12 November 2012

Learning about learning: Part 1

A friend talked me into taking an introductory philosophy class with her our second semester of college. I don't know why I thought this would be a good idea, as I was already taking 18 hours and it was a section which met at 8 am. I was a precocious little academic hellion, though, so I persevered despite my friend dropping the class a few weeks later.

I remember taking copious notes during class, studying diligently, and very much enjoying the subject matter. I was a little disappointed when my grade on the first exam was a B. Dissatisfied with my ability to improve my grade based on the comments written in the blue book I'd filled with essays, I met with the professor to chat.

As you might expect of an academic in his field, Prof Philosophy was ferocious in his arguments and maintained high standards of cerebral function. I began by asking him about the few comments he made on my exam, trying to sort out why those minor points warranted what I saw as a dissatisfying grade. He answered the first few questions but then became impatient.

"Look," he said. "There are some exams that are obviously A papers. Yours was not one of them."

I was a little surprised, and I'm sure I felt the sting of tears behind my eyelashes. I blinked them away, processed that thought for a moment, thanked him for his time and then left. I thought about his assertion frequently throughout the course of the semester, improved the depth of my thinking while listening to his lectures, and ended up with an A in the class. I thought about his comments even more often during graduate school.

A student from the lab section I'm instructing approached me awhile back to ask about a question from the exam. It was a multiple choice question that required inference of a phenomenon based on information provided. I explained to her the reasoning behind the correct answer, and she honed in on one minor bit of information that seemed ambiguously worded in the question. "You mean I would've gotten the question right if I had made that assumption?" she asked.

I explained to her that it was not that simple. If you are answering higher level questions and only have a cursory understanding of each concept included, you are compounding uncertainty by the time you reach an answer. Getting "close enough" to an answer doesn't mean much when you are trying to combine and synthesize information, because each little bit of inaccuracy takes you farther from the correct answer.

This is the challenge of learning and teaching in science, particularly biological systems. It is a balance of accuracy and precision of content recall bolstered by reasoning and critical thinking. Students' bean counting points to get a better grade in the class reinforces that parameterization of a problem down to individual units will yield better results. In fact, understanding how all parts-- of a semester, or of a biological process-- fit together leads to improved learning.

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