Are we Lazy Learners?

As part of my research, I am sometimes required to pay a visit to hospitals in the area to observe learning and teaching in the clinical environment. This sounds more grandiose than it is, so to distil it down: I watch teachers teach. This is always a fun and interesting task – I get to play-act as a medical student for the day while having none of the real world pressure of passing clinical exams, or, inevitably, saving peoples’ lives. With this in mind, I set off that particular autumnal morning with my notebook and coffee flask to clamber onto the rickety shuttle bus and play pretend at a hospital across the city.

I spent most of the day the sole calm member of an otherwise very nervous group of medical students, watching them take patient histories and attempt not to be bowled over by medical staff. This 6 week placement was their second of many more to come, so they were still awkward and tentative, slow in their hesitant shuffling through the corridors – very visibly juxtaposed with the rushing of smiling nurses and frowning junior doctors (wondering why they were frowning? this is why). They scurried through each ward looking for free patients to ‘clerk’ (to take a medical history), which they would then write-up, furiously making sure they recorded every tiny detail.

When I got down to chatting with these students, the main conversation topics were invariably exams – no surprises there – and their lack of teacher instruction each week. I must admit, I found the latter concern strange, interjecting: “Isn’t that the point?” I thought surely after almost two years of medical science lectures and poking needles into plastic arms, they would want a taste of the real thing. I thought they might want to be set free. I couldn’t be more wrong. They unanimously agreed that they wanted more supervised seminars and teacher led ‘ward rounds’, as preparation for their upcoming practical exams.

After talking to one of the resident doctors that day, I was told that this was a common response and that all the learners from that year group wanted more teaching, or, as they called it, “mollycoddling”. At a time where self-direction, discovery and action was required, only reservation and a cry for a shepherd could be heard from these young learners. Despite a disdain for lectures and teacher centric styles of instruction, they still wanted to be told what to do.

I knew from conversations with other medical educators that this stems from the ‘tick-box’ culture infecting modern education. Students are chewed up and spat out, uniform and undistinguished by the curriculum, in an attempt to ensure standardisation across the board. Students cry out for feedback, for a standard to bounce off, and are generally rewarded with such poor, unimaginative feedback practises that they don’t even want it when they get it.

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Photo credit: Conveyor belt 2 by Jon Rogers

It got me thinking: would I have really been any different at their stage? Well, no, probably not. Am I occasionally guilty of relying on a higher positioned instructor to tell me what to do? Most definitely. The hardest skills to learn are those which make the most enviable people successful: self-motivation, self-direction and self-regulation. Notice the recurring ‘self’. Have you ever wondered why there are so many ‘self-help’ books? Titles including, and not limited to, “The Secret”, “Black-Box Thinking” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. These kinds of books pretend to be clandestine by letting you in on the “secret to success” which only the author can omnisciently deliver.

These books are interesting and attractive because it really would be nice to sidestep the odious task of personal development through experience and critical reflection. Sign me up! Being a postgraduate researcher, I’d hazard that I’d be one of the first in line for such a solution with a crowd of similarly inclined comrades.

As the shuttle bus jerked and veered in heavy traffic back to the Medical School, I thought back to all the research literature I’d read months before about the behaviours of successful learners. Supposedly, the most successful students:

  • Set goals which were specific and clear.
  • Have clearly defined strategy for achieving their goals.
  • Can accurately monitor how they were progressing on any task and make
  • Reflect honestly on their actions and can make positive
  • Attribute their success/failure to themselves.

You may observe that these skills are contained within the individual. Ironically for a student looking to their teacher, it turns out it’s all down to you. We can only be led for so long: at some point after A-levels, or even university if you’re lucky, we must learn to operate independently as well as with others and under instruction.

There are no negatives to this kind of self-improvement. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy – don’t be fooled into thinking I am of those all-knowing authors. I have had my own troubles with self-directed learning (just ask my supervisor). Time, effort and opportunity are all ingredients required in differing doses to regularly improve ourselves, and we can’t always consistently find equal amounts of each.

So, are we lazy learners? I can only speak for myself, and a small sample population of medical students, but I would say no, we aren’t. It is more apparent that we are strategic ‘surface learners’, meaning that we learn only what we need to learn to pass a standard, such as an exam. Whose fault is this? Is it the draconian method of assessment that doesn’t inspire, or it those pesky, alcohol saturated students? I think a bit of both. It’s one thing to stare down the road less travelled, and understand the benefits of such a challenge, and another thing entirely to make you take the first step.
I will give the advice echoed in most of the books I mentioned, and yes, it’s nothing new. Take the initiative: Take control over your own learning to achieve your goals. Get out of your comfort zone: It’s rare that opportunities come delivered to you wrapped up in a sweet little bow, so get out there and say “yes” to a few more things. Don’t be a lazy learner: never be content acting as a passive vessel of information. Question more, seek new approaches and think outside the box, and above all, concentrate on growing as a person, not as a manufactured product of an educational machine. Vive la revolution!

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Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

The incredible power of you.

Meta-cognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ means something different to everybody, beyond its literal definition. What is profound is that it operates in real time, it is impossible for us not to be consciously aware of what we are doing and like us, it is active. It is how we learn and it gives us an insight into how we view ourselves, which is an interesting and yet unnerving notion. The privacy that comes with meta-cognition is like nothing else, that constant dialogue and self-talk going on in your mind is almost separate from your physical self never mind other people. Writings on meta-cognition go as far back as Aristotle and is still discussed widely today; there are evolutionary psychologists that imagine meta-cognition as a survival tool. As you can imagine there are a number of different avenues I could explore in this post, instead I will talk about what it means to me as an individual who spends a lot of time sitting and thinking rather than…you know…doing.

To me, meta-cognition encroaches upon everything I know. It has given me constant opportunities to adapt every step and stumble in my life, large or small. Being actively aware of the things I enjoy or dislike has, as a sum total, made me into the person I am today. I have gained control of my life in a way that I never thought possible and learnt how and why I love the things I love. As a result, I have moulded myself into what I want to be (at least right now) through constant ‘touch ups’ directed by my own meta-cognitive thoughts and adjustments to my life.

I felt the power of meta-cognition most significantly when I started university. The ability to manage yourself can be incredibly freeing and transcendental as a young person since you’ve spent nearly 80% of your life under someone else’s ‘rule’ to an extent. Some of us do not manage well under these circumstances and are back home from university every weekend or inevitably drop out, I was lucky enough to thrive on my own and with friends and continue to do so today. There is the other end to this continuum; In fact, I prefer to be on my own most of the time so I suppose you could say I self-manage a little too well!

Self-awareness has also taught me a lot of unsettling things, things which you don’t understand are wrong until you are much older but can have a rudimentary awareness of at the time. My awareness of sexism wasn’t something I was particularly engaged in until a few years ago. I wasn’t an outright, outspoken misogynist but I made a lot of sexist jokes which I never believed to be problematic. As I learnt more about it I felt suddenly shocked at what I was saying or thinking, suddenly my light hearted jokey comments made me feel sick to the stomach. I found myself having a small conversation in my head about what I was doing and why I wasn’t okay with it, like two different people. Meta-cognition helped me challenge my beliefs and perceptions to many other issues, but that one resounded within me. It is painfully honest, you can’t escape your own thoughts and feelings, all you can do is learn and be better.

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I think everybody can be more meta-cognitive and aware of themselves, it allows us to carve out our own niche and concentrate on our own thoughts rather than the thoughts and whims of others. They have their place but you have to come first in most cases. We invariably get caught up in how we can be special to the world, we forget the first step to achieving all round happiness is to appreciate our own nuances and love ourselves first. I think if you concentrate on how YOU work, you’ll be more equipped to love and be loved in return.