Continuing Studies

Something I’ve learned over the years is that I learn better when someone shows me how to do something.  As a teacher I discovered that students had all sorts of learning idiosyncrasies and most of them learned either by reading, listening or seeing demonstrations.  I endeavored to  do all three for students in my electronics courses.  Some simply refused to learn and just ‘wanted the answers’.

Those students who just wanted the answers were the kind who simply wanted to “be done” with college and really weren’t planning on doing anything with their lives after getting finished with their degrees.  One day during a class, after a test, we were going over the test answers after I’d graded the tests and recorded the results in my record keeping.  That particular week we were studying how semiconductors functioned, very specifically we were discussing diodes and P-N junctions.  A diode is an electronic device which passes current in only one direction and blocks current flow in the other direction.  They are used as rectifiers to convert alternating current into direct current.  The concept is actually one of the simplest things you learn in electronics next to resistance, and Ohm’s Law.

One student had asked me questions all week, and I had explained several times verbally how a diode works, showing circuits with current flow, an oscilloscope (which shows the sine waves and the subsequently converted wave forms of half-wave rectification).  Just before the test, this student asked for a review of specific points.  We reviewed with the whole class.  The student expressed confidence that “I’ve got this” and I passed out the test material – basic 30 question tests with 25 multiple “guess” questions and five “essay questions” – asking students to, in their own words, explain some basic concept they had learned this week.

I generally studied my own materials while awaiting students to finish but something told me to look for the “visual feedback” you get from student’s faces and actions.

The confidence of the previously mentioned student began to falter; I could see him struggling with the test so I quietly began walking the room as I often did to get a glance over their shoulders to make sure no one was cheating (something that was very rare in my classrooms I discovered, but did occasionally occur).  The confusion of this student was apparent when he hit the question we had discussed just before the test.  I had actually covered almost every thing on the test before passing it out and I was shocked that as I scanned quickly and walk on that this person was completely lost.

What was *I* doing wrong, I asked myself.  How could I have explained this over and over in the space of a week and given these students essential information needed to understand the material AND pass the test and yet this student was going to fail this test.

Now, the quarter before this one, I had a similar problem with another student who has passed but was barely keeping his grades up in each of his courses.  Was there something happening here I wasn’t getting?

After grading his test – he passed by one question – we begin going over the test.

At that point I realized that the majority of the students in the classroom has gotten 100% on their tests.  To me, that was a measure of 1) How well I presented the lesson and 2) how well the students grasped the concepts.  All but a couple of people, and one in particular were doing very well.  Instead of chalking this up to “poor learning” or “poor teaching” I thought I’d turn this around on the students.

I asked, “Ok, some of you had issues with this concept (which I explained quickly) and I’d like to get an idea where you’re not understanding this.  Would anyone like to share with the class and me what sort of problem this is causing?”

It was enough to get the student in question to say, “Well, I don’t know the answer.”

“What do you mean, ‘I don’t know the answer’?” I queried.

“Well, it’s like this….” and this student regurgitated the exact process of how a diode works, not only from the beginning of the chemistry portion (where you dope different sections of silicone with boron or arsenic to make P or N junctions – but explained electron movement and hole-theory to the class in precise and professional terms).  I was shocked.  He could explain exactly what it was he’d learned.  I applauded him on his knowledge… then he said, “I just don’t know THE ANSWER!”

I prompted once again for an explanation of the “answer”….

So he said, “Ok, its like this.  If I am working in a radio shop for instance and someone gives me a radio to work on, if a diode goes OUT in the radio… what is the answer?  What symptoms does that diode show me that tells me it’s broken?”

The light came on for me.

What the student wanted wasn’t all the theory behind how electronic components functioned; he wanted a set of RULES that told him how to easily fix or repair something.

A communications gap the size of Texas was what we were having.

Today – twenty plus years later I can see this attitude in everyone around me.  No one wants to study a subject and understand it inside and out, they want a pat answers to a series of questions that allow them to move on to something else!  Email messages that contain more than three lines are rarely read.  Even this article will have 2 readers out of 100 who read the entirety of the article because, frankly, it’s “too long” for the limited attention span of most people.

Over the past five years of preparing for our voyage my wife and I have read a multitude of books.  I read, almost exclusively, technical texts containing scientific discussions of how to anchor and keep a vessel safe to operations of diesel engines, to repairs of water makers – among other things.  These books contain math, charts, explanations that put my verbosity to shame.  But I have come to the conclusion that there are those who will never venture offshore because they won’t read anything; worse they WILL venture offshore – without reading anything.

In my estimation today’s electronic communications technology–which has essentially made radio almost obsolete, has taken the fun out of learning, it has forced people who are in the midst of information overload in their everyday lives to skip over anything they deem “extraneous”.  I’ve found that this sometimes even affects me and I tend to ignore long emails, or skip reading attachments when I should probably at LEAST glance at them.

As a skipper of a vessel one must be aware of all that is going on, stand above panic and think through every detail of what one must do to make things work, keep the ship going and to keep the vessel and crew alive.  Fortunately, it’s not flying planes or space ships.  You’re not traveling at high speeds or falling from space (or high in the sky) if things fail on a boat.  However, shorelines get in the way, and winds and blow you into the weather shore, lines break, sails tear, engines get dirty fuel, anchors can get jammed in coral or rock, anchors can drag and winds can blow when you’re not expecting them because you ignored this morning’s weather report; or over slept and didn’t listen to it.

There are NO “pat answers” in anything in life.  There are jobs all over the country that require thinking processes and regardless of how mindless a job becomes (I picture someone installing lug nuts over and over and over and over in a car factory, but even there robots have taken over…) there is some thinking required.

You can make a list of answers for your students so when they are troubleshooting a robot, computer or a space station they can simply check off and when they have one left over that’s “the answer”

I suspect my former student never made it “to the big time” with his degree.  He grabbed some job somewhere that required little thinking on his part.

All to often today in conversations I have with random people I see his “lack of thinking processes”.  They can regurgitate what they hear on television, from a show, or their favorite movie, and can even repeat things they learned in high school or college courses.  But they can’t take two or more related (or even unrelated) concepts and combine those in a logical and reasonable fashion to come up with answers to their questions.

Is there an answer for this problem?  I’m sure there’s a list someplace that can help us “fix” the problem, right?

 

 

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