Friday, March 03, 2006

How do you "get" lectures?

Appeal to the Olin metabrain.

I can't get lectures. I have never been able to focus my attention on an academic lecture from beginning to end. It doesn't matter how good the lecturer is - I've drifted off in the midst of Allen, Dr. M, Mark Chang - heck, even Edward Tufte - and the speed of delivery and ability to rewind doesn't matter either (I downloaded the Gilbert Strang linear algebra lectures and the average amount of time I managed to pay attention was... 5 minutes.) It doesn't matter what the topic is. I've isolated all the variables I could think of, and the only conclusion I can reach is that "Mel Can't Do Lectures."

This likely stems from a few causes. First of all, it's habit; I've never listened to lectures, so I never learned to. Second, reading is a much higher-density, higher-accuracy, and time-efficient way for me to obtain information. I read fast, and when I see a word, I know that it's the word I think I'm seeing. I lipread and decipher sentences by context, which means I sometimes don't know what you're saying until you've finished saying it. There's high latency and a high error rate, because if I miss one bit of context, I'm just lost. Naturally, you go for the most efficient way to obtain information. If I can struggle through a 1-hour lecture and think I've maybe got some of it, or sleep half an hour and spend a relaxed 30 minutes reading a textbook and know I've got all of it, I'm going to pick the latter.

Consequently, all the things I know are from books. I learned how to talk to my parents by reading child psychology books in elementary school, I learned how to play baseball from reading sports training books after gym class, I learned how to use the table saw by reading a handyman's primer on power tools. None of this "it's just something you pick up as you live" business; I don't catch those conversations. This is great, because I can learn things that people don't tell me. This is bad because books ought to be an educational supplement, not an education. The no-lectures habit rapidly leads to "if I'm getting things from books and not lecture, why go to lecture?" which leads to my abysmal attendance rates in lecture-based classes.

If I am in a lecture-based class, chances are you'll see me working on my computer, teaching somebody else something, reading the textbook or doing homework (in which case why am I in the classroom in the first place, except to be polite)? This isn't good for my learning, it's not respectful to my classmates or my professors, and it's just... bad. I've tried repeatedly to force myself to pay attention, and it's painful. Imagine being taught calculus in Italian (assuming you don't know Italian). Sure, the mathematical symbols on the board are the same, but you miss all the commentary. You can catch an occasional word or sentence because Italian is similar to English, but now all you've got is incoherent sentences punctuated by the occasional shakily understood phrase that's now completely out of context. Now do this for all your classes. Now do that for 14 years. Now see how much you listen to lectures any more.

I'm approaching the point where I know I won't be able to compensate via textbook any more. As the things I learn become more advanced, I'm finding a dearth of good texts; sometimes there aren't any texts at all. I miss out on the funny stories, the quick tips, the and whole point of having a live teacher. Give me a stack of books, a whiteboard, and someone to email questions to, and I'll get through the material faster and with more depth than I would sitting glassy-eyed through lectures. But I think I'd get more depth if I could listen to good lectures, too. I miss a lot. I don't want to miss any more.

Things I've tried/considered, none of which work all that well:
  • Looking over someone else's shoulder at their lecture notes during class.
  • Borrowing someone else's lecture notes after class.
  • Trying to "read along" with the lecture (follow appropriate paragraphs in my book as they're talking).
  • Having a sign language interpreter (elementary through middle schools).

Dear Olin,

Please help. What do you get out of lectures that you can't get from books? How do you get that from them? What makes them valuable to you, and why can you understand them? Any suggestions for how I can understand them too?

Thank you,

- A frustrated Mel


Ash said...

I'll find you some time this weekend and give you the Ash cant foucus during lecture ideas. We all know I have the attention span of a goldfish.

Captain Segfault said...

I am not an Olinite, but I'll jump in here. Ten years from now, I'd suggest working around the problem through software transcription, but that isn't good enough yet. (in fact, the other day a grad student from, I think, linguistics was asking for some software help with his research on this.) I'm sure you've looked into it already, too. :-)

I'll say, though, that there was only about one course I took during my undergrad (two if you count the one I'm sitting in on now) that fell into the "dearth of good texts" area.

Maybe you should talk to the professor and see if you can get his/her notes? I know of very few who don't bring copious notes to lecture, and they'd probably help you a lot, if you could get them before lecture. (which might be an impossibility)

Mel said...

I actually tried speech recognition software on my mom's computer (one of the old versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking) back in middle school. I wore an FM unit (the teacher wears a microphone which goes to a private transmitter that sends the sound directly to your hearing aids) and thought it'd rock if I could have the teacher's microphone go to the computer instead. As Captain Segfault pointed out, software transcription just isn't there yet (though it's probably evolved considerably in the past 7 years).

Weirdly enough, I haven't seen very many Olin professors use notes during lecture, though I know a few do, and that the rest probably have notes *somewhere*. I should give that a shot. I suspect part of the problem is not being able to understand thing, and part of it is being able to understand things and just tuning out, so it would be interesting to see what the balance of the two is.

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