Category Archives: Learning

Writing Clearly and Multiple Skills

Richard Muller, a professor of physics of UC Berkeley, gave a great response on Quora to a question about majoring in the three fields of math, computer science, and physics. He wrote in length about the need to have a variety of skills. It reminds me of Robert Twiggers‘ emphasis on what he calls polymathic synergy (1 and 2). He cited Robert Root-Bernstein on the varied interests of Nobel Laureates:

Almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer.

That’s a pretty big difference.  

Muller says basically the same thing:

To be really productive in your future life, you will need a broad range of skills. You can’t learn them all as an undergraduate; 4 years is way too short. All that can really happen is that you can get a good solid introduction to a wide range of fields, and that will enable you to develop them over the coming decades.

If you triple major, you will not have room in you schedule to take electives in courses that could trigger a life-long learning in the breadth of fields that will likely prove invaluable to your career.

And he adds how his ability to write clearly has helped him in his own career, writing grant proposals, journal articles, and books. In fact, it was his clear writing in a journal that led to Addison Wesley asking him to write a book on the same topic.

Debunking Learning Styles

The Debunker Club, organized by Will Thalheimer, is focusing on debunking Learning Styles this month and have devoted a page to resources to this end. An excerpt from that page:

Probably today’s most ubiquitous learning myth is that people have different learning styles and that these learning styles can be diagnosed and used in learning design to create more effective learning interventions. This myth has resonated and spread throughout the world’s learning-professional community probably because it hints at an idea that seems sensible — that people learn differently. Unfortunately, there are dozens and dozens of ways to separate people by type, so it’s hard to know which distinctions to use for which learner, for which topics, for which situations. More importantly, the research evidence shows clearly that using learning styles in designing/deploying learning does not reliably improve learning results.

Why is the University Still Here?

Danny Crichton at Techcrunch makes some good points on the difficulty of getting people to engage in online education due to lack of time, motivation, and work-related payoffs:

What the world is discovering is that humans are going to be humans (a discovery we seem to make a lot in startup-landia). We failed to ensure that motivation and primacy were built-in to these new products, and in the process, failed to get adults to engage with education in the way that universities traditionally can.

A Primer on Fountain Pens

Brett and Kate McKay write A Primer on Fountain Pens. They write about the history and anatomy of fountain pens, as well as giving tips on how to use them in writing and taking care of them. They also list reasons to use a fountain pen for writing:

  • It feels better.
  • It’s better for the environment.
  • More economical in the long run.
  • It makes cursive handwriting look better.
  • It makes you look like a sir.

These reasons aren’t particularly  persuasive. However, Melanie Pinola writes on Why You Learn More Effectively by Writing than Typing. She cites different people and research. Not all of hers are that persuasive, either. I’m still influenced by Haas’s (1989) research showing that writers who use only word processing, in comparison with those who use only pen and paper, plan less conceptually, during prewriting, and overall, but they do more local and sequential planning—whether expert writer or novice. Whether or not these findings are true today with people brought up on electronic media, it’s clear that the physical nature of the writing tool shapes writing processes. And it makes sense that using a pen slows down one’s writing more than a word processor, thus providing more time for thinking.

Thus, I can see writing by hand as more conducive to the beginning stages of writing, of forming ideas, and perhaps also of structuring one’s ideas—then moving to a word processor for editing purposes. However, I doubt that I’ll change my own writing habits. I don’t want to write things down once and then transfer them to the computer.

U.S. Students Awful at Evaluating Reliability of Online Science Readings

Benjamin Herold (Digital Education) reports on research by Elena Forzani from the University of Connecticut.

In a study of 1,429 7th grade students from 40 districts across two northeastern states, Forzani found that fewer than 4 percent of students could correctly identify the author of an online information source, evaluate that author’s expertise and point of view, and make informed judgments about the overall reliability of the site they were reading.

The ability to evaluate online sources and their reliability is an essential skill nowadays, so this type of research should inform classroom instruction.

Half of Motivation is Genetic

Scienceblog reports on a study showing that a significant percentage of motivation is genetic: Don’t blame kids if they do not enjoy school, study suggests

A study of more than 13,000 twins from six countries found that 40 to 50 percent of the differences in children’s motivation to learn could be explained by their genetic inheritance from their parents.

Instead, genetics and nonshared environment factors had the largest effect on learning motivation, whereas the shared environment had negligible impact.

And the shared environment had only about a 3% effect. I’m not sure what this means for motivating students in the classroom, but it does make us rethink our approaches to motivation.