ironichles (ironichles) wrote,

Stop Pulling the Car before the Goat!

If you've gotten this far you're probably wondering about my sanity, scratching your head about my command of the English language or you're questioning my ability to construct coherent sentences. It's worse than that: I can't construct coherent homework answers and neither can you. It's not your fault, it's not even the fault of our teachers and professors. It is an inherent flaw in how we think and process narratives that makes most coursework more like a class in cryptography.

Here is what I've learned so far. About 20 years ago during my very first programming class I asked the professor this:

  "The assignment says I need to use a Boolean. What is a boolean?"

His answer, which for me has been the paragon of bad teaching, was:

  "A boolean is something that can be true or false".

Although conceptually correct the answer was more than useless. It was confusing and as the very first encounter with a conceptual programming term could have easily lead to a dark path of misunderstanding or worse: not enjoying computer science. I call this type of miscommunication: Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer. How this works exactly and what can be done about it I will explain further on. But first some more real-life experiences.

Most bad teaching can be explained by bad student information processing. Bet you didn't expect that as an excuse. It is true, we generally process information in a very inefficient way, something which has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. In fact I hope to change your mind about what intelligence is.

Entry exams and tests for every school are based on IQ in some form or another. No matter what the vendors of GRE study guides tell you, if you have a higher IQ you will do better on the tests. But that doesn't help you because you can't say: well then in that case I will need to get a better IQ. Think of the process of going through college or graduate school as any other profession for which you need a selection of skills to perform well. If you're a plumber skills in algebra won't help you. Similarly skills in algebra won't help you when you've got turds floating down your bathroom. So you need to discover which skills you have and which skills you need. The answer isn't as straightforward as: 'I just need more math'. The answer: 'I can't do this because I'm not good at math', also doesn't work.

There are many skills that can help you through school you can learn or acquire by putting work behind them: 'patience', 'perseverance', 'caffeine tolerance', etc. But there are two skills that you will need to start thinking about in a different way: imagination and literal thinking. Ironically you need the opposite of these. The best academics, you know those guys who breeze through a test where every question is conceptual and none of the memorized information applies, those guys are non-literal thinkers with no imagination.

You would think that a good or even over active imagination helps you in academia because it allows you to think outside the box. All that lateral thinking business you hear about. A great imagination does the opposite, it makes you think of all kinds of possible representations of the answer to a question (and even the question itself), most of which are so far from the truth that you might as well ask your imaginary friend to help you. In other words, you're spending your energy reconstructing a badly posed question instead of trying to answer it.

How about being a good literal thinker? The stuff mathematicians are made of. You would think this is the best skill to have in the sciences because such folks are not easily put astray by confusing information or non-relevant details. To mathematicians there is ever only one answer to a question, literally. Mathematicians are actually not so much literal thinkers. They are concret thinkers who appear to take things literally. Engineers such as programmers are extremely literal thinkers and I've noticed that most of them have severe problems with higher math. Myself included.

Instead you want to cultivate the opposite skills. During class or when doing homework you want to stop imaging what the answers might be or what they could look like as well as stop thinking literally. Easier said than done, right? If you're like me, an eternal skeptic, then your first reaction when you don't understand a question will be: 'well then the information in the question must be wrong'. Unfortunately in college and graduate school that can happen quite often. On top of that the average teacher are trained to counter the cultivation of non-literal thinkers with no imagination. Most teachers are very very good at their respective fields but very poor at constructing coherent narratives. I would like to share a recent experience with such a confusing discourse. In my final project for a course (which I failed because of the project) the following was tacked at the bottom:


Although the text as-is was completely correct in the appropriate context, the information given is highly confusing. In the first sentence it is suggested to use a different scale than in the second sentence. The two sentences apply to different parts of the project but that's not clear from the text. The example above is from a project given by an extremely competent and understanding professor but unfortunately the course materials and slides were filled with such cases and for someone who has an overactive imagination and who thinks literally it is like going through a mine field with skis on. All you do is figure out what is being said and asked.

So what can we do? We can declare war on confusion and egg salad. Well not the egg salad, that's just a personal grudge. I bet that confused you a bit, but you figured out that I was saying something out of context. Now we're making progress, we're seeing that we can 'decode' unnecessary messages. But in order to do that we have to understand where the lecturer is coming from. Most of them suffer from expert blind spot. They can't explain basic ideas from their field because they've been using them for so long. Very much like the first example about the professor explaining what a boolean is. How can we detect expert blind spots and what kinds of grenades can we use to attack these situations?

Below are few types of well meaning but misleading answers you might get from professors.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer

Back to our boolean question. If I want to explain what water is then a seasoned alchemy professor, uhm I mean chemistry, professor would tell you it is H2O. Correct, but again useless. The given answer tells us that there is a molecule name which differentiates water from other chemical compounds. In other words: it's a why answer. It tells us why water is different from let's say Silicon Dioxide SiO2 (sand).

Although idiotic, explaining that water is stuff that is like sand but is blue, feels cold, and slippery is more helpful. Why? First of all it bypasses the imagination because it is specifically stated what your mind should be seeing. It also helps the non-literal thinker because we're not talking about an animal or plant. The downside? Which teacher ever would give such an answer that made them look like an idiot?

How can we apply this to the boolean answer? What if I told you this: The sotware we write has to make lots of decisions. For example in a video game the player enters a key into a lock to try to open the door. The software in the game decides that the door won't open because it is the wrong key. This is where booleans are very useful. Software applications use booleans to do housekeeping or tracking, it answers the multiple choice question: is the key the right key: a) true or b) false?. It notes down in it's memory: 'false'. When it then goes to try to open the door it sees that the answer to the multiple choice question was 'false' and it won't open the door. The answer for non-imaginitive non-literal thinkers is: a boolean is the answer to a multiple choice question where the answer is one of 'true' or 'false'.

Did that help? I hope so but for this imaginative literal thinker it's hard to come up with good examples. Luckily I don't teach. But we go on, there is more.

  • Answering a 'why' question with a 'what' answer

You see this type of answer confusion a lot with people who are teaching conceptual courses but who are not themselves conceptual thinkers. I have the most sympathy for people who teach like this because chances are they had to work very hard for their position and are proud that they are allowed to teach the complicated material. Here's an example:

Question: Why does the earth revolve around the sun?
 Answer: The earth goes around the sun in an orbit, very much like the moon orbits the earth.

It is an answer but it tells us what the earth does, not why.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'yes' or 'no' answer

Although rare, this type of miscommunication and confusion tends to happen on crucial questions and usually on questions where you are explaining your reasoning to a professor to figure out where your train of thought went wrong. The response is almost always well meant but mostly confirms your incorrect but elaborately constructed fantasy of the best fitting answer. You end up with the professor inadvertently confirming your misconception. It is these types of miscommunication that builds the foundation for a bad start of a course. Once a misconception sets hold it is very difficult to undo and will take a tremendous amount of time to compare and contrast to contradicting information.

  • Answer a question by repeating the previous answer

This is probably the most common unanswer and is used by professors who have absolute confidence in the clarity of their own thinking and teaching. This is perhaps a classic example you might have even heard in physics class:

Question: Why do we have tides?
Answer: We have tides because of the proximity of the moon to our oceans

Question: But how does that influence tides?
Answer: Because the moon directly influences the water in the oceans (duh)

The professor in this case assumes you already know the answer but probably weren't paying attention to his previous stellar blackboard performance. Or even worse and more likely: the person in front of the class has no capability whatsoever to assume the body of knowledge of the people in the classroom. The reasoning behind the answer goes something like this:

Everyone knows what the moon is and everyone knows what gravity is. Everyone knows the earth and the moon have gravity and gravity pulls at like everything, so all I have to say is that the moon is close to the earth and the rest is obvious.

What is left out here are all the other possible explanations we make up for ourselves all of which are equally likely. Yes some of those are probably quite bizarre, especially if you are a literal thinker with an overactive imagination but they are valid explanations and that is the important point. They are not correct explanations but they are valid. They are valid because you constructed them yourself using the information you had. Let me say that again:

Just like there are no stupid questions there are also no stupid extravagant imaginings of possible answers.

There I've said it. The trick is to find enough time to selectively weed out all the explanations that couldn't
possibly apply. That's damn hard and it also takes a damn lot of time. Damn. But how about this teaching technique for good measure:

  • Answer a question by repeating the question

Probably the most common teaching mistake and the cause of non-learning. Here we go, you might find this hauntingly familiar:

Question: what is weight?
Answer: In science and engineering, the weight of an object is usually taken to be the force on the object due to gravity (taken from Wikipedia)

Question: I don't understand, can you please explain what weight is?
Answer: it is the definition that states the relation between an object and gravity.

Annoying isn't it? It sounds like an answer but it is the original question. There have been many cases where I wanted to give a professor a lecture in logic and rhetoric but that would have taken too much time and I'm not a good explainer. Besides people who teach rarely take their own medicine.

  • Withholding the answer

Now  you're dealing with someone who doesn't understand the materials either. You're not losing but you're not winning either because chances are you won't get a good answer no matter what you ask. All you can do is make your own questions very small and very concrete. You will be narrowing down the answer by weeding out all the things it can't possibly be. What you're left with has to be the answer.

  • Using more unfamiliar concepts in the answer than there were in the question

This happens a lot in fields that depend on specialized jargon, which is almost all fields these days. I've heard another student ask my boolean question years later and the answer she got was even worse:

"A boolean is an entity that can take on only the values true or false, which is usually modeled by a binary 0 or 1. But if you have to you can also model it with a string that is set to 'true' or 'false'. It just takes more calculation that way and will be slower if used in a tight loop"

Again the answer is correct, but this answer is even useless to seasoned programmers because the person is describing their hard earned experience not the answer to the question. This type of answer will be heard mostly from people who exclusively live in their own heads. Most of the question/answer disconnects are the cause of some kind of miscommunication but this one is exclusively the realm of: I did not hear what you think you meant you said.

  • Pronoun confusion

I only 'teach' during the summer and only interns who come to us from their third or final year in college. Most of them are computer science majors but no matter what their background is I see persistent pronoun confusion. Professors do this as well but enough bashing on them, what do we do wrong ourselves?

Once someone gets comfortable in an area of expertise (even just a little) the mental model becomes so strong and clear that it is difficult to assume that other people don't see the same thing. You will get descriptions like this:

"I just finished the code and patched the stuff we talked about. The other parts are working well now but it's not connecting properly not sure if it's my stuff or something else".

The immediate question should be: what does 'the' refer to, or 'my'? If you're in a direct conversion about details you're actively discussing then you might have some hope of tracking the pronouns but otherwise replace with actual objects or persons no matter how guilty.

An Academic Survival Guide for Daydreamers

What can you do when confronted by these situations? There is no straight answer. Sorry. It's a survival guide, not a winning guide. It is not like the guides they make for the GRE where they say things like: if you are stuck then first make a list and start eliminating the most obviously wrong answers. If you have a good imagination and are a literal thinker you will see every answer as possibly correct. What also doesn't help is to put yourself in the professor's shoes because then you will start to reason about what he or she was imagining when creating the questions.

I want to split the survival guide into two steps. First of all you need to visually separate what are questions in a statement in a homework or test and second you need to start thinking about the difference between 'what' and 'why'. Here is an example of such a question, which is trickier than it seems:

  Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I'm not going to assume you know the answer, quite frankly I've forgotten the jargon myself at this point. But there are some important confusion triggers we can detect. First of all these are actually two questions. In a homework or on an exam I now always re-write or annotate the question so that you can see it should have been:

  Question 1a: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3.
  Question 1b: What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I think it is reasonable for your imagination to see the second sentence as a guide on how to answer the first sentence. This is something I've done wrong for too long and only recently did I notice I was doing this. Here is how I would have read the question in the past:

Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. Hint: what role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

See the difference? My brain was trying to make sense of the structure of first the question unrelated to its contents. No when I'm confronted by an exam question I do a first pass to find out how many questions there are in a question. THERE MIGHT BE MORE THAN ONE!

Part Two

Also note that we potentially have a 'what' and a 'why' question. The first question relies on memory. It uses the word 'describe'. Your imagination should not kick in. Whatever you do at all costs prevent your imagination from doing anything at all and simply regurgitate. This type of question is best answered by correctly replaying the memorized text you have stored in your head. Golden rule of test taking: if you can score points by memorizing text and diagrams: always always do so.

Question 1b is harder because it is most likely a 'why' question but it could be a 'what' question. You could answer the what question again by listing the facts you've memorized that pertain to both the term DG and the term CA3. Chances are you might get some points for that even though it might not be the dead on right answer. I go for this option mostly.

If we assume question b is a 'why' question we're in dangerous territory. It's begging for our imagination to kick in and construct elaborate theories on how the two are related. We are even able to construct completely wrong but wondeful explanations by using correct facts we memorized. Even if you know the conceptual model underlying the question.

The trigger word is: 'role'. You can, well I can, replace that word with a whole lot of other words and the sentence still makes sense. I could think it says:

Question 1b: What aspect is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What part is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What mechanism is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What construct is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What theory is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What force is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What destructive power is each region thought to play in memory formation?

This is of course a silly example but it does illustrate how the process works. By the time you're at destructive power you at least realized you didn't process the sentence properly. What goes wrong in our brain is that we put the wrong emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. I put the emphasis on 'role', but the emphasis should be on 'memory formation'. Detecting this confusion is possible but finding the right interpretation is not so straight forward, not for me at least. However, once you know what the question means you can most likely answer it well and for most people who struggle with this interpretation problem the problem is not not having the necessary information.

I'm sure you're now itching to find out what you can do to solve these sticky issues. I'm afraid I don't have the answer. After more than 20 years of struggling, including starting and stopping various degrees, I'm no further now than I was back then, I can just describe the signs and signals better. I could blame let's say Dyslexia (which I don't have), or Central Processing Disoder (which I also don't have) or simply Bad Learner Syndrome (which I do have).

If I ever figure out how to approach this issues and become a non-imaginative non-literal thinker I will write a follow-up article. For now I'm going to lick my wounds and not care too much about my latest degree failure and have a beer.
Tags: academics, college, learning, teaching

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