Why do students dislike studying?
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
...and what we can do about it.
Hello, learner and educator! Whether a school leader, academic head, teacher, parent or friend, each of us is a lifelong learner and educator – and so this newsletter is for you! Through Things in Education, we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.
In this first edition of Things in Education, we talk about why our brain is quick to lose motivation to learn, and how relevance, rigour and fun can make learning easier as well as deeper.
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What makes learning difficult?
“...school was boring when we attended it…”
“...biology is boring because I have to remember so many facts.”
These are two statements that have been made in my presence in the last ten days. These two feelings sum up why students do not like school. They find it boring and difficult. And when something is difficult, it becomes even more “boring”. What makes learning difficult and boring?
Learning is the process of making memories in the brain. This process of making memories is not a simple task for the brain. To learn, the brain needs to think. Thinking is one of the hardest tasks for the brain. For example, try to answer this puzzle question: “A blind man is alone on a deserted island. He has 2 blue pills and 2 red pills. He must take exactly one red pill and one blue pill or he will die. How does he do that?”
If you have heard this question before, I am sure you answered it quite quickly. But if you haven’t heard it before, chances are that you will give up after thinking about it for a few minutes (seconds?). If you had already heard it, you answered the question by retrieving it from your memory, which is easy. But if you hadn’t heard it, you thought and tried to answer the question by using knowledge you already have and the deductive reasoning process that you already know. But this task is very difficult for the brain, and it loses its motivation after some time.
Why is learning so difficult? First of all, there is a lot of information that is sensed by us. Touch, smell, sight, sound, taste, etc. All this information is constantly being fed to our brain. And the brain is great at forgetting.
For example, you don’t feel the shirt that you are wearing right now on your shoulders and hands, but you know it’s there. When you wore your shirt, the brain noticed that there was a shirt, but forgot about it. In some ways it is a good thing that the brain “forgets” some of these trivial things.
When there is so much information coming into the brain from the environment, the brain needs to focus on the information that it needs to learn. When you were reading the puzzle question from earlier, you were curious about it. And that is why you gave it your full attention. So it is the curiosity of your brain that made you focus on the information in the puzzle question. After you read it, your brain tried to recall if you had come across such a question before. If you had, you made the connection between this recently read question and the similar question in your memory. If you had not come across the puzzle, your brain was looking for connections that it could make to similar situations in which deductive reasoning was needed. Can it use any of those tricks to answer the question? Can it use any other information from its memory to solve the problem?
And after a while, when there were not enough connections between the puzzle question and your existing memories, your motivation to answer the question fell, and you eventually gave up and moved on. So the brain is curious, and this curiosity can be used as a motivation to learn. But this curiosity is also fleeting.
The challenge that teachers, parents or caregivers face while teaching is to make learning fun and motivating. One important way of doing this is to present students with a problem for them to solve. There are some traits that this problem should have:
The problem must be real – this helps students think that their learning is relevant.
The problem must be challenging but solvable – this is important to ensure that students don’t lose interest. Students tend to lose interest if the problem is too easy or too difficult.
The problem must induce curiosity in the students.
The problem must allow students to recall previously learned information and make new connections with already existing memories.
Apart from the problem itself, some classroom management and pedagogical strategies can also be used to keep students’ motivations up. We use these principles in creating lesson plans, conducting classes, and also training teachers. Recently, we had a course on Forensic Science which incorporated a lot of these strategies. You will read about that below.
P.S. The solution to the blind man puzzle: The blind man cuts and eats half of each pill that he has.
Motivate students through relevance, rigour, and regulated fun!
The Regal Aureate Vase, housed at the International Museum of Royalty – a sprawling space with the strictest security – has gone missing from its case, overnight. No alarms were triggered, no footage captured – the masterminds had well-laid plans. The vastness of the museum had consumed the sound of the shattering glass, and the robber (or robbers) had disappeared into the night. You, the forensic expert, are tasked with identifying and analysing evidence – evidence that can lead us to the suspects and help us retrieve the stolen artefact. Where will you begin?
As students note down the facts of the case, their minds overflow with ideas and theories – Maybe it was the security guard! Maybe someone within the museum! No, a visitor who stayed behind and hid till after hours! These are theories (I remind them). As forensic scientists, we must begin with facts. Fact to theory, not theory to fact, remember?
So, what facts do we know? That a royal vase was stolen. That the crime took place at night. That no one heard anything. That no footage was captured. That the glass case was shattered. Good. What next?
Did the vase have a tracking device in it? No, unfortunately not.
Let’s talk to all the people who visited the museum that day! That’s hundreds of people. How can we narrow our search down?
I don’t tell them it’s not a good idea – I let them think about why it’s not a good idea.
We can watch the CCTV footage from that day and see if any visitor was behaving suspiciously! Good idea, and we can definitely do that. Yet, there’s some immediate evidence you’re ignoring. What about the crime scene?
But there’s no footage of the crime. The criminals had done something to the cameras… True, but there is evidence beyond CCTV footage. What other evidence could the criminals have left behind?
Maybe one of them dropped their wallet? Ah, no, they were very careful.
Fingerprints! Maybe they left behind fingerprints. Great point! We can do a fingerprint search – but hundreds of visitors pass through the museum every day. How will this be a problem?
Umm, even if we find fingerprints, they could belong to visitors and not the criminals… True. What other evidence can we look for?
… [silence] … What’s the most noticeable feature of this crime scene?
Asking carefully-worded questions to drive the conversation in the right direction is key at this point.
The missing vase… And what else? What about the state of the scene?
The glass case is shattered … Right. Any chance of finding evidence there? (Almost there…)
DNA? Hmm, what will give us DNA evidence?
Umm, maybe one of the robbers got cut by the broken glass. So if we find blood, or even a piece of skin, we can get DNA… Great! Let’s look!
After a painstaking search, a few drops of blood are found on some of the pieces of glass. It seems that the robber or one of the robbers was indeed cut by the shattered glass! (It is important to note here that students don’t actually look through shattered glass or for blood – this information is given to them by me, the course instructor.)
Yayy! So now we can find the robber! How?
With DNA evidence! Yes, but how? How will we get the DNA from the blood?
Umm, in the lab? Correct, but that’s the answer to where? My question is how?
We take it out of the blood and examine it… Okay, let’s start over. Where is DNA found?
In cells? Yes, in cells. Can you see cells?
No… But we can under a microscope! All right. What about DNA?
Yes, yes, under a microscope! We can see DNA under a microscope and check who it belongs too! Hmm, all right, let’s try to see DNA.
This is followed by a DNA isolation activity, where every student uses his or her own saliva and simple chemicals including dishwashing detergent, salt and ethanol in a test tube to isolate a spool of DNA. At every step of the activity, I explain to students how each chemical is interacting with the cheek cells present in their saliva to get the DNA out. The spool of DNA they see in the test tube is a small mass of white, barely visible and impossible to study.
The students are stumped. Finally, they concede that we cannot study DNA just by looking at it.
But this setback only makes them more curious – because their ideas are never dismissed, and they understand the science and evidence that proves them wrong. Their motivation to figure out DNA and find the robber is stronger than before.
Another discussion full of carefully-worded guiding questions follows, and students conclude that the answer probably lies in the structure or chemistry of DNA. Now, their motivation is sky high, and the science-heavy discussion about the structure of DNA is full of energy and curiosity – after all, we must catch the robber!
To make the difficult subject of DNA structure more accessible, we build DNA keychains, each bead representing a specific sugar, phosphate or nitrogen base in DNA. This is a fun and lighthearted activity to give students a break from cognitively-demanding discussions but still ensuring hands-on learning. It helps students understand that DNA is a double helical molecule that has repeated units of sugar, phosphate and nitrogen bases, and that the sequence of nitrogen bases gives specificity to the DNA.
Now, with a clear understanding of the structure of DNA, students conclude that if we can somehow see the sequence of nitrogen bases in the DNA found in the robber’s blood (and match it with that of suspects), our problem is solved. Yet, the questions remain – How do we see these proteins of these impossibly tiny structures? What do forensic scientists do in the labs to match DNA samples? We need to figure it out before the robber gets too far…
Memory Is as Thinking Does: In this fantastic article, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham talks about learning as a product of what students think about.
Knowing What We Know: This article by the same author explains why students are commonly mistaken about what they know and don't know.
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