Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Monotillation of Traxoline

Brad Hoge at the HUNBlog wrote a very poignant post regarding the problems that can come about through lecturing and test making; in this post he makes reference to the monotillation of traxoline: in this post he floods you with jargon from an imaginary field, then quizzes you on the same.

I’ll give you an example from biochemistry, if you don’t feel like reading his post and because it hits so close to home for me:

Regulation of Glycogen Metabolism

The primary mode of glycogen regulation is through covalent modification of enzymes. Protein kinase A is a second-messenger activated member of the phosphorylation system. It in turn phosphorylates phosphorylase kinase, glycogen synthase (inhibiting it), and phosphoprotein phosphatase inhibitor. It is important to note that only phosphorylated phosphorylase kinase works to phosphorylate glycogen phosphorylase, activating it, thereby increasing glucose-1-phosphate concentrations. With reference to phosphoprotein phosphatase inhibitor, it only binds to and inhibits phosphoprotein phosphatase in its phosporylated form. It is clear that phosporylation works to promote glucose synthesis and dephosphorylation works to promote glycogen synthesis.

I was going to ask you some questions about the blurb above, but I think you get the point.

While Dr. Hoge later speaks about this in terms of constructionism, I’d like to deal with it in a different light.

First, I would like to address the nature of teaching; then I would like to talk about the student’s level of understanding.

Pedantic teaching

Sometimes I wonder if teachers know they are being so dull. Sometimes I wonder if they are trying to be confusing. As I try to see things in a better light however, I don’t think either of these is true. Teachers, professors, etc. are quick to assume that students have completely absorbed the content of their previous lecture. Of course, there is a lot ofonus (responsibility) on us to learn the material; however, as with learning a new language, one must first be immersed in the new knowledge, then given time for that new vocabulary to be incorporated into one’s lexicon (personal dictionary).

Ancient wisdom tells us that we must walk before we can run. In terms of knowledge acquisition, we must be familiar with ideas before we can use them. To use the language-learning example, we should learn to listen and read before talking and writing.

Hey, so what does this mean for us (students)?

In the absence of sympathetic teachers/professors, we will have to work to become familiar with the knowledge faster. How can we do this you ask? I’m sure you can feel it coming: We have to immerse ourselves in the content, by listening and/or reading more. Try to assimilate as much of it as possible, but don’t fret too much if it all doesn’t sink in right away. Even that reading, as incomprehensible as it seems, is starting to build those neural pathways in your brain that will lead to understanding.

Stick with it; the comprehension will come. Case in point: You know that biochemistry blurb up there? I couldn’t have written is unless I had a relatively good understanding of the concept. A week ago, I couldn’t tell a phosphotase from a kinase—in simpler words, I couldn’t tell an apple from an orange.

What does this mean for teachers?

For teachers this means, giving students the opportunity to become familiar with these new ideas before making them the foundation of future lessons. Some more ancient wisdom: Build your house on sand and when the winds come, it will be a great fall. (That’s adapted from the bible, by the way.) I realize there are time constraints, but there’s no point in teaching, if no one is learning.

How can one find out if people understand? Try to ask students candidly if they understand the material. Students of all sorts, however, are not always willing to stick their necks out. You may have to probe their knowledge base with key questions. It can be hard, but awareness of the students’ level of comprehension is very important to teaching and learning.

Level of Understanding

I was in one of my labs, and I heard someone say, “Yeah, [that professor] knows too much to explain things easily.”

Initially, I thought this sounded silly, but I realized there was some credence to this comment. When one is at a certain higher level of knowledge, it’s hard for them to speak in terms of a former lower level of knowledge. Its hard to talk about politics simply, if you are so used to understanding and using political jargon, for example.

This is why teaching is such an art. The best teachers have learned to speak in terms of a common lexicon, so that more of their students may have a chance of understanding them.

The highest level of understanding is not when one can explain a concept in a complicated way, but instead when one can explain a complicated concept in a simple, succinct way. (I know there is another ancient wisdom quote that espouses this, but I couldn’t find it.)

For students, this means that we should strive for that higher level of knowledge. When we can explain concepts simply, we truly understand the material.

Often, I find that when my friends ask me about a recently learned concept, they cannot understand what I am talking about. This isn’t purely their fault; my explanation is weak, because my level of understanding is low. Once we augment our knowledge, we can give better explanations. That is true mastery.

So, inspired by the hilarious graph-based comic Indexed, I have decided to create a graph showing the relationship between Level of understanding and Complexity of explanation. (It looks a lot messier than I expected.)

Parabola of knowledge:

So students and teachers alike, remember to strive for the simple and clear explanation: it shows that you truly understand the material, and it will make everyone else’s life a lot simpler in the long run.

If you enjoyed these learning tips and motivational strategies, maybe you'll enjoy the other posts. Please bookmark this page (Ctrl-D) or check out the archive/categories to the right. Better yet, tell a friend! (Click the envelope below this.)

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At 2:54 PM, Blogger Brad Hoge said...

Great thoughts, Joshua. I've sat through numerous seminars by Biochemists, and they've often seemed a lot like your example. One comment that occurred to me while reading this is that as a teacher I often insert vocabulary "in context" that I know students don't know yet. I often don't point out the fact that it's a new word, but act as if I expect them to already know it. I think this accomplishes three things. 1) It introduces the hook for a new concept; 2) it encourages the students to look for this word as they study the material; and 3) it challenges them to be prepared for the next time they hear a word they aren't familiar with. Of course, I always follow the word with the definition, again, in context, and I always try to repeat the word at least three times within the lecture to reinforce its meaning. Not to say that I script my lectures this diligently, but after many years of teaching it is something I've learned to recognize in my style.

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