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Lists and the Disoriented Learner

Simplicity and Bamboo Forests

This semester, our 9yo is taking an intro-level language course at our campus.* Setting aside his excitement about getting to continue a language that had been discontinued in his school district, it’s been entertaining to watch him figure out the norms of college, and to try to leverage them to his advantage: “I think I need a phone, Dad. Before class, college kids mostly check out their phones.”**

I mention this experience only because watching him work this semester has reminded me of a post Nels wrote a couple of years ago on generating next-action lists for for students. Nels reflects on the more explicit scaffolding he used to give first-year students compared to advanced students, before deciding that some detailed structure is useful for everyone:

That’s why I now end each class meeting by going over an Action List that I have posted on the course blog or management system (my school uses Blackboard), and each list item is formatted as a GTD action item.  I start with an action verb that states what exactly should be done, the same kind of format I use on my personal action lists.  I include all the things that are already on the syllabus and schedule (e.g., reading assignments), but I also include other things that students should be doing to handle the larger course projects.

I have been thinking about Nels’s post because of one assignment in particular. Students had a variety of options they could sign up for, and he decided to write a blog about Chinese poetry. In addition to its intrinsic interest, it was also comfortably familiar, as he’s maintained a variety of blogs on WordPress and Blogger over the years, and even taught himself a little CSS and PHP to poke around WordPress themes. Easy, right?

He found himself at sixes and sevens, though, when it came time for the first post. The problem appeared to be that he was working so hard on writing a gloss for the poem he chose, that he forgot about lots of details (giving credit for images, making sure there are clear links, etc.). In effect, the new material he was learning crowded the familiar habits of blogging right out. (This is a familiar, temporary effect to anyone who teaches writing: Often even proficient writers will see their prose regress a bit as they learn more complicated material.) It also led him to underestimate a bit how much time everything might take.

Aggravated with himself, he put together a little checklist for what goes in a blog post, which he keeps in his work area. He got the idea, in part, from the slug for Adam Savage’s Workshop entry in the October issue of Wired (not yet online, but will be here): “If you think anything is too small to write down in your initial project plan, you’re going to get it wrong.” That is super-helpful, in classic Getting Things Done style. It’s not as if he has to write an entire post when he sits down to a computer: He can find an e-text of a poem, find an associated image, research key terms, draft a gloss–there are a lot of little steps. (A little later in the semester I’ll probably introduce him to the joys of TextExpander, especially since the 4.0 version will help him set up easy to fill in templates.)

The key, then, is that his lists address what he already knows going in: “These are the parts of a blog post. When I’ve done *all* of them, and not before, I’m done.” They free all of his attention for the new skills and methods he needs to learn.

Watching him fight through this has been interesting from a ProfHacker perspective in two different ways:

  • I tend to take a failure to follow directions much less personally, or at least as not *necessarily* indicating disengagement with the class–at least sometimes, the reverse is true.
  • I’m trying to get better at taking Nels’s advice: Assignments with lists of actions are probably going to make it easier for students to focus on whatever I’m asking them to learn.

All of which is just to say, I guess, that planning for students’ disorientation is probably a good thing, and thinking about lists of actions–maybe even providing them–is an excellent way to do this.

*Let’s not get into whether this was a good idea on this site. Backseat-driving my parenting is welcome here.

**He has an iPod touch, which I guess he could use to fit in. The problem is that the elementary and middle schools he attends have zero-tolerance policies toward mobile devices, and none of the three of us want to have to bring a device along just for pre-class hijinks. He can just draw in his notebook like kids did when I was in school.

Photo “Simplicity and Bamboo Forests” by Flickr user JFXie / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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