SOCI2000: 1.1 Skills for Successful Learning

Lecture Slides

Slides for Week 1 Lecture

Skills for Successful Learning

I want to take a moment to explain some of the philosophies I try to use myself, and instill in students.

I hope these philosophies will help you get the most out of this course.

1. Mindsets for successful learning

Learning research methods is challenging for almost everyone.

It is important that you know that some mindsets really help successful learning of these skills (and other mindsets really hinder).

Acknowledgement: Much of this section of this lesson is derived from The Carpentries: Intructor Training

1.1 Mistakes are the way we learn

One of the most important philosophies when engaging in learning to embrace the mistakes you make as learning experiences.

Mistakes are:

  • normal, even experts do them ALL THE TIME.
  • learning experiences, from which you can grow and learn (for example, how to find solutions to your problems on the internet).
  • no reflection on your inherent worth.

One of the most important skills you will develop in this course is how to recover from an error.

Even experts know only a small amount of their field.

What makes them experts is they know how to recover from their mistakes, how to ask questions and search for solutions to their problems.

1.2 Perseverance Predicts Success

Another important philosophy successful learners adopt is that of ‘perserverance predicts success’.

Especially in research methods - which can be challenging for many people (including me!) - the important predictor of whether a student will eventually master a skill is whether they show perseverance - what is often called ‘grit’ in the popular literature.

‘Grit’ matters because learning takes time and effort.

Much of this effort is simply practice - developing mastery require considerable time practicing our skills at the edge of our abilities. We need to be stretching ourselves to really improve.

‘Grit’ also matters because learning is about hitting difficulties and then overcoming them. We need ‘grit’ to find a good topic, find the right articles, design good questions, get better at interviews, learn to use statistical packages, and learn to be a good writer and presenter. We need ‘grit’ to find out why our results are different to what we thought they would be. We need ‘grit’ to accept criticism, and get up tomorrow and revise what we thought was a perfect analysis or manuscript.

1.3 Learning requires vulnerability + safety + balanced feedback

Learning also requires us to be able to admit mistakes and to be open to constructive criticism.

We all need guidance if we are to progress.

There are people who understand particular areas of knowledge better than us. And to be open to learning, we need to be open to the fact that we don’t know, that we make mistakes, and we need to be able to take criticism.

However, we all know criticism is difficult to take when the stakes are too high.

When our ego is at risk. When there is a job, or money, or grades on the line, we don’t tend to be open to criticism. We tend to be defensive, and protective. And rightly so.

But this defensiveness is a barrier to learning, and thereby to our own growth.

Thus, the flipside of being open to criticism is creating a safe enviroment in the class room for students to explore, experiment, and practice.

And creating this safe environment is what the next few points are about.

1.4 Avoiding dismissive language

One rule is that we should avoid ‘dismissive language’ in the class room.

What is dismissive language? It is language which ‘makes light’ of a problem, a question, an issue. Dismissive language says you don’t need to take into consideration something or someone.

What are some examples of dismissive language?

  • Almost anytime you use the word “just”, as in “You just need to make the question simple.”
  • “That’s easy”
  • “I can’t believe you didn’t know that.”

What is the problem with dismissive language?

  • It makes light of learning that some people will find challenging.
  • It suggests a level of assumed knowledge, which shouldn’t be assumed.
  • It makes the audience feel stupid, and the speaker feel good about themselves.
  • It is one of the easiest forms of disrespectful, contemptuous, or scoreful behaviour. There are very few social sanctions on dismissive behaviour, and most people can do it and not even think of themselves as rude or arrogant or anti-social.

We need to avoid and reduce such status games - put downs, and putting ourselves on a pedistal - if we are to have a constructive learning environment.

In these classes there is no assumed knowledge which is not worth revising or questioning. We are all free to ask questions about things we don’t understand. And we should all try our best to explain - without condesention or airs of status - concepts, ideas, or skills that other people in class feel they need to understand better.

Asking for questions

One practice I am going to try to implement is change the way I ask for questions. Compare the following:

  • ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ This can be dismissive, and doesn’t encourage questions.
  • ‘What questions do you have?’ Assumes there will be questions. Makes questions normal. It encourages learns to clarify things they don’t understand or don’t agree with.

1.5 Don’t take over other people’s keyboards.

We all want to be helpful, but the it doesn’t help other learners when we do the work for them.

Rule: When you help other students (and when I help students), don’t take over their keyboard. Instead, force yourself to explain everything with words (and if necessary, pointing at the screen). This will help you be more articulate, and it will help empower the other learner.

1.6 Code of Conduct

Another important part of creating a safe and constructive learning environment is to ensure we all treat each other with professionalism, respect, and courtesy at all times.

In many ways the rule for professional, respectful, and courteous behaviour is simple: Don’t be an jerk. As one famous Stanford professor expressed it in a book title: “The No Asshole Rule”

However, it is easier for everyone if we outline what we mean by this in a little more detail.

There is no fixed code for this class, but I will use the Software Carpentry’s Code of Conduct as a reference point for judging both my own and others behaviour.

I’ve extracted the most important sections of that Code here for us all to read:

Extract from The Carpentries Code of Conduct

Expected behaviour

All participants in our events and communications are expected to show respect and courtesy to others. All interactions should be professional regardless of platform: either online or in-person. In order to foster a positive and professional learning environment we encourage the following kinds of behaviours in all events and platforms:

  • Use welcoming and inclusive language
  • Be respectful of different viewpoints and experiences
  • Gracefully accept constructive criticism
  • Focus on what is best for the community
  • Show courtesy and respect towards other community members

Note: See the four social rules for further recommendations.

Unacceptable behaviour

Examples of unacceptable behaviour by participants at any event/platform include:

  • written or verbal comments which have the effect of excluding people on the basis of membership of any specific group
  • causing someone to fear for their safety, such as through stalking, following, or intimidation
  • violent threats or language directed against another person
  • the display of sexual or violent images
  • unwelcome sexual attention
  • nonconsensual or unwelcome physical contact
  • sustained disruption of talks, events or communications
  • insults or put downs
  • sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or exclusionary jokes
  • excessive swearing
  • incitement to violence, suicide, or self-harm
  • continuing to initiate interaction (including photography or recording) with someone after being asked to stop
  • publication of private communication without consent

2. Feeling Overwhelmed: Notice it, pause, then use these strategies.

One of the biggest barriers to learning for everyone is feeling overwhelmed.

When we feel overwhelmed - also called flooded or panicked - we feel a rush of emotions, we loose the ability to think, and we lose the ability to learn.

Overwhelm happens when we try to go too quickly, or we try to reach great highest without getting our fundamentals right.

And when we get overwhelmed, we make life very difficult for ourselves - unnecessarily so.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, the first thing to do is to notice it and name it.

Once you have done this, you can start using strategies to address it.

2.1 Remember learning is like pyramid: Focus on fundamentals, and build up

Learning is like building a pyramid:

  • You build it one stone at a time
  • Getting to greater heights requires solid foundations

When we try to do too much at one time - when we try to build with many stones at once - we get overwhelmed.

When we try to reach great heights without getting the fundamentals right, we can make life very difficult for ourselves - unnecessarily so.

One strategy to address when we are feeling overwhelmed is to check and make sure we understand the building blocks we are using:

And like the pyramid, we need to focus on building on solid foundations. None of us have a perfect education, so don’t feel inadequate or like an imposter if your maths isn’t the best, or you don’t really understand what the difference between mean and median is, or the difference between standard deviation and standard error.

However, while you are NOT an imposter, and you shouldn’t feel inadequate, you SHOULD feel motivated to identify and then try to slowly master the parts of your foundations that are weaker.

In all honesty, Wikipedia is often a good place to start. So is Google. And some basic textbooks.

Take the time to write down concepts, ideas, skills you feel weak in, and take a little bit of time when you are studying - or waiting for a bus or a doctor - and try to brush up.

2.2 Rule of 7 +/- 2: Break learning into smaller lessons with limited concepts.

Building one stone at a time- for a the learner - means we can only learn a certain, limited amount of content at any one time.

Psychologists talk about the rule of 7 - which means that in general we can only keep 7 (+/- 2) new ideas or concepts in our head at one time.

The original study that came up with the 7 +/- 2 rule was actually referring to 7 numbers - phone digits - so we aren’t talking about very complex concepts.

So to learn, what we need do is try to focus on learning a small number of concepts at anyone time.

To faciliate this, I will try to break up our classes into smaller lessons, which deal with a limited number of concepts. We will then do an exercise, before moving on to a new topic.

2.3 Building on Existing Knowledge, and Using Examples, Analogies, Drawings, Exercises

One way to help pass these 7 +/- 2 concepts into our long term memory, and into our deeper understanding is to use various short cuts.

Build on existing knowledge: When we build on existing knowledge - things we already know - we can build on things that are already in long term memory.

When learning new concepts, keep trying to relate them to ideas you have already learnt, or things in your life you are familar with.

Concrete examples: When we think about concrete examples of concepts we are learning, we can capture many moving, interrelated parts into one idea, which can be easier to remember and understand.

Analogies: When we use analogies - parallel phenomena that show similar characteristics to what we are studying - we can apply complex relationships from one domain. For example we might apply the common notion of a ‘chicken and egg’ (two things which are each the cause of the other - a mutually virtuous cycle) to the idea of ‘self-esteem and success’. In this way, the analogy helps us conceptualise the mutually reinforcing relationship of these two concepts.

Drawings: Using drawings can also work in a similar way to examples and anologies, helping us to capture a lot of complexity in a simple diagram.

Exercises: Similarly, apply our knowledge to exercises can help bring all the various moving parts and concepts together in a concrete example, and make learning easier and faster, as well as helping it to ‘stick’ in our heads.

2.4 Breaks

Taking regular breaks is important for our learning. I will try to incorporate at least one or two breaks into each three hour class, to help everyone’s learning.