What I Learned From Quantum Mechanics – How I Learn

Life has thrown a few curves so blogging took a back seat for a bit. I decided to check out my last post before diving in again to get some inspiration. And boy, did that post on grit bring back some memories. Let me end your suspense so that you don’t scroll down to the end of this post – I did pass Quantum Mechanics, barely. And with what knowledge did I leave that course? How I learn.

I know most people would probably write that they now had a deeper understanding of the Schrödinger Equation and harmonic oscillators. Both are true for me as well, but what I truly learned was I tend to be a shallow learner in subjects that prove difficult. Having taught in high school, and currently working towards a doctoral degree in education, you’d think I would have a solid grounding in metacognition and thus by default already ‘know how I know’. Apparently not so. I found I have different strategies based on my level of interest in the topic and my own perceived skill level at learning the subject.

My education courses have been relatively simple for me, but that is because I am deeply passionate about education and have been given the freedom to follow my interests in that field. I crave deep learning and understanding so that I can both share what I learn and am able to apply that knowledge to improve my research and teaching. I did not go into my Quantum Mechanics class with the same agenda. Rather I had two reasons for enrolling; 1) to be able to add “science education emphasis” to my CV, and 2) to develop an understanding of what it is to learn science. I had taken many many science credits during my time as an undergraduate but I had never explicitly reflected on the processes I used to learn the subjects.

I chose this course because my husband, who is much more gifted in matters of science and mathematics than I am, had promised to be my tutor. (Side noteperhaps the topic of spousal tutoring could be the focus for a future blog post). I had misgivings as my calculus was a bit rusty and I had not had to concentrate on actual science content since I last taught science. But if I were going to answer the question ‘how do I learn’, this was certainly one way to find out. What I found when I did employ this explicit reflection was that I did not like to learn deeply when I was not very vested in the subject. I pulled out old strategies such as memorizing different ways to solve problems rather than putting in the time to understand the content at a level that would guide that problem solving. What I learned was that science can require a large time investment from me if I expect to truly learn rather than merely survive.

Unfortunately this insight did not come to me until about halfway through the semester, and I was able to keep the subterfuge of learning up long enough for my poor husband to think he was helping me actually understand what he was trying to tutor. Of course exams will tell in the end (this course did not have homework, only 3 exams). Easy test questions that required true understanding for them to be seen as easy are what shed light on my fraudulent methods. The tests were open book/open note but if you did not have a deep understanding of the content it did not matter.

Which led me to reflect on my time as a science teacher and how I would apply what I learned about myself to a future course. I have a much deeper respect for formative assessment than before. Not that I thought it wasn’t important for student learning, of course I did and I used it in my classroom. I understand now that I did not use it as effectively as I thought I had. I knew that I had to identify student misconceptions but now I would probably look to fellow science teachers in my Twitter and Google+ PLNs for better questions and strategies. I also know that true understanding takes time. This can be a problem in a typical science classroom. Elementary classrooms certainly do not have time given the focus on English and mathematics and, based on my experience, many high school science classrooms do not have the time as well. Ego aside, I consider myself to have above-average academic abilities – if I need time for deep science learning then how much time do average students require? How much time are they given? How can we address this need for our students? These are the questions that came from my experience and I hope my fellow science educators can help me find the answers.

About Cynthia Clark

I hold a doctorate in curriculum & instruction, with an emphasis in educational technology and science education. I work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as the Evaluation and Assessment Specialist for the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. My current research interests include qualitative responses to course evaluations, both the development of open-ended items and their subsequent analysis.
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