Just because you’ve done it, doesn’t mean you’re good at it

The “been there, done that” mentality is very limiting. And it’s all too common.

Our students say that when they might have done a single lab in high school biology. They even want to list the skill on their resume. Sometimes it seems that our students believe they understand a concept just because they’ve heard the term before. Or, if they’ve taken an exam or a course on a particular subject, they now know it and don’t ever need to re-learn it. But, then if you quiz them about it a few months later, they seem to have forgotten it to the point you wonder if they ever really knew it in the first place.

There’s a big difference between exposure and mastery. How do we get our students to appreciate this difference?

Most everyone can relate to the development of physical skills like skateboarding or skiing or tennis. To train the body to complete new tasks effectively takes repetition, practice. I used to play tennis. For hours I hit balls against a backboard, trying to perfect my two-handed backswing. Hundreds of times I tossed balls up trying to achieve a decent serve. Isn’t learning similar?

image from: www.busy-tennis-players.com


Think about organic chemistry or any (other) foreign language. Practice problems. Hours of repetition. With every repetition, we get just a little more skilled. Maybe we can try approaching our teaching the way a sports coach works with an athlete.

I checked out a bunch of sports coaching websites and, basically, there are a number of phases to learning a new physical skill.

1. Cognitive phase: this is when you develop a conscious image of the components of the skill. (The ball toss, the racket wind up, the contact of the ball with the racket, the follow through…). Perhaps this is the phase where we introduce a concept to our students.

2. Associative phase: this is when you practice the components, linking them together to make a smooth, coordinated motion. During this phase, you respond to feedback and make corrections to your process. Doing problem sets, having class discussions, blog posts or writing assignments are ways to practice the concepts and the language of the subject matter. Feedback is important during this phase. The stakes should still be low, however. This would be similar, perhaps, to sports practices, drills and scrimmages, in preparation for a tournament or competition. Of course, in addition to the formal practice, there should also be self-practice, when you work on your own, giving yourself feedback.

3. Autonomous phase: this is when you practice the skill to the point where it becomes automatic. We don’t really do this in most subject areas in a single semester, except maybe the study of a foreign language or maybe the senior independent project. Instead, we go right to the exam or project grade and then move on to the next skill. For most courses, we would likely run out of time before our students reach this highly skilled level.

To perfect a skill requires enough practice doing it right to get it right. Practice in and of itself isn’t enough. You can practice something and perfect it, but it may not be correct.

Feedback is an important component to accurate skill mastery. Both coach feedback (early on) and self-feedback. It’s important to allow sufficient time for the skills to develop. You can’t just have one assignment or one problem set and expect your students to just demonstrate mastery. They need the opportunity to practice and to get better. The feedback, especially in the beginning of a new subject, should not be punitive. Students need the chance to learn from mistakes. When I look back over the graded assignments in my courses, I notice that often the lower grades occur in the beginning of the semester and these early grades often have a pretty large impact on their final grades. I would guess that, if those early experiences weren’t graded, or if there were opportunities to re-work that early material, many more of my students would achieve the goals for my courses and would earn high grades. (Would this be grade inflation or good teaching to yield high achievement?)

If we are really doing our jobs and our students are doing their jobs, most bright college students can probably come pretty close to mastering a subject. But, some may take longer than others, or require more practice sessions.

Maybe the saying should be, “Been there, Doing It Again.”