How to learn
How to learn

So I’m learning some fascinating stuff on how to learn and how bad grades might be good. Why it took me til the ripe old age of 29 to figure this stuff is beyond me, but I’ll save the complaints about the education system and my short-sightedness for another article.

And most of this stuff is pretty conflicting. At first it seems unintuitive, but as you wipe away the layers of social and cultural influence, you realise this understanding was there all along.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m on about. Fair.

I think it best exemplified by a short story:

So cadets at the Air Force Academy follow a highly structured and rigorous academic program focused on science, engineering, and math.

Every year, an algorithm randomly assigns green cadets to sections of Calculus I.

To examine how teaching styles impacted long-term learning, two economists compiled data on more than ten thousand cadets taught by nearly a hundred professors over a decade. Every section had the same syllabus, the same exam, and the same post-course teacher evaluation form for cadets to complete.

The economists controlled for all factors so that they could see the difference individual teachers made.

Of course, there was a group of Calculus I professors whose instruction led to the highest student performance on the Calculus I exam. And these professors consistently got the best student evaluation ratings.

Another set of teachers’ students consistently performed worse on exams, and students judged them more harshly in evaluations.

When the economists looked at how these students did on later courses where calculus I was a prerequisite – the results were astounding. The calculus I teachers with the highest average student test scores had the poorest average student test scores in subsequent exams.

‘Professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, ‘the economists wrote, ‘on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes.’ The apparent success was illusory.

By making important connections and challenging students to view the material as it relates to the broader subject context, the professors who caused short-term struggle but long-term ‘deep learning’. They ‘broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material.’

Students evaluated teachers based on how well the preformed on tests contemporaneously. In other words, they regarded best the teachers who most negatively impacted their long-term results.

Students were selectively punishing the teachers who provided them the most long-term benefit. Tellingly, calculus 1 students whose teachers had fewer qualifications and less experience did better in that class, while the students of more experienced and qualified teachers struggled in Calculus 1 but did better in subsequent courses.

As Psychologist Robert Bjork put it: ‘Above all, the most basic message is teachers and students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process can indicate mastery, but learners and teachers need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead, fast but fleeting progress.’

So, now as you can see, the idea that better performance in the short term leads to worse performance in the long term is at once counter-intuitive on the surface and perfectly rational at its core.

The tortoise eventually beating the hare has been etched deep into the depths of our psyches.

We know this, but we don’t act in accordance with it. We want the gold stars, the accolades, the praise, the money, and we want it now.

Now you might think that I’m going to tell you you HAVE to think slow and grind hard so that you get the long rewards.

But I’m not going to.

Ultimately, I don’t think the answer is to go the slow, hard route every time.

We live in a myopic world. A world that wants results now. Even if it means forgoing results in the future.

Your lecturer has KPIs. Your boss has KPIs. Your CEO. Your coach. Everyone does. They can’t wait while you struggle away trying to truly grasp foundational concepts.

I think the answer here is to strike a balance.

Do what you can to create space where you can grapple with complex problems whilst also meeting short term KPIs. If you are careful to track and showcase the results garnered from more challenging work, and can show it provides greater longterm benefits, you may get earn the freedom to spend time on slow thinking.