Overcoming Barriers to Learning


I was working with Derek recently to improve his signature. We were working on technique and the pen or pencil or lined paper was just slowing down the trials. A friend of my told me a few years ago about teaching beginning letters and numbers to her pre-schooler by having him write them in shaving cream on the bathroom mirror. So, I sprayed some on the window of the back door and we worked out some of the letters. I showed him a couple of different ways he could draw the first letter and we practiced the flow of the smaller letters. It was much easier to get a rhythm going while drawing with one finger in shaving cream. The pen and paper had become an obstacle, so we removed it. Within ten minutes, Derek chose a font that he liked and he wrote it on paper with a pencil.

I had a similar problem with a barrier to working on algebra. I actually cried about it a few nights ago. I do well enough in math, but the manner in which this class is executed is so infuriating. The material is very wordy and multi-media. There are multiple options for practice and practice and practice, but if you aren’t careful, you will miss out on the work that counts! And this isn’t even common core. 🙂  I told my daughter about it the next morning and she said, “Wait a minute. Who is the teacher?” I told her the name and she said, “Ha! I knew it. I had the exact same teacher and same format. I know what you’re talking about. I cried too.” So, aversion to this teaching method runs in the family. I hit that math again the next day and decided to “cut the fat” and get to the meat. I didn’t need the videos. I ignored the extended narrative. I avoided the spoon-feeding and traps that took me down study-plan-alley with its lost hours of practice and quizzing that doesn’t count toward my grade. I found examples of the problems. Copied them exactly and replicated the method on the actual problems that counted for a grade. I only had to check a few facts. I wrote my own narrative and drew pictures and highlighted. My own notes stand ready for studying for the exam.

So, think I didn’t learn anything? On the contrary. I learned plenty. I learned it all.

The other method doesn’t work for me ever, and I’m not just being stubborn. Lecture first, reading second, practice third and then testing is the order that sounds most logical, yes? Go to the lecture, take home the book or papers, read, practice, take a test.  Right? That’s crippling for me. I took an informal test once to see what kind of learner I am…auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. I am a kinesthetic or tactile learner. I need hands on work while I’m learning.  I scored a close second for visual learner and for auditory, I scored a zero. ZERO. Which means telling me something you want me to learn is very close to useless. This “disability” was hammered home recently when I was trying to learn a song for my voice class just by listening. It was in Italian and I had no literature. I learned nothing. In fact, I could hardly hear the lady’s voice over the orchestra in the recording. A week after I started working on that song, I found the literature. Everything about the song became instantly learnable. I learned what opera it came from and who composed it. I counted the beats, I followed the score, I anticipated the entrance and then suddenly I could hear the exact words. I read the translation. It was no longer a muddled mess in a foreign language, but a tender, loving plea from a wife to a husband. I saw repeated phrases, difficult words decoded and dynamics that enabled me to participate in this piece and begin to sing. My voice teacher tested my ability to sing this. We worked on the rough spots. She tested again. We worked. I am now motivated to learn this song. It is a challenge!

So, what strategy taps into that motivation? Well, it’s different for everyone, but I have found a very effective strategy to being motivated to learn is to see some results immediately. Switch up that learning algorithm. Instead of lecture and reading first, take a test first, then practice what you don’t know, then read or listen to the lecture in context. Have you ever been halfway through a novel and had to go back and reread the beginning, because you had no context for what you were reading when you started? Yeah. Me too. Agatha Christie is really good for front-loading the story with many important clues you will need to know later. And that’s the way it is for lectures and reading for me. Lectures and reading load up on clues you will need to know later, but without context, nothing seems important. Go ahead and give a short lecture and a little reading, but give me a problem to solve or small project to complete to get me in the groove.


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