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I know I’m a flake September 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I’m currently grading the essays I have my students write at the beginning of the semester.  The essay is just to give me some background on each student and communicate to me what they’re hoping to get out of the class.

One thing I’m noticing this semester is that there seems to be a large number of students who have mentioned that their study skills and time management may be lacking.  Several students have talked about how they coasted through high school.

In the past, I’ve had a few students make this comment.  This year, it seems very frequent.  I’m not sure why there’s this change, but it makes me hopeful.  If I’m talking to students about their study habits and time management, I think it’ll go much better when they’re actually interested in learning about it.  Otherwise, I suspect they think I’m just like their mom, lecturing them about how they need to get their act together so they can make something out of their life.  I don’t like it when they look at me like that…I get more than enough from my own kids.

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In case I forget… March 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science.
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A couple days ago, someone asked me what the units for conductivity were.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember.  To add insult to injury, when I had the answer (1/(m•ohms)), I felt like a complete idiot.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it in a while and couldn’t remember, it was that I had used it recently and completely blanked out.

Some of the work I do involves different ways of depositing metals.  These different deposition methods result in the metals having different conductivities and surface roughnesses.  I have to model small features such that these things, along with other parameters like skin depth, become important.  Therefore, I often need to perform conversions between what I find in the literature and what my simulation software uses for units.  I’ve written reports and made conference posters where I had to include this information.  So I work with it a lot.

I think the problem, therefore, is that I wasn’t at my desk or I would have remembered.  You may laugh, but there is a lot of research into what’s called “context dependent memory”. (Here’s the wiki article.)  Basically, if you learn something or use something in a particular environment, that environment is likely to cue you to remember the information learned there.

I wish I’d known about this a long time ago.

Remembering facts is easier when you learn them in the same environment where you use them.  Therefore, one way to do better on an exam is to study in the classroom where you’re likely to take the exam.  Or you can use a scent sachet when you study, and then bring it to your exam as the smell of the sachet will help with recall of the items learned while smelling it.  Or something bright red…or…well, basically anything familiar that you can have with you during a test.

I’m not sure what else would have helped in my case, however, given access to my office wasn’t possible at that point.  The fact of the matter is that I have a horrible memory for details.  I write things down.  In fact, I write everything down.  The act of writing things down will help, but not always.  Repetition helps, but I think I have to repeat more than the average person to get it down.  And having children (resulting in a lack of focus) and getting less sleep very obviously has made my memory problem worse.

I have to admit that it’s hard living in a society where recall of facts is equated with intelligence, especially when I was taking classes.  However, I try to remind myself that I have a lot of other good things: intuition, creativity, and motivation are not easily measured on tests, and yet, in my experience, they are often more important than pulling things out of the recesses of my brain.  (On the other hand, you now know why I have such a huge library of technical books.)

So there are ways to deal with it, and it’s not quintessential to get through life…and…I’m sure I would make another point about this, if I could remember what it was.

Testing: the bane of every student’s existence March 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, teaching.
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I just read a press release explaining why people have such a discrepancy between what they think they know and how they can still have difficulty with recalling that information.  It was very interesting to read this because it explained something that has always been frustrating for me: how can I go into a test, thinking I know something, and then miss it?

The press release discussed a couple of experiments that show the following:

1) People associate ease of understanding with ease of recall.  In other words, they think that because something is easy to understand, they will be able to recall it later.

2) What really helps cement things into memory is repetition and struggling with difficult problems.

When I started high school, I had actually planned on going into linguistics, so I took a couple foreign languages.  I found that I didn’t have too many problems with these, but I know I spent a lot of time practicing and having friends quiz me on words.  I also spent a lot of my study time just reading literature or watching videos in those languages, which helped me reinforce what I knew.  There was more of a learning curve when, half-way through, I decided I wanted to do science, but it wasn’t bad.  I even recall finding a more intuitive method for a type of problem in my AP chem class, which my teacher had me explain to everyone, so you know I had to ace that test.

College wasn’t too bad, either.  While testing was pretty regular early on, a lot of the material in my lower-level classes was actually review from stuff I had in high school, so it wasn’t too hard.  When I got to my upper-level physics and math courses, the majority used take-home tests.  My profs were of the opinion that in-class exams weren’t a good assessment of what we’d learned.  Usually exams consisted of problems that were like very difficult homework problems.  Given I’m generally good at figuring things out when not under pressure, this worked well for me.  (And generally, these are the types of skills that, in my experience, have a good bearing on your research abilities.)

Then I went into engineering and started having problems.  No take-home exams.  I was particularly upset after one exam, so I talked to my advisor.  My advisor said that he’d run into the same thing when he started in electrical engineering.  You see, his undergraduate degree was in math education, so he took lots of education and math.  I can’t say much about education, but the focus in math was very similar to what it was in physics.  He told me that the best way to study was to sit down with a problem and redo it.  Then redo it again…and when I could redo it without thinking, I would be set.  He was right.  I spent a lot more time working and reworking example textbook problems and homework problems, and tests became a lot less scary.

After reading this article, I guess it makes a lot more sense now.  I used to think that once I’d solved a problem, I should remember it.  I guess I was pretty lucky because, for the most part, I could remember after one or two repetitions, which only reinforced that view.  Of course, I later became unlucky because I didn’t really know how to study when I got to my MS.  Even if I could recall the process, it was often too slow to demonstrate on a test.  Fortunately, I had a good advisor who was able to help me through it.  Given I’ve seen this with my own students, I plan to pass on this information.

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