Introduction Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Learning to Learn

Discovering your weaknesses
How to discover what it is you don't know
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't. It's knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it's knowing how to use the information you get." -- William Feather

Welcome to the second part of Learning to Learn. In Part 1 I hope you realised that trying to learn a topic by devoting units of "time" is not the best approach although it must be acknowledged that it does work for some people. If you think that this applies to you then that's fine. As I hope you read in the disclaimer, the last thing I want to do is move you away from a learning strategy which works for you. For the rest of us, and note that I include myself here, the reasons for this waste of time are probably very complex and would require a masters degree in Advanced Behavioural Science to understand. If, though, we abstracted the essential points, produced a summary of these and then summarised the summary we could save a lot of time and just say that it was just plain old boring.

One alternative to being a time-slave is to be task oriented but in order to accomplish this you need a list of tasks. These "tasks" represent the stuff you need to "learn" and the first trick of learning is knowing what they are. So in this part of Learning to Learn you will discover how to discover what it is that you don't know.

We can even take this a stage further and apply it to the concept of critical thinking as you will discover.

How do you know what you don't know?
I know this sounds odd but it's actually a much easier question to answer than asking what it is that you do know. If you have trouble with this then try writing out a list of the stuff that you "know". See what I mean? But the important bit is that, if you write down what it is that you don't know then you have produced your list of "tasks". Now all you need is a method for finding out what they are.

Teaching reveals weaknesses
Have you ever wondered why it is that teachers seem to know an awful lot about the subject they teach? It is way too simplistic to say that they are just brainy swots who enjoy boning up on obscure facts so they can show off.

OK so they probably are brainy swots but the reason why they always seem to have the answers has got less to do with a desire to impress and a more to do with the naked, gut-churning fear that one day some brainier swot in the class of little oiks in front of them is going to embarrass them by poking their hand up and either asking a question that they can't answer or pointing out that what they have just said is a right load of old tosh according to an article they've just read in this month's Journal of Incredibly Hard Sums.

The simple truth is that in order to teach a subject you really do have to know and understand it in the greatest possible depth. In the universities the maxim that "research informs teaching" acknowledges this very point. This then provides us with a means of discovering what we don't know.

Could you teach?
I'm not suggesting that you should become a teacher but it would be useful if you thought for a moment what it would be like if you were asked to explain something to a class of students maybe just a couple of years younger than yourself. Imagine that you have just left a lecture in the Medical School on the "Application of differential ion concentrations to spike potential propagation" and you discover that the biology teacher in your old school has invited you to give a talk to his class of 15 year-olds and that "Why is the sodium concentration inside a cell different from outside" seems like a good subject.

Frankly, you should be quite capable of explaining this in terms that a 15 year-old would understand and if you can't then you don't understand it yourself. Pause for a moment and think about this ... ... ... ... ... I am not exaggerating or being in any way unrealistic. You are not being asked to explain advanced rocket science to someone who can't even do simple arithmetic. You are being asked to reduce a reasonably straight forward scientific principle, something about which you are expected to be pretty knowledgeable, into something averagely intelligent people can understand. Obviously you can't rush straight in like a bull in a china shop and start wittering on about electrochemical gradients and the like or you'll soon find yourself staring at a class of zombies. The trick is to know what they should already be comfortable with and take it from there using words they will understand and drawing good and clear diagrams on the blackboard. But I hope you take my point.

Well, not many students ever get invited back to their old school to teach a class so clearly this example is a little far-fetched. Anyway even if you did you would more than likely make a complete dog's breakfast of the job not necessarily because of lack of understanding of the subject on your part but because you are very probably completely inexperienced at speaking in public to a large group. How you would improve your presentation skills is an altogether different subject and not something we should concern ourselves with here but we can abstract the principle and turn it to our advantage by doing away with the public speaking side of things and putting you in a much more comfortable situation.

The "Could I teach this to mum?" test
Instead of asking yourself "Could I explain this to a class of 15 year-olds?" ask "Could I explain this to my mum or my dad or my kid sister?" Could you sit down round the kitchen table and using a pen and paper explain membrane potentials to your mum. We have to assume here that your mum is an averagely intelligent mum who hasn't just been awarded the Nobel Prize. If she has then use your dad or kid brother. The point is that whoever you imagine yourself explaining things to has the time to listen, is sympathetic and wants to learn and that you have put yourself in comfortable and familiar surroundings such as the kitchen table.

Putting the theory into practice
Right, we now have a means of discovering what it is we don't know. We ask ourselves if we could explain it to mum. What we need to do now is do adapt it a bit and turn it into something useful.

What you have now is an underlying purpose for reading your lecture notes. As you read through your notes you constantly apply the mum-test and I do mean constantly. Using the example above about the distribution of ions across biological membranes ask

1. could I explain to mum what an ion is?

2. could I explain diffusion?

3. osmosis?

These are all very basic biological terms but do you understand them sufficiently to be able to explain them to an interested and intelligent third party? If your answer is "No" then you don't understand them yourself and you had better do something about it pretty quick because they are the principles on which much more complicated concepts are based.

Keep a pencil and paper handy and when you apply the test and discover that you don't know enough, make a note of it and then carry on reading. Hopefully the list that you end up with after reading through the notes made in just one lecture will not be too full of the very basic stuff but I'd like to bet that a few terms would be there that might surprise you. The reason is that we are all guilty to some extent of thinking that we do know what a word means if we see it frequently and have never bothered to look it up in a dictionary the first time we saw it. You know I'm right don't you? And if you think I'm wrong, how many of you reading Part 1 glossed over the word "didactic" because you either thought you knew what it meant from the context or just couldn't be bothered to find out what it means because you are lazy?

Don't panic
This can be a pretty brutal exercise but you have to be entirely upfront with yourself otherwise you are wasting your time. To begin with you might get a little worried that all you are writing down is a list of fairly familiar terms which if you were honest, you would be embarrassed about. Your list will also include some concepts as well but try not to include the very large concepts. Break them down into bite-sized pieces or, to put it another way, make molehills out of mountains. The well known salami-slicing technique.

For a course in Cell Biology, for example, your list might look like:

1. osmosis
2. endoplasmic reticulum
3. ribosome
4. tRNA
5. mRNA
6. donnan equilibrium
7. electrochemical gradient
8. membrane

I could go on and likely your list would be longer but there's enough there for me to make my next point which is that your list will contain a fair old mix of simple and complex terms and concepts. Make sure that you break down the very complex stuff into a number of smaller, more easily digestible bits. Advice on eating an elephant; do it one bite at a time.

Work the list
Now you're ready to do a bit of work on the list because you need to arrange things into some kind of logical sequence. For example it is silly and pointless trying to understand Donnan Equilibrium if you don't really understand diffusion, electrochemical gradients and membranes. Similarly you'll never understand electrochemical gradients properly unless you're comfortable with diffusion and what is meant by an ion. Get the idea?

So spend a little time putting the list into some kind of order but don't dwell on it, 5 minutes should do for a list comprising 30 items. Also, don't worry about getting it perfect first time, you can always modify it as you go along.

Congratulations! You have now discovered what it is that you don't know and, what is more, you've made a list. This is a list of your tasks. What you do next is work through the list systematically with dictionaries and textbooks to hand. There is more, as you will discover later, but now it's important that you learn not to confuse knowledge with understanding. First, however, a small digression which I hope you will find illuminating and not, I hope, uninteresting. It is certainly relevant.

How do they know that?
Although I said in the introduction to Learning to Learn that the science of "learning" is awfully complex, any student of the subject quickly discovers that at least one aspect crops up early in their studies and keeps on popping up at almost every turn. I'm talking about something called "Bloom's Taxonomy" and the fact that you keep on bumping into it wherever you go is pretty good evidence that it's more or less mainstream thinking. So what is "Bloom's Taxonomy" and what has it got to do with learning?

Bloom's Taxonomy
This is a little digression, but bear with me because I think it's important. Although few of you will have heard of Bloom's Taxonomy you have all , indeed are now, participating in courses which have been designed according to its basic principles. What surprises me is that few teachers have thought to tell you about it yet by understanding what these principles are you will be better equipped to understand what is expected of you. So here goes:

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom headed a group of educational psychologists who developed a classification of levels of intellectual behavior important in learning. This became a taxonomy including three overlapping domains; the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. I know you aren't going to look up "cognitive" so I'll tell you that "cognition" is defined in the OED as "The mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired". Without worrying too much about the other two, cognitive learning is demonstrated by:

1. knowledge recall

and the following 5 intellectual skills

2. comprehending information
3. applying knowledge
4. analysing and organising
5. synthesising data, choosing among alternatives in problem-solving
6. evaluating ideas or actions.

Does this sound familiar? It should or we've not been explaining ourselves properly because the acquisition and use of knowledge is predominant in the majority of courses. Bloom identified six levels within the cognitive domain, from the simple recall or recognition of facts, as the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, to the highest order which is classified as evaluation. You should note that factual recall is just the lowest level and doesn't even warrant being classified as an intellectual skill.

Keep with me now. We even use Bloom's work when we set examination questions. There, that's brought you back I bet. So what are our expectations of students at these different levels and what words do we use to assess them? Read on.

Refers to the observation and recall of information; knowledge of dates, events, places; knowledge of major ideas.
You may be asked to: list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.

Refers to understanding information; grasping meaning; translating knowledge into some new context; interpreting facts; comparing, contrasting, ordering, grouping; inferring causes, predicting consequences
You may be asked to: summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend

Refers to the use information; using methods, concepts, theories in new situations; solving problems; using required skills or knowledge
You may be asked to: apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover

Refers to seeing patterns and organization; recognition of hidden meanings; identification of components
You may be asked to: analyse, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer

Refers to the use of old ideas to create new ones; generalise from given facts; relate knowledge from several areas; predict; draw conclusions
You may be asked to: combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, ask what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalise, rewrite

Refers to comparing and discriminating between ideas; assessing the value of theories; presentating; making choices based on reasoned argument; verifying; valuation of evidence; recognising subjectivity
You may be asked to: assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarise

Here's the point
It must be abundantly clear that arranged as they are these skills represent an increasing order of challenge from the mere acquisition and remembering of facts at the lowest level of achievement through to the synthesis of new ideas and the evaluation of evidence at the highest end. Much of what we cover in our learning includes the first 5 of these and, while not immediately encompassed by the mum-test, flow naturally from its use. Well almost.

We can however, slightly extend the mum-test to incorporate the requirement for critical thinking which lies at the heart of the skill of "evaluation" by asking not "how do I know that?" but simply

"How do they know that"

and by applying this simple question to the conclusions made by the authors of work you are asked to assess. So instead of just accepting, well, almost anything really from the simplest to the most complex proposition, it is always worthwhile questioning not only the conclusions but also the reasoning which lies behind the conclusions and the very reasoning which lies behind the justification for the work or research in the first place.

And finally
I may be accused of being an old cynic but I'll finish this part of Learning to Learn with a couple of thoughts which pass through my head quite often.

I'm a glutton for news, I can't get enough of it so my radio is tuned to a news stations rather than a music station. If it's not too much of an insight into my home life I'll volunteer the fact that my radio-alarm wakes me each morning with either the Today programme on Radio 4 or The Breakfast Show on Radio 5. Often, there's news of some interesting medical findings.

"And here's Professor Anne Recksia from Edinburgh to tell us about her research into dieting"

Why, I ask myself, has Radio 5 got itself interested in this? And the answer in most cases, where the research is way incomplete and the findings interesting (?) but insubstantial is found in the very words of Professor Recksia which usually go something like:

"Yes, well the answer at the moment is that we don't know. That will require much more work"

So why are we being bothered by being told about more work that needs to be done rather than the results of a proper and substantial piece of work which is about to be published in Nature? I'll tell you why, it's because the erstwhile Professor's taking part in a PR exercise designed to stir up interest in her research because, well because she's got a nice fat juicy research grant proposal currently being considered by the Medical Research Council or the Wellcome Foundation. That's why.

And finally, I did say there were two things I'd leave you with, remember, there's our newspapers. Every time I read anything, that's anything at all, in a newspaper or hear it on the radio news or the TV news, the first question that pops into my head is:

"Why does the editor of this programme want me to hear this or to believe that?" followed, almost immediately, by "How do they know that?"

Cynique et sceptique?


Mais oui!

OK, that's enough of that and I apologise for that rather lengthy digression but I hope you found it worthwhile. Now we need to get on with understanding the difference between facts, knowledge and understanding whatever that is.


Part 3 Knowledge does not equal understanding.