Learning is like athletic training

It really is.

The main goal for any kind of sport training is to improve performance. Be stronger, faster, have more endurance, be more accurate.

image from: http://serviceprofessionals.com.au/blog/practice-the-7-sales-training-tips-of-sales-success

Likewise, when learning a new subject matter, like physiology for example, the goal is to improve your understanding of the subject, to master the fundamental concepts. It takes practice and training.

If we approach our teaching as though we are an athletic trainer or coach, here are some ideas about how we might proceed:

  1. First, we’d want to know what previous knowledge our students have in the subject. This is analogous to figuring out someone’s level of experience in their sport. I’m going to use swimming as my example. You’d first have your team do a little swimming to get a sense of their strokes, timing and endurance. Likewise, for your students, you might have a diagnostic quiz or problem set or short essay to get an idea of what your students bring with them to your course.
  2. For swim training, you log thousands of laps. Some of them are timed intervals, some are relaxed and easy, some are long and grueling. With some practice sessions, you offer tips and focus on trouble spots like flip turns or kicks. With your students, give them opportunities to delve into the material in-between class sessions. Send them emails, videos, get them thinking. Give them practice in class answering questions pitched to different levels of difficulty. I often intersperse questions to get them thinking and talking in pairs. I tell them these are practice exam questions and they tend to take them seriously.
  3. Often with swim training, other types of exercise like running and strength training, are added to augment the level of overall strength and fitness. This cross-training provides an overall boost to their swim performance. Likewise, encourage your students to explore areas of your subject that are of personal interest. Help them make connections to other areas of their academic and personal lives. You can have them identify websites, videos, news stories, that relate to an aspect of the course material.
  4. In addition to the grind of daily practice, swimmers hone their race skills at swim meets. These events are fairly high stakes. The trainer gives advice, but mostly has to watch the results of the training. Sometimes your swimmers improve their times, swim a good race. Sometimes they don’t. Likewise, exams or high-stakes assignments are the time for your students to show what they’ve accomplished. Sometimes they will be disappointed with their results. And here is where the trainer analogy is helpful. The exam, like the swim meet, is a challenge that sometimes show that more work is needed, more training, more practice. Or, it reveals that the type of study and learning strategy isn’t achieving optimal results. Students need to intensify their training, change their approach. There will be other meets, other exams. In the meanwhile, keep training. Your job as the trainer is to motivate your students, provide them with opportunities for practice and provide useful feedback that is honest and geared towards your students putting in the training and practice necessary to succeed.