On Being A Student…Again

I have a secret. One I’d rather not let any of my students know about. But I figured I should get it out in the open. In July I was attending a week-long workshop in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I signed up for the workshop with my grad student, so we could learn how to use a popular weather research and forecasting model to study climate. Each day we had ~6 hours of lecture, followed by an afternoon lab/practice session. The lectures covered everything from how to operate the model, to discussions of the theory and physics behind it. Each day: 6 hours of lecture. Guess what happened?

I fell asleep. That’s right. At times, I could not keep my eyes open. I so badly wanted to learn this stuff. I used all my old college tricks to try to stay awake – nibbling on energy bars, drinking caffeinated beverages at lunch time, taking copious notes on things that weren’t even that relevant – but after the first day, every day, I reached a point where I could not keep my eyes open.

I’ll pause here while my own students finish laughing and jeering.

I have a whole range of excuses. I was commuting an hour and fifteen minutes each way, every day, to attend this thing. I was having a difficult summer. It was hot outside. And there were over 100 people in this lecture hall – who would notice? But I felt bad. Having given hundreds, maybe a thousand, lectures in a room like this, I know that I would notice.

I don’t get offended, or even bothered when students fall asleep in my classes. I take nothing personally. I know that most of the grumpy and exasperated looks I see in the lecture have nothing to do with me or my class. But not all who stand in front of a room of 100 people, giving their best effort to teach, can ignore it. And, on the other side of the coin, here I was, a very motivated, capable learner, wanting to eek everything I could out of these lectures. And I couldn’t do it.

So this got me thinking about the whole concept of how I learn best as a student, and how that affects my teaching. Sabbatical has given me an opportunity to become a student again. The trip to Colombia gave me a chance to learn about South American climate research (BTW, I never fell asleep at that conference – must’ve been the Colombian coffee). I signed up for this NCAR workshop because I want my sabbatical to move my research in a new direction – which means I need to learn a lot of new things. I’m also planning to take an online statistical analysis course this fall, AND I’m trying to become literate (and, someday, fluent) in Spanish. So it feels like I’ve signed up for a full course load this semester.

How did I learn best in college?

Back in the day, EVERY class I took centered around lectures. I never had to say a word in class. And I loved it. I was good at memorizing. I could remember everything my professor said, I could write very quickly, and spent hours recopying and studying my notes. On exams, I was an expert at regurgitation. I knew how to give the professors the answers they were looking for. I thought I was a good student – and good at learning. But in grad school and beyond, it became clear to me what I was lacking. I had never learned to formulate good questions, how to find innovative ways to solve problems, or how to critically evaluate my work, or that of others. Grad school was a long and arduous chapter of my life because of that.

How do I teach?

Lecture didn’t give me the skills I needed to survive in the world beyond my undergrad years. So, do I lecture in my classes now? You bet I do. Why? It’s the easiest method of teaching. Requires lots of prep the first time, but after that, you’re cruising. You can cover a lot of material in a short time – so it’s not entirely useless.

But I know it’s not the best for my students, so I don’t lecture every day. I mix it up. Activities. Problem solving. Gallery walks. Think-pair-share. I’ve tried the whole gamut of interactive teaching pedagogies, touted in the educational literature as being THE BEST for learning. And about a third of my students really hate everything but lecture because this other stuff goes beyond the traditional comfort zone.

How do I learn best now?

With the advent of the internet (BTW, we hadn’t heard of the internet when I was an undergrad), regurgitation is mostly pointless. Not entirely pointless, as there are many things that are good to have in your head. But I think the application of all that new stuff in your head is the key to really learning. You have to work through some really uncomfortable moments in order to make all that new material really useful.

Until this NCAR workshop, I had forgotten how that feels as a student in the classroom. In addition to the lecture, we had lab practicals every afternoon. They weren’t graded, so it was low pressure. But I got to experience all those little moments of confusion: What are we supposed to be doing now? Why are they having us do this? Am I doing this right? My students hate those, and I understand why. But those confusing moments were interspersed with aha!  moments. The confusion was necessary for the aha!  And that’s where I started really learning.

So, what I ask myself now is: how can I maximize the aha! moments for myself, in this semester of being a student again? And how do I maximize those aha! moments for my students when I begin teaching again? To answer these questions, I need to pay close attention to the activities that help me the most.

As a starting point, it’s helpful to take an inventory of the things that have helped me learn best this summer. So, here they are – my first tips for being a good student – just in time for the start of fall semester:

  1. Digest new material in small chunks. When I study Spanish, for example, I know I can only take on so many new concepts in a week – I need to practice before I can move on.
  2. Immediately use that new material! While attending the NCAR workshop, I had to spend a little time at home each night reviewing the things that were most relevant. But what really helped me was attempting to run the model on my own computer.
  3. Look for many different teachers (or mentors). I need feedback. I need someone to whom I can direct questions. Even if it’s through email. Without a formal class setting, I need to seek out that feedback where ever I can.
  4. Take frequent breaks to run and play. When working alone, I can’t read or write or work with computer code for 4 hours straight.  I think everyone needs to figure out their optimal period of productive time. For me, that’s about 1.5 hours. After that, I have to do something else or I get diminishing returns.

What sorts of tricks, tools, strategies help you learn best?

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