Building an Understanding
Learning is a process similar to building a house. You aren’t fed the complete picture. Limitations on communication prevent the instantaneous transmission of knowledge. Instead you listen to lectures, read textbooks and take painstaking notes to try and comprehend a subject.
You are fed building supplies, bricks, mortar and glass. It is up to you to assemble the building. Unfortunately, most learning strategies fall into two basic types:
1. Memorization – Instead of building anything you simply stare at each brick for several minutes trying to record its position.
2. Formulas – This is the equivalent to being blind, fumbling around a new house. You can’t see the building itself but you learn to come up with simple rules to avoid walking into walls.
• There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these strategies, assuming they aren’t your entire strategy. The human brain isn’t a computer so it can’t memorize infinite sums teaching speaking skills
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When employing role-plays, debates, topic discussions, etc., I have noticed that some students are often timid in expressing their viewpoints. This seems due to a number of reasons:
• Students don’t have an opinion on the subject
• Students have an opinion, but are worried about what the other students might say or think
• Students have an opinion, but don’t feel they can say exactly what they mean
• Students begin giving their opinion, but want to state it in the same eloquent manner that they are capable of in their native language
• Other, more actively participating students, feel confident in their opinions and express them eloqu
of knowledge without some form of structure. And formulas no longer work if the questions they are designed to solve change scope.
The alternative strategy is to focus on actually using the information you have to build something. This involves linking concepts together and compressing information so it fits in the bigger picture. Here are some ideas to get started:
1. Metaphor – Metaphors can allow you to quickly organize information by comparing a complex idea to a simple one. When you find relationships between information, come up with analogies to increase your understanding. Compare neurons with waves on a string. Make metaphors comparing parts of a brain with sections of your computer.
2. Use All Your Senses – Abstract ideas are difficult to memorize because they are far removed from our senses. Shift them closer by coming up with vivid pictures, feelings and images that relate information together. When I learned how to do a determinant of a matrix, I remembered the pattern by visualizing my hands moving through the numbers, one adding and one subtracting.
3. Teach It – Find someone who doesn’t understand the topic and teach it to them. This exercise forces you to organize. Spending five minutes explaining a concept can save you an hour of combined studying for the same effect.
4. Leave No Islands – When you read through a textbook, every piece of information should connect with something else you have learned. Fast learners do this automatically, but if you leave islands of information, you won’t be able to reach them during a test.
5. Test Your Mobility – A good way to know you haven’t linked enough is that you can’t move between concepts. Open up a word document and start explaining the subject you are working with. If you can’t jump between sections, referencing one idea to help explain another, you won’t be able to think through the connections during a test.
6. Find Patterns – Look for patterns in information. Information becomes easier to organize if you can identify broader patterns that are similar across different topics. The way a neuron fires has similarities to “if” statements in programming languages.
7. Build a Large Foundation – Reading lots and having a general understanding of many topics gives you a lot more flexibility in finding patterns and metaphors in new topics. The more you already know, the easier it is to learn.
8. Don’t Force – I don’t spend much time studying before exams. Forcing information during the last few days is incredibly inefficient. Instead try to slowly interlink ideas as they come to you so studying becomes a quick recap rather than a first attempt at learning.
9. Build Models – Models are simple concepts that aren’t true by themselves, but are useful for describing abstract ideas. Crystallizing one particular mental image or experience can create a model you can reference when trying to understand. When I was trying to tackle the concept of subspaces, I visualized a blue background with a red plane going through it. This isn’t an entirely accurate representation of what a subspace is, but it created a workable image for future ideas.
10. Learning is in Your Head – Having beautiful notes and a perfectly highlighted textbook doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the information in it. Your only goal is to understand the information so it will stick with you for assignments, tests and life. Don’t be afraid to get messy when scrawling out ideas on paper and connecting them in your head. Use notes and books as a medium for learning rather than an end result
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Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any ESL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice. It’s frustrating for students because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Speaking and writing also have very specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills, however they are difficult to quantify.
One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn’t understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying translate a specific word. Some students convince themselves that they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.
They key to helping students improve their listening skills is to convince them that not understanding is OK. This is more of an attitude adjustment than anything else, and it is easier for some students to accept than others. Another important point that I try to teach my students (with differing amounts of success) is that they need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time.
I like to use this analogy: Imagine you want to get in shape. You decide to begin jogging. The very first day you go out and jog seven miles. If you are lucky, you might even be able to jog the seven miles. However, chances are good that you will not soon go out jogging again. Fitness trainers have taught us that we must begin with little steps. Begin jogging short distances and walk some as well, over time you can build up the distance. Using this approach, you’ll be much more likely to continue jogging and get fit.
Students need to apply the same approach to listening skills. Encourage them to get a film, or listen to an English radio station, but not to watch an entire film or listen for two hours. Students should often listen, but they should listen for short periods – five to ten minutes. This should happen four or five times a week. Even if they don’t understand anything, five to ten minutes is a minor investement. However, for this strategy to work, students must not expect improved understanding too quickly. The brain is capable of amazing things if given time, students must have the patience to wait for results. If a student continues this exercise over two to three months their listening comprehension