Pervasive Novice Learning: More is Less

Reading the first two chapters of “How People Learn: Brain Experience and School” made me reflect about my own experiences both as an instructor and as a student.

I’ve always been pretty good at school. I’m what I call a chronic participator: one of those people with their hand always raised. Based on my reading of Chapter 2 “How Expert Differ from Novices” I might just be very skilled at being a novice learner:

Fluent Retrieval does not mean that experts always perform a task faster than novices. Because experts attempt to understand problems rather than jump immediately to solution strategies, they sometimes take more time than novices.

Novice learners often have a large cursory understanding of many topics, without deep understanding of the subject or how it applies to others. In school (and in many professional situations) people are always rewarded for being the first: for having the first answer, the first submission, the first response. Often these responses are not the most thoughtful or even the correct one. I know I often dislike “discussion board” questions where I suddenly find that my “first hand up” classroom response is no longer rewarded and instead I find myself having to gather my thoughts and actually reflect.

I can apply this to my own library instructional experiences as well. Over spring break last year, I was lucky to get to present a “Demonstrating a Dozen Databases” workshop at the New York Public Libraries. It was an hour long session for library paraprofessionals about library databases. In later reflection, perhaps 13 databases in a hour probably wasn’t the best way to teach people about databases. There were certainly many ways to improve the format of the talk, not all in my control, but perhaps if I had sent out a poll of what sorts of databases the audience wanted to hear about, I could have focused on them, instead of trying to cover all kinds of databases I could.

Perhaps more was not more at all. Maybe more databases meant less expert learning, less deep understanding that the audience could pick up with and actually share at the desk. I’m a “good” teacher. I want my students to learn and feel valued and I’m excited with this happens. Perhaps one of the first steps is not to rely on what made me good at school and instead look outside that understanding for deeper instruction and learning.

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About Ilana the Librarian

I am an aspiring librarian at the University of Michigan.
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3 Responses to Pervasive Novice Learning: More is Less

  1. Your comment about novice learners having an understanding of a wide range of topics, but not really being experts on subjects reminded me of our 500 discussion sections this past week. I think one of the problems with information overload is that people have access to so much information that they end up being novices in a lot of subjects and not being experts in anything.

    I also really liked your example of teaching 13 databases in 1 hour. Sometimes teachers have to cram a lot of information into a short time frame because it just needs to be presented. But maybe there are some subjects that can be more focused and taught in a more concise way.

  2. Laura B says:

    I guess I tend to think there’s a time and place for everything–so sometimes that may mean trying to teach (and learn) the basics of 13 databases in an hour, but ought to be balanced at some point (either before or after) with a more in-depth look at one of the databases that seemed most useful, or a different approach all together that discusses the commonalities between all of these databases. Ilana, if anyone was going to be able to pull off teaching 13 databases in an hour, you would probably have my vote. But then after that, I would want to have you slow down and show me certain things again, in greater detail.

  3. You definitely gained a personal insight from this reading–and I think it was a valuable one, and one that’s worth looking at for the rest of the class. Because we are graduate students and therefore probably some of the smartest or at least most academically motivated people in the country, it’s important for us to be really aware of how we learn–but most of us will be teaching someone something at some point, so getting carried away with what makes us effective students is not the best solution.

    I have the same impulse as you, to feel validated by being able to quickly produce a response to a question. I actually find that I do some of my best thinking in fast-paced discussions, whereas I get bogged down and sidetracked when I try to carefully articulate something on a discussion board or other written forum. I think that leads me to reach out to the sort of students who want to discuss things rapid-fire in the classroom, and maybe to neglect the ones who would rather put their thoughts in writing. Hopefully this class will help me slow down a bit!

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