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Hacking Learning

I’ve realized recently that one of my primary goals in my free time is to learn to learn efficiently. Thus, the stress I put on myself to learn a lot quickly is really a desire for methods that will help me (1) beat procrastination to focus on the things that really matter to me and (2) actually learn the material I go through, to the point where I can solve real problems and retain information long-term. I’d previously thought that I just had too long of a list of things I wanted to learn, and that stressed me out, so I started looking at people’s advice and research on how to get it all done. But I ended up not reading so much about organizational strategies, which I thought I needed to focus on because of my ADHD, but on how to revise the learning process itself–not how best to manage my list, but how to be effective at tackling each item on it. I’ve developed a professional interest in learning itself, not just what to learn.

There are three main prongs that I’ve been pursuing that take up most of my time of late:

(1) Thinking about pedagogy, and in particular how learning professionals can best support independent learning outside the classroom: I’ve read a lot about continuing and professional education, adult education, online classes and their effectiveness, and what makes successful online (and in-person) learning communities tick. A lot of this has been focused on a major shift in my thinking–from focusing on how to be a good teacher to how to be a good learner, and from fostering good learning by being a good subject-matter teacher to fostering good learning by being a good community builder. A lot of this has focused on observing various online lecture series and the forums that grow up round them (both officially supported, like the Coursera or MITx discussion forums, and unofficial communities of learners that band together online and otherwise to tackle learning together, like the StackExchange forums and the people who organize group read-alongs with discussion of a book).

(2) Researching and attempting to implement new learning strategies without the constraints of classroom instruction, and moving beyond the standard model of “lecture-take notes-read-revise notes-repeat-do problems” as a way to learn. At some point I abandoned my attempts to plow through lots of material and turned my attention to how that plowing can stick long term, and that meant that I couldn’t ignore the research on learning techniques anymore. It’s exciting, mostly because the research is so much more multifaceted than I thought–what started out as a corrective or defensive investigation for me to overcome the limitations ADHD and anxiety put on me became an active interest in the habits of highly effective learners for its own sake.

(3) Thinking about what it means to have a professional code of ethics in the teaching profession, and more broadly, what a Hippocratic Oath for teaching would look like and how to hold ourselves accountable outside of the assessment-based or value-added models that dominate the NYT Education section. This was sparked by a transformative encounter with Atul Gawande’s book on the Checklist Manifesto: what are a teacher’s professional obligations? How does professional development balance with daily interactions with student? To what extent is it ethical to try a “teaching experiment” with high risks and potentially high rewards, if it might mean your current class doesn’t do as well as it could? Partly this is my attempt to understand teaching as a profession, and to recreate it in my mind as a profession–society doesn’t exactly encourage us to think of teaching as a complex profession with its own societies, standards and ethics codes like law or medicine, but I think it should.

I’ll have more details on lots of this in future posts, but for now a few sites that have provoked my thinking on these things:

The StackExchange plaforms – check out math.stackexchange.com or physics.stackexchange.com, including their “Meta” sites, for examples of an online learning community and discussion of what direction it should go.

Scott Young’s extensive blog articles about effective learning strategies at: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog, including, for example, his MIT Challenge (to learn the curriculum for 4 years of MIT courses more quickly and without the support of a formal school environment), and his extensive focus on the psychology behind how we learn best.

Physicsforums.com, for a perhaps older model of online learning in standard BBS format, where a community feel is created by prominent users but attention is more focused on discussion and less on answers to specific questions than on StackExchange sites.

Udemy, Coursera, MITx, Open Yale, and MIT OCW, for examples of online content offered by major universities.

Mind and Brain

February 10, 2012 Leave a comment

This has nothing to do with scholarship, but I’m learning that it can be a prerequisite for me–so this time, some more personal musings.

I’m settling into a pattern (not a routine!) that I think will do me a lot of good over these next few months before (I hope) I go back to school. My job isn’t too far away and it leaves me time to write in the mornings and time to rehearse and read in the evenings. (Still working on that “social life” thing.) This morning I got up not-too-early and still had time to read some, “check the incoming” without being overwhelmed, do laundry, bake cookies, and start to write this at the sun-drenched kitchen table in a home that breathes the fresh air with me in the mornings. I have time to myself, gloriously alone in the mornings–time that I’m slowly, but surely, learning to manage and not fritter away with the temptations of the Internet. And I have time with my family and to catch up with friends in long phone conversations at night. This is a good thing I have going.

Amidst all that, of course, there’s the constant struggle between mind and brain–that’s how my doctor has started framing it, and it’s a distinction I find useful. This week, as I changed my medication regime, I started feeling like I could track hourly the dosage of the stuff that was in my system by a physical sensation of my brain being “pumped up” or drained. This was a rough week in the mind-over-brain struggle. But I also got through a depressive episode by realizing that it was the medication change that was bringing these depressed thoughts I haven’t seriously dwelt on in months, that I could continue to feel secure in the progress I’ve made recently despite the apparent relapse, because it was my brain’s altered chemistry asserting itself. For a while finding that there was something going on in my brain that was out of my control–something that is a sort of baseline that can’t just be fixed by will or character or moral fortitude–was a deep blow to my sense of self. Here I was thinking that I’d figured out a lot about myself these past few years, and I was convinced I saw it all come tumbling down into a muck of chemical vicissitudes and moods that seemed to intrude themselves from outside me. Self-insight is really important to my self-concept and sense of control, and I thought I must’ve been deluding myself to miss something so basic to my psyche. 

More recently, I’ve made a lot of peace with my brain. She and I are learning to work together, and she lets me subdue her least welcome side with pills most of the time. I still look at my little white pills and have a moment of bizarreness sometimes, wondering how the hell these things can do so much to me–but I’m not resistant, and so far it’s always a passing thought that goes with a shrug. And I’ve gotten back a certain trust in myself: trust that I know what’s going on in my inner life, or that I can look inward and discover some things at work when I don’t understand. I’m getting more practice with that under my new framework for understanding my inner life and how my brain mediates it, and I can look back at past events with a sense of understanding again.

I even found a dosage that makes me feel calm and centered even as it increases focus! Thank goodness–not sure I could’ve handled the highs and crashes new meds had me going through for any length of time.

ADHD and Scholarship

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, after taking time off from school because I was melting down from the stress I put on myself, and how unnecessarily difficult everything related to scholarship seemed to be for me. I think a lot of people struggle with the same issues that I was struggling with (and still am): productivity, procrastination, wanting to feel like we’re doing our best work, focusing and giving deep attention. I need to write about these things to say that, while they affect all of us, they are that much harder for those of us with ADHD. I’m being open about it with most everyone, because I think my case is not unusual, and I think it’s important to know we’re not alone in the things we struggle with.

The thing is, it’s not always so easy to diagnose ADHD. And its effects go way beyond having trouble with homework: it affects basically all areas of functioning one needs as a responsible adult. I need to remind people of that because in this society it’s easy to dismiss signs you see, to put off going to the doctor, to dismiss problems that might arise from ADHD as character flaws, or to think people with ADHD just wanted extra time for their tests.  I went for 21 years without a doctor properly recognizing the signs–I “passed” because I have a special talent for ad-libbing and grinding out decent work–but it finally got to me in a big way. Even when there aren’t many external signs–perhaps when you’re performing “average” by your own standards–it can really be affecting you internally (again, this was the case for me).

I’m talking about these things so that I have somewhere to point people to when they ask about how ADHD might affect aspiring academics, or when I just want to explain more about my own ADHD. Mostly I need to say this because there are a lot of things that really ate me up, that I really beat myself up about, that ended up having a partial biological basis out of my control.

For years and years of my schooling, I insisted to parents and teachers that I didn’t feel I was learning deeply, that I didn’t feel I was doing my best work, that I was cut up about having bad work habits but couldn’t seem to change them. Mostly people were confused and a little dismissive, especially before college, because objectively I did so well in formal schooling–very high grades and test scores. Neither they nor I knew better than to think I was being a high-strung perfectionist and worrywart with my standards. But, and I realize this more in hindsight, the internal struggling was real, and I am so glad to have part of an explanation for it. I really started to think I was crazy for feeling the way I did about my work; I just couldn’t figure out why the disparity, and I’m bad at settling for not understanding.

Here are some things I beat myself up for as a student that I now understand to be partially related to ADHD: Procrastinating and “getting away with it” by receiving decent grades (not enough motivation to change my lazy, awful habits, I thought). Very poor test taking skills in college (when the tests started to not be trivially easy; if I had to focus, I failed. And there was a spiral effect: for every test that I did badly on and confused my professor by how badly I did, I felt more pressure to show that it was an anomaly, and the next time went worse.) Not starting assignments til the last minute, even when I enjoyed and engaged the class: and then convincing myself that I wasn’t really learning anything, I was being lazy. Not being dedicated enough to mathematics–because, I thought, who in their right mind aspires to be a professor when she can’t handle basic undergrad classes all the time? Not being cut out to do academic work: because I was bad at organizing my time, because I clearly couldn’t learn on my own, because I didn’t always get through all my reading and go beyond, because I felt I could be distracted by practically anything. These thoughts ate up so much of my time–I can’t begin to describe how much.

So here it is: we all struggle with these things as aspiring scholars and teachers. It’s normal, and we’ve got to support each other through all that. But sometimes it goes beyond what’s normal anxiety or troubles, and that’s when it’s time to enlist all the help you can find and figure out what’s going on. Please, please don’t assume you’re a bad person, or you’re just not cut out for what you want to do. Give yourself a chance first–the best chance–by finding all your options for knowing yourself and how your mind works, how to manage yourself, with medical intervention or talking it out or otherwise. It’s so worth it–and it can catch up with you if you neglect your mental health.