Thursday, October 10, 2013

You Are Not a Computer

You Are Not a Computer: Why It’s Time to Go to War with your Flashcards

There are the students who struggle in their classes and feel like studying is mostly futile, because they don’t understand the material in the first place. There are the students who ace every class, “get” every lesson right away, and barely have to study.  And then there’s Jenna*.

Katie met Jenna a few months ago, ready to do some final preparation for the SAT II in World History. At the top of the hour, she asked Jenna to explain where she was in the study process, and was immediately hit in the face with a barrage of enthusiasm that can only be mustered by the most overachieving of overachievers.  “Well,” (Jenna takes out her stack of 350 flashcards) “I have Europe, Japan, the Americas, and most of Russia and some of India. I’ve been going through these facts one by one with my mom for two hours each night. I also made a notecard to plan where I would be in my studying by what hour. Those are here.” (Jenna takes out some additional notecards.) “I would say that I have government down, as well as major trade and commerce, fine art, major leaders, and the dates are all very solid.”  (Jenna began to arrange the stacks of notecards into various piles until she was buried in a little notecard fortress. Katie peered over the edge of it.)  “But Jenna, do you think you’re ready? How do you feel?”

“Feel? Um, I feel tired. Also I can’t remember anything about China, no matter what I do. But I did make notecards for...”

WHOA!!! Katie was getting heart palpitations just looking at all of those flashcards. Look, we’ve all known students like this. (Some of us, ahem, were this student when we were younger, and do not have to dig very deep to empathize...) Jenna is a member of a particular subset of students: those who believe that by an insane amount of willpower and brawn (with a splash or six of self-deprivation), they can become the perfect student. For these students, more is more; the more flashcards you have, the more you care about school, and the more hours you put in with those flashcards, the more points you will get on the test. Basically, if you’re not exhausted and super-stressed out, then you’re not trying hard enough.

It should not come as a surprise that these are also often the most stressed out students you can find, because they believe it should be a fair trade: more time should equal more results.  And when that doesn’t pay off, these students assume that their hardware is somehow broken.  So we’re here to set the record straight.  If you’re a flashcard addict, then you’re trying to force your brain to learn in a way that it hates. More is not necessarily more. It’s possible to get better results with way less stress. And you want to take full advantage of everything that makes your brain excellent at learning for humans… because your brain is NOT a computer.

You Are Not a Computer

As Jenna described the way she had been studying, it became clear to Katie that she was actually bragging about this torture she was putting herself through! And that was because Jenna prides herself on being a computer.

From Hal (reference for parents) to the Transformers (reference for students), our culture has given us a new sort of ideal for what “intelligence” is really all about. Computers are the ultimate learners, right? (Speaking from experience, my iPhone always knows what I want well before I do.) So, if this is all true, then it would stand to reason that students in school should try to be like computers. In other words, if you could have no emotions, need no breaks, not require water and never need to sleep, you’d be the smartest person alive. Unfortunately, you do need water and sleep, but you can copy a robot by being a really intense human who barely sleeps and forces yourself to drill flashcards no matter how much you don’t want to. Jenna had memorized her way through the Americas, across the Atlantic to Europe and even through the snowy wastelands of Russia, but now Jenna’s hard drive was maxed out. She couldn’t get the remaining information to stick in her brain, no matter how many times she drilled it, and what was worse, some of the other facts seemed to be slipping away too!

This predicament was particularly stressful for Jenna because the test was in just two days; she was running out of time. And there was no way to know how many more repetitions of this massive stack of flashcards it would take in order for it to finally click.

What Jenna had totally missed was that she didn’t need more rounds of flashcards; she needed to stop the flashcards entirely. No amount of data review would ever make the hard drive in her brain hold those facts. Her studying would benefit far more from an entirely human approach.

You Don’t WANT to be a Computer

Computers are the ultimate learners...of facts. When it comes to lists of random information, nothing beats a computer. But your brain--a human brain--doesn’t do random well. Humans remember things that make sense, so if you find yourself logging insane hours studying and not getting much further ahead, then you’re probably acting like a cyborg wannabe. Quit it, and check this out:

  • Your Brain Hates to Log Data   We’re just gonna say it. Flashcards are the worst thing ever. They’ve always felt like the worst thing ever, but until recently, we all thought they were a necessary evil. As it turns out, according to the latest research, repetition is actually the least effective of all memory strategies! So why is it the one students use the most?!  Flashcards turn what you’re studying into individual bite-sized pieces of data. Which would be great if you were actually a computer. But you’re not. Your brain hates to cram all those separate factoids in. It’s like trying to hold 100 loose tennis balls in your arms. You’re not built for that. In the same way, if you’re just relying on flashcards for all your study needs, then you’re working against your brain and what it wants!

  • The Things that Make you Human are not your Weaknesses, they are your Best Tools  Emotions and feelings do not get in your way when you are studying; they are what can make your study time successful! Know what your brain wants from a study session? Comedy. Drama. Highs and Lows. Spills and Thrills. In short, everything you get from a great story. The human brain is not built for storing random data, but it is built for remembering stories; that’s how we have preserved information since way before we had the ability to record it. So, use your humanness to your advantage. Rather than flipping those flashcards, flip your perspective on studying. Rather than separating your study guide into individual facts, the real work you need to do is in connecting all the facts to each other.

  • You Don’t Need to Clean Out your Trash Folder to Make Room for New Data  Have you ever heard students brag about how they crammed for a test, pulled off a better than average grade and then immediately forgot everything they learned? Probably so. Well, the joke is on them. That sort of cramming might get you through one test, but because of the way human memory works it actually makes the next test harder. A computer studying for a test would want to dump old information, because it only has a limited amount of space in its hard drive. We humans, on the other hand, learn most quickly by connecting new information to what we already know. More information makes things more memorable for you. And best of all, you have no limit on your storage space.

  • You Can Outsmart a Computer Any Day of the Week   Computers aren’t actually that cool. Sure, when it comes to storing data they’re tops, but they are surprisingly limited when it comes to using that data. When it comes to having ideas--writing novels, developing scientific theories, composing music and inventing new technologies--computers can’t even compete. Think about it! At the end of every robot vs. human movie, the humans win by OUTSMARTING the robots, because they can think outside of the box. So there’s the kicker: it’s not better to be a computer. It’s better to have a human brain...feelings and all.

Jenna worked her way through the world history material, and for the first time, she treated the information like one big story—not a single flashcard in sight. She looked for the connections between the big ideas. Why does it make sense that a period of immense oppression and dictatorship lead to the rise of a new leader who emphasizes Confucian ideals and the ability to work hard and raise oneself to a higher status in society? If society was without a leader for a period of time and it was verging on chaos, why would a dictatorship be the logical solution?  Rather than treating the different segments of history like their own units, Jenna turned them into a progression with an emotional throughline, and all of a sudden every piece was connected to every other piece, and it all made one unforgettable picture.
At the end of the session, Katie recapped what they had worked on—and how they had worked. Jenna nodded her understanding in a decidedly less computery way than she had just an hour earlier. As Katie started to mention the fact that there would be no more multi-hour flashcard drills, she heard a soft sniffle in the background. Katie looked up and Jenna’s mom looked as if she might burst into tears. No one likes flashcards; even the most devoted study partner.
Listen, there’s nothing that we enjoy more than being able to move a grown-up to tears. That was a good day. But more importantly, it was a testament to just how trapped most students and parents feel in these old study habits.
So the next time you find yourself bragging about how much pain and suffering you’ve put yourself through in your quest to learn something new, remember that no one likes it when you try to be a computer. Katie doesn’t. Hunter doesn’t. Jenna’s mom doesn’t. And most importantly, your brain doesn’t.



*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Fun things that make Hunter excited: The fact you think you’re like a computer is pretty ironic, because that thought is great evidence of the fact that you’re not like a computer at all. You’ve made an analogy! Thought of yourself and your brain in an abstract way! Try to get your iPad to do that.

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