October 26th, 2016

Finding Signs of Progress When Learning is Slow

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Professor helping student in lecture hall

Slow learning—not to be confused with slow learners—is learning that happens gradually, where understanding deepens slowly and skills advance but without immediate noticeable change. Some learning occurs all at once; suddenly, there’s a performance breakthrough. Typically, fast learning feels easy, even if it was proceeded by a frustrating period of confusion. What is finally understood is so clear, so obvious—what is finally mastered no longer seems hard.

Teaching Professor Blog But mastery of the intellectual skills we aspire to teach—critical thinking, problem solving, writing, the ability to work productively with others—happens slowly. Progress is hard to see, especially if it’s looked for every day, or even once a week. It’s a bit like losing weight (or putting it on). You don’t see it coming off (or going on), but then you put on a pair of jeans and they button without a struggle (or with much difficulty).

Being able to see progress is important. It’s what motivates continued effort. I recently started lifting weights. Yesterday, as I heaved the mattress to tuck in the sheets and blankets while making my bed, I happened to glance at my arm, and the muscle there was positively bulging. I was way more thrilled than the muscle size merited, but it was such an obvious sign of progress.

Even though progress may be slow, it is often visible across a course, but students still struggle to see their own progress. More than once I’ve sat with a student looking at the first and last pieces of writing done in a course. “Do you see how your writing has improved?” I ask. “Well, not really, but I’m getting better grades,” the student replies. Even when pressed, most of my students cannot point to anything specific in their writing that has improved.

Recognizing progress might be a bit easier with problem-solving content. I was in a math class once where the teacher introduced a new type of problem. Students were confused and tried to ask questions but couldn’t figure out what they needed to know. “We can’t do this!” one student announced in frustration. “Yes, you can,” the instructor replied. He put a different problem on the board. “Do this one,” he said. Pencils moved and calculators lit up. Hands popped up with the answer. “Does anybody remember the day we started working on this problem? How many of you couldn’t do it when you first tried?”

Seeing progress also matters because slow learning depends on persistence. It requires continued, repeated effort, generally accompanied with failure or less-than-effective execution. Yes, I regularly write about the learning that can result from failure and mistakes, but as someone recently reminded me, learning from mistakes doesn’t happen automatically. In fact, if a mistake is repeated, if one failure happens after another and you don’t figure out what you’re doing wrong or somebody doesn’t help you understand the error, the repeated failures shake your confidence. Before very long, you’re convinced you can’t do it, and now you not only can’t do it, but you’ve got an attitude that stands in the way.

I have this problem with motors that have pull cords. I can never get them started and have a list of failures a mile long. Most of the time, I don’t even bother trying. Why wear out my arm? Last week, though, I needed to get the log splitter going, and the person who usually pulls the cord was not around. I decided to try. I primed the carburetor, adjusted the choke, gave the cord a mighty pull, and it started! I fell back in complete amazement. My first thought was that this was blind luck, but then I got it started several times that day. Does this mean I now believe I can start motors with pull cords? Nope. But then again, it might be that bigger muscle.

What are the signs of progress when you’re learning how to think critically or solve problems? Do we point them out to students? Do we help students discover that they’re making progress, even if they can’t see it happening? It would behoove us to talk about slow learning with students, about how progress probably won’t be fast, how persistence pays off, and how essential it is to believe—not that the learning will be easy but that students have got the intellectual muscle they need to succeed. If they keep at it, someday they’ll be surprised by their new intellectual strength.

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