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Wiper blades and learning

September 19, 2011
Lizard Rollercoaster

Lizard Rollercoaster - catd_mitchell

How often do you install new windshield wiper blades? Experts recommend they be changed every year. Hah! In my case, make that three years. Yesterday I saw that the rear wiper blade on my Saturn Vue needed replacing. It’s okay to have someone else do this but I like to do it myself, so I headed to a local auto parts store. Their chart told me I needed a 10” replacement; I compared that to the old one and bought an 11” blade instead. I went out to my car, opened the package and realized I had forgotten how to install a wiper blade.

After a few minutes of fiddling I remembered the trick and it snapped on. This happens to me every time. I couldn’t see the guys at the cash register, but I was sure they were having a chuckle over my ineptitude with such a simple task. I felt like a dope.

Does that sound like someone you know trying to do something with a computer? Every year I hear from apologetic people who can’t remember how to add content to a course website, upload grades or whatever. They are upset with themselves and feel silly for forgetting such a routine procedure. I tell them not to worry, that these are tasks they only do once a year and “If you don’t use it you lose it.”

Learning theory tells us that after we perform a task enough times it becomes automatic; we don’t have to think about it. It’s easy to see this with physical activities like riding a bike or playing piano. But you also have to practice if you want to learn a cognitive skill. That’s why math students have problem sets and language learners have workbooks. Another idea that’s at play here is something called “interference.” During the time between one wiper blade installation and the next you learn lots of other things. Some of them interfere with your memories of wiper blades, making you forget.

You can use these two ideas to help you and your colleagues relax about forgetting how to do infrequent computer tasks. But remember that they also apply to your students. Have you ever considered whether a course provides enough opportunities to practice and engage with the concepts you want students to learn? Do you try to cover too many “big ideas” in a course – so many that they are interfering with each other?

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011 12:54 am

    I feel you were talking to me. When the expectations are high, and there is pressure to solve a technical problem, you may take two hours to have it solved. And yet it is simple enough, something that makes you ask yourself – why didn’t I do that in the first minute? Being good in what you requires you to be on top of your game, but every problem is unique. I will definitely be using your example in handling what seems to have been forgotten. We will definitely go through “interference” at one point in what we do.

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