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Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I'm reclaiming a little space to write today, despite being so busy my head has been spinning lately.

Tonight I have a huge test in Chemistry over three chapters: ionic bonds, covalent bonds, and stoichiometry - the main calculation base for equations in chemistry. These calculations involve conversions from mass (grams) to moles (number of molecules in a unique element's molecular weight), and all kinds of related calculations like solute concentration, diffusion of multiple chemicals, titration, empirical formulas, and so on. It's starting to get difficult to understand and even harder to be able to relate what I am learning in casual conversation. And I am still just in basic chemistry. Biochem, genetics, and molecular biology loom on the horizon.

So I am going to write about learning instead. A week ago, I was terrified of this upcoming test, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to learn all this stuff in a condensed amount of time. On top of that, I'm trying to learn an equally complex subject of biology, working full time, trying to remember what my wife looks like, and finding time for friends and leisure.

Yet somehow I did it, or at least I feel like I understand what I set out to learn over these last three chapters. For me, it's a several-step process.
1) I read the topic I am learning to get familiar with the vocabulary and concepts. I don't delve too deeply into the details. I need to put it together first.
2) I go to lecture, where the teacher then fleshes out the concepts. In any other learning situation this is like going to a seminar or hearing an expert.
3) I usually then go back and read the topics again and start to work through details. Most of my learning stress is over the transition from concept to details, because it takes time, which is often in short or poorly configured supply.
4) Then, I teach. Here's what I did this past Saturday and Sunday, and it was where the learning magic happened.

On Saturday and Sunday, I met with some school peers to study for this chemistry test. Both days were awesome because I got to connect all the dots of the information I learned. As I worked through problems and worked through explaining my understanding of how this stuff all appeared to work - and received peer's understanding, it all started to make sense.

On Saturday, I covered some topics about ionic bonds with Michelle that really solidified my understanding and helped her see the magic light bulb - stuff she was having trouble with suddenly appeared easy. Michelle is brilliant already, so it wasn't a hard stretch. But that light bulb, when all the stuff we've read and had explained and given to us finally switches on, is a great thing.

On Sunday, a larger group of study pals and I were churning out equations. Here, the practice was great. It made sense to all of us and we got to see the larger patterns of what we were trying to do. And you could start to see the comfort level and expertise improve rapidly. Joy (my dietician cohort) was kicking my butt in equation-processing-speed. A couple of other students showed up and were still working on concepts. We spent time explaining and working through it with them which also helped reinforce it in ourselves. I had a particularly fun conversation after study was nearly over that afternoon with Ashley and Aba where I got to explain some of the magic I see in the periodic table's structure, and got to see the light bulb switch on with both of them.

Learning, achieved. It can happen very rapidly, or very slowly. I see a lot of kids in classes work on rote memorization without concept application. For me, I start with concept application and work into the details. It makes remembering terms easier because there is a place to put them. And, I understand the work better, the concepts, and have a place to see where innovation could happen. Or, where my knowledge is limited.

One of the most oft-heard complaints in class is "I don't know how to study", by which I think they mean, "I don't know how I learn". I'm glad I am figuring out how I learn. After all these years in school. :)

Finally, I had a great conversation with pals Tom and Jen the other night about learning distribution: where kids seem to learn less (or perhaps just differently) nowadays but each person has a unique perspective and they work at sharing information rather than isolating it or becoming expert in it. So, balance of the system is achieved even though the individual may not have a full specialization (using an biology entropy analogy here). At first I didn't know if this is a good way to do it, but I'm thinking about it, particularly the "basic" level of what needs to be known in order to be a useful member of the collective. Thanks, Tom & Jen!

Off to do some work and then to study some more this afternoon to fortify specific formulas like molarity and titration in my head. By the time you read this, my test will be done.

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