Dick Davis

Dissident technologist focused on improving the human experience through meaningful applications of software engineering. Blogs about programming, career, and life.

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A Useful Heuristic for Evaluating Learning

I can breathe a sigh of well-deserved relief now that the summer term has finally ended. This August marks a full year of my participation in the Lipscomb MBA program, which I never would have imagined taking part in. I don’t plan to pursue a career in finance or anything—still an engineer, through and through—but I do hope to at least become conversant on fundamental business concepts with the expectation that doing so will make me more sensitive to the motivations and needs of stakeholders.

The summer electives I took consisted of Leading Through Change and Financial Statement Analysis, the former being a heavy-on soft-skills leadership class focused on effectively implementing change in an organization and the latter being a down-in-the-weeds slog through calculating ratios and interpreting financial statements. The Leading Through Change class was engaging, but it left you scratching your head, wondering how exactly it constituted a graduate-level class. On the other hand, Financial Statement Analysis left no such doubts: it was the most challenging class I’ve ever taken.

As I write this, I await my final grade for the class, which will likely be a high C or a low B. Most people would cringe at getting a C, but I embrace it. I put my best effort into learning a subject far outside of my area of expertise, and the amount of knowledge I have accumulated during the class far exceeds my expectations. If a C is what I get in return for that effort, so be it. I won’t be losing any sleep over it, that’s for sure.

I have never been a good student, but I have always been a good learner. That might seem like a nonsensical statement, but let me explain.

Growing up, I always had behavioral issues, and they became especially apparent in middle school, where I was kicked out for getting into too many fights and being an all-around miscreant. My teachers never understood the behavioral issues given my performance in the classroom; I was in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program—which may have been a strange psychological experiment, but I digress—and honors classes. My grades were mostly A’s, as far as I can recall. I’m not sure what my teachers thought of me or my wasted potential, but I remember they liked me and would always react utterly baffled when I would commit another offense.

I was homeschooled from the 8th grade until my senior year when it became too much for my mother to handle. She had (and still does have—it’s incurable at this time) chronic multiple sclerosis. This condition limited her mobility and energy, and it had progressed to the point where she was wheelchair-bound and reliant on us for most things. In some respects, it might have been easier for her to have my brother and me around during the day, but being a homeschool mom is incredibly taxing, especially when you are expected to teach material you can hardly remember from your high school days. She did her best for us.

Looking back, I now recognize that I was likely acting out due to over-socialization and a bit of a “my-mom-is-disabled-and-none-of-you-know-what-it-is-like” complex. After all, most of the kids didn’t know what it was like, and being the seemingly only kid in school that did is an alienating experience in itself. Now mix in some good ol’ fashioned physical abuse from my father, frustrated as he was with his lot in life, and you can see how behavioral issues might have started forming.

There were many upsides to being homeschooled. Having a flexible schedule allowed me to focus on getting the work done. Getting some distance between myself and others was a boon; as an introvert, my interactions with others drain me of vitality. Once my junior year came around, I could drive to the local university to take dual-credit classes. I even started tutoring enlistees to prepare them for the ASVAB exam at the Air Force recruiting station. Life was good.

One of the most enduring positive memories of my youth was finishing up my schoolwork for the day and heading over to the library, where I would peruse the shelves for the most esoteric books to read. I would take my haul to Dairy Queen, order a strawberry cheese-quake blizzard, and just read. These days were the brightest in an otherwise dark time, a moment of respite away from the sickliness, anger, and seething resentment that haunted my house.

My senior year was terrible. Returning to the rigid structure of public school and the insufferable tedium associated with kids my age was a nightmare. I did not do well. Academically, I did well, but I did not adjust socially. My behavioral problems resurfaced, though at least they weren’t violent. The place felt like a prison, so I left the first chance I got, dropping out in the final term because I simply could not do it anymore.

There is a stark contrast between my public school and homeschool experiences. Yes, the environment was totally different and well-suited to my personality. Still, it goes deeper than that: when I was homeschooled, I was a learner, whereas in public school, I was merely a student.

The looser structure of a homeschool environment allowed me to pursue self-directed learning on subjects I was deeply interested in. Of course, there were State-mandated subjects that we covered, but I was able to work at my own pace to complete the curriculum early and then dive into that which I actually cared about for the majority of my days.

Contrast that with an environment where you have minimal input into your choice of subjects, classrooms full of disruptive students, lackluster curricula, uninspiring educators, and a prison-like environment where you are shuffled from one classroom to the next by the tolling of a bell.

There is simply no comparison.

Being a student means being shackled to a letter grade as the metric by which you measure your progress in understanding the material. Exams are how these measurements are taken, but in truth, they fail to account for the myriad of other ways knowledge is retained and applied as their requirement skews learning toward only that which is testable. And God help you if you fail one! You must not have learned anything at all!

Exams change the learning dynamic from earnest academic engagement into an exercise in anxiety-ridden test preparation where only the topics expected on the exam are material.

In recent years, I’ve turned my distaste for institutional education into something more useful by applying a nifty heuristic for evaluating my performance: If the subject matter was challenging and I learned more than expected, it doesn’t matter what letter grade I achieved, so long as I passed the class. This simple heuristic allows me to embrace a growth-mindset by freeing me from the tyranny of letter grades while also driving me toward better learning outcomes. After all, some level of failure can be expected when challenging yourself and weighted averages don’t leave much room for it.

There are variations of this heuristic that are also useful, though I find this one to be the most liberating. Here are some of the others:

  • If the subject matter was not challenging and I did not learn more than expected, I should not have taken the class.

  • If the subject matter was not challenging and I did learn more than expected, then I should consider taking a higher-level course.

  • If the subject matter was challenging and I did not learn more than expected, I should consider retaking the course with a different learning strategy if I still find the subject interesting or focus my learning in a different subject altogether.

These heuristics have applications outside of the academic world, though I am using “course” and “subject” here as it relates to schoolwork in particular. I hope you find them useful in your learning experience, but your mileage may vary.


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