading, I came across this information: People are adding more videos on the internet every second than one could view in 5 years! There probably is a video that will show you exactly how to accomplish what you want to do. This could be how to use an new email program, how to create a YouTube video, how to make a fruit smoothie, how to lubricate a bike chain, or whatever.

xiousgeonz | July 30, 2014

Strategies for learning:

First First, to make sure that when I try something, it's to find some part of it that works, not to say to self, "See!@!! This is why I hate this!!! It never works!!!"

And if I've said that oh, four times in a row… it's time to go toss a load of laundry in or walk around the house… because it's *amazing* how toxic that ends up being.

Visualizing what it will be like when it works…

Figuring out what I *do* understand — and how I got there…

If it's a student, building that 'growth mindset' is worth working on, consciously and persistently, trying to chip and grind or dissolve the barriers of the belief that this isn't really something this student can comprehend, so … what's the shortest way to survive this assignment, since learning isn't something even considered? (Can you guess which subject I work with? I was afraid so…)

rmfelder | July 30, 2014

I'm probably not going to be much help here, Maryellen. In the last few months I've been in exactly the same situation as you–to be explicit, I'm a lifetime Windows user and got my first Mac. Apple of course boasts proudly about its unparalleled level of user-friendliness. Wrong!!! It reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote: "Why, this is so simple a four-year-old child could do it. Someone get me a four-year-old child."

I won't bore you with the gory details of my still ongoing steep learning curve. I'll only say that I did find a strategy that has kept me from throwing the damned computer out the window on many occasions. It's called, "Being married to a long-time Mac user." I'm not sure how practical that is as a general learning strategy, however.

Veronica | July 30, 2014

Have me right in the box.I love the online classes,I don't know how to work the computer.I do not think at my age this much tecnology wasn't even thought about.I'm trying to learn some of the twist and turn as my pro'teaching me.then I get fustrated.mad and shut it down. But I know I'll get it good luck to all.

Laurie Corey | July 30, 2014

The best maxim/mantra is this: If you give anything enough time, you will be able to learn it! It has helped me and I certainly share it with my students.

M Wihlborg | July 31, 2014

Hi … I am sorry, but am I the only one that has another view on learning, I don't see that 'learning something new' has anything to do with following a premade manual and failure as not be able to do so? Maybe to have control on a learning content, believing that it is should be fixed for ever truth, is sometimes a 'teacher misunderstanding' – learning is so much more than following a manual 'technical or IKEA ones'.
Learning is to adopt a relational approach and make sense and meaning and be able to judge and put 'issues' into a bigger picture (better up, be able to involve several perspectives) as well as act on a micro level.
The frustration that is discussed here seems to be 'a very limited' way of learning and I feel puzzled with the ide of making associations with the way our students approach their challenges in becoming knowledgeable and develop abilities and skills.
This is about step by step skill – already 'pre-thought' and designed… I wish you good luck (-:)

Linda Aragoni | July 31, 2014

Last summer when I was attempting to learn a new job, I had similar feelings of frustration. As much as I hated that experience, it was good for me. This blog post shares some of the lessons I learned about from that horrible experience about better ways to teach students http://ilnk.me/158f2

I'm afraid we teachers have a tendency to equate learning with taking a course. And when we talk about being lifelong learners we all too often mean continuing to learn new information about our fields; we don't mean learning totally new skills. However, today's workplace requires being able to learn outside a classroom information for which the learners have neither interest or aptitude.

I trust after you've dried your tears and answered your email, you'll find this was the best bad experience you've ever had.

Donna Flint | July 31, 2014

What you talk about reminds me of experiences I'm having teaching an online class. You said "I don't have time for that"- which is what many of my students are saying. I have created lots of materials for them to reach them at varying levels of ability and styles of learning, but they still struggle, mainly because they think they don't have time for all that- they think they only have time to do the homework. For you, perhaps a couple hours with an expert guiding you through the basics of the program would have saved you days of frustration and lost work (I know, 20/20 hindsight). For my students, an hour or two working through the materials I prepared for them to teach the material would save them hours of frustration trying to "do" the homework. I try to convince them that the materials I've provided (textbook, learning guide, videos, opportunities to work through examples with an expert) replace the lecture they would attended in class and I ask them if they would ever try to do the homework without attending the class first? However, they still feel their most efficient way of learning is just to "do" the homework. For me the takeaway is- a few hours of valuable learning before trying it on my own is time well spent and can save lots of frustration later. Even as I write this, I know it's a hard sell even to myself.

Barbara Hill | July 31, 2014

Not all children have easy childhoods. Children can be very cruel to each other. Fear of failure of embarrassment exists in children and adults alike.

Kathleen Hagen | August 1, 2014

It goes back to the old saying, "When all else fails, read the instructions."

Still, I think your students have a point. Until they see how they need to know the material and what they're going to do with it, reading the textbook or watching the videos seems like a waste of time. Here's an experience I had that changed how I think about teaching and learning. I was reading "The Ideal Problem Solver" by John D. Bransford and Barry S. Stein and got to a section that asked me to read a text passage and then take a quiz that would be on the next page. Being the good student that I am, I read the passage several times until I was sure I knew everything important in it–I wanted to ace the quiz. When I turned the page over, the first quiz question was something like "How many e's were in the text section?" I was so ticked! I thought, "I read that passage for content information! If I had known that's what you wanted me to know, I would have read it completely differently!" And then the light of understanding came upon me. "Oh my goodness! Students have to know how they're going to use the information (know what kinds of questions the information will help them to answer) to know how they need to learn it!"

@alfhol | August 1, 2014

"Sintiéndose incapaz de aprender" es un buen título para describir la experiencia vivida por Maryellen.
Describe con acierto como los estudiantes podrían sentirse al enfrentar nuevos retos mientras intentan conocer y aprender. Este post describe muy bien la situación en que los estudiantes son enfrentados a recursos diversos bajo el supuesto de que el por sí solo puede desentrañar los contenidos que dichos recursos contienen, y esto es cierto para algunos de ellos pero no para todos a pesar que puedan tener grados avanzados de educación.
Un paso previo en el diseño instruccional es verifcar primero las necesidades de los estudiantes, pero un aspecto importante también es identificar el punto de partida en el que se encuentra el estudiante, identificando si entiende lo que se requiere de él, si tienen las capacidades y habilidades para iniciar el proceso de aprendizaje.
El acompañamiento al estudiante por parte del docente es indispensable, y la estrategia es diferente si el curso es presencial, blended o en linea, pero el acompañamiento y la retroalimentación oportuna y pertinente es necesaria.

Gracias Maryellen por compartir tu experiencia

LucyGarcia | August 3, 2014

Well, I howled with recognition. And, boy, could we all learn how it feels to be in a new world learning. I'm a high school teacher–my students are mostly far from organized, far, far away from any kind of academic language, well steeped in subtle forms of racism that they have swallowed uncritically, so this applies to them more than anyone. They "know" they are stupid or at least book-stupid. And Biology? No way. "I don't get it, Miss," is almost a phrase of bonding for them. Now we can see why! I don't "get" computers either!

I think the simple lessons from the MonArt art teaching classes will help me this year: easy, hard, right, wrong are words that discourage. I'm going to try using their recommended phrases like, "it might take longer to learn", "is there part of this you'd like to change?" I found that asking, "What kinds of questions do you have?" works way better than "Any questions?"

Molly Baker | August 4, 2014

I've enjoyed reading the lessons learned shared by you all, but I'd like to go a different direction. How does one learn to use new software tools? I work in a support office for faculty and often spend weeks learning a software tool (e.g., email, LMS, grade submission software, etc.), so that I can teach a busy faculty member only those pieces he/she needs to learn in less than 30 minutes! Meanwhile, I am very busy too and want to be efficient with my own learning, so I have learned how to learn new software tools faster and in ways I need it. More on that in a minute.

As a faculty member, I have learned that there are lots of people who know more than I do about lots of things (tech being ONE) and I have learned who is within easy reach that can help me get off square 1 if I'm stuck or too busy to learn something all on my own. These people can help me save lots of time and get me going long before the panic stage. For example, in MaryEllen's case, I would find out who already knows my new email tool; share what key things I want to know how to do that I liked in Eudora (e.g., make folders); and ask that person what newer features they like best about it. Then, listen and decide whether any of those appeal; if they do, make a note of them and ask again later. Some new tools HAVE invented the better mousetrap! I have found that faculty support staff are usually pretty good at helping me learn, instead of grabbing the mouse out of my hand and showing me in a big hurry!

I have found efficient learning of new software involves:

Not trying to learn everything at first; picking out those tasks that are most urgent or of interest and focusing on those. You can learn other things later as the need arises.

Locating books (for Dummies?) or web sites on the Internet with FAQs or video tutorials for this software. This gives me the freedom to do some exploring on my own, looking up things as I want to learn. There are often tutorials for beginners (e.g., overview/navigation/introductory) and ones aimed at specific tasks. The former help you learn what to call the latter! I have found that the built-in Help menus are better designed for trouble-shooting or learning specific tasks later. As others have said, they are not the best way to learn software when you are totally unfamiliar. Online videos can be played and replayed, with practice in between. Some are definitely better than others…search YouTube, for example!

Bookmark the best of the above tutorials for later reference.

As I discover that there are multiple ways to do my basic tasks, I pick the one that seems to be the most efficient, easiest to learn, or most like tasks I already know how to do and forget the others!

Lastly, I search for projects or opportunities where the software is needed in my life, so that I get practice using it for things important to me. I have found that taking a workshop on a software tool is not useful, except for maybe the handouts! Unless I use what I learned daily and for an extended time afterwards, it doesn't stick. It does, however, get me over the hump in getting started with it, at times. The main benefit is getting to know the instructor for later help!

Elise | August 5, 2014

Perhaps one way to regain empathy for being a novice learner without the "ego crushing" experience is a faculty refresher on the principles of learning before the start of fall semester (e.g., http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/principles/learning.h….

Neil | August 5, 2014

This is well summarized in Ambrose et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching
http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0470484101?pc_redir

kate marshall | August 13, 2014

I think part of learning new tings – particularly things that are difficult – is accepting that there will be failures. So, at first, success isn't the goal, practice is. Instead of creating folders and moving email into folders; the first task is just to learn about folders – make some practice ones, delete them, make new ones, add rules, practice some more. The goal is a series of high-quality failures, not immediate success. (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/08/21/essay-importance-teaching-failure)

This is hard, and it is harder the more established and expert we become in our fields – in part, because the experience of being a novice becomes more and more remote. I'm reminded of what Jane McGonigal said on twitter a while back – directly telling new learners that setbacks are both typical and temporary can be really helpful.

Lately, I've been teaching myself to sew. I've had some high quality failures. I've also sewn bunch of scratch scraps as I struggle to get the tension, bobbin, etc. right. It's hard – and it's made a little harder knowing that it's so easy for other people. But I love knowing that I am still capable of learning new things, even if I'm struggling.


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