How do we create more autodidacts?

December 22, 2014 at 8:37 am 6 comments

Gas station without pumps raises a really interesting point (a good one to use in ending 2014 — an important topic to reflect on over the holidays): How do we prepare students to be autodidacts?  I agree with him, that being an autodidact is not an innate quality.  It’s an important question, particularly in computing education when there is so little formal schooling available.

In learning sciences’ terms, an autodidact is a self-regulated learner (see definition here).  I’ve seen lists of strategies used by self-regulated learners, and even how to teach self-regulation strategies to gifted learners (see example here).  A common strategy of self-regulated learners is self explanation (see Chi’s 1994 paper on self-explanation strategies), i.e., monitoring one’s learning by explaining it back to oneself.  Mimi Recker and Pete Pirolli showed that self-explanation strategies could be taught to improve learning about programming (see paper here).  It’s a great area for future research, especially in computing.

So I know how to be an autodidact, but how do I teach it to others?  That is a question I have no easy answers for. I try giving open-ended assignments, I try scaffolding by having students search for answers to specific questions, I try deliberately leaving material out of a lecture or a lab handout and telling students to go read about it in Wikipedia, and I try whatever else I can think of that will get students to learn on their own.  For some students something clicks, and they start doing more learning on their own—sometimes a lot more. For others, I’ve not found a secret sauce.

via Autodidacts against and for | Gas station without pumps.

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CSEdWeek progress in Georgia: Math and Science teachers in CS/IT and a Transfer Summit 2014 in review

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christopher Riesbeck  |  December 22, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    The most puzzling and frustrating challenge for me has always been the students who don’t experiment when stuck. Here’s this great device that you can experiment on as much as you want without breaking anything, and yet for some there’s this overwhelming reluctance to type even the simplest command and see what happens. Where does the fear come from? Do error messages trigger the same unpleasant gut reaction as disapproval from a parent?

  • 2. Kathi Fisler  |  December 23, 2014 at 6:23 am

    As a computing newbie in college, I was one of those students who wouldn’t just type something to see what it would do. It wasn’t a question of fear. The whole idea of experimenting with a device to understand it simply made no sense to me at that time. The job of a student was to produce the right answer. Right answers came from knowing facts and methods to solve problems. Experimentation simply didn’t fit into this implicit and unarticulated model of what learning was for and about.

    I no longer recall what helped me make the shift to understanding that the goal wasn’t just to show that you could get the right answer. I do remember finding out sometime in my early 20s that the friends I tagged as “smart” did this thing of building mental models of information, rather than just try to memorize facts. It was mind-blowing at the time.

    I wonder to what extent some students just aren’t getting the memo that the goal of education isn’t to produce right answers. Are we not sending that memo explicitly, or are students not understanding it?

    This parallels something we talk about in Bootstrap teacher training: algebra is a stumbling block for many students because it shifts the goal from “applying steps to produce an answer” (the arithmetic of much elementary school math) to “understand the properties of this mathematical object/function”. Students who try to do algebra using their model of “solving problems” from arithmetic struggle under the dissonance. A similar shift is needed to cultivate experimentation as a technique for learning.

    • 3. Bri Morrison  |  December 29, 2014 at 10:09 am

      Kathi, I agree with you that I think it’s happening in primary education – kids are “rewarded” with the right answer rather than learning the material. Some of this may be due to standardized testing. But I also believe it’s the entire educational culture in the US – students aren’t encouraged to explore to learn the material. I witness this in “how many pages are required” for papers (enough to explain your point of view) to when I teach data structures and explain that there are “many _right_ ways to solve the problem” (they hate that). I myself am relearning how to experiment with writing – writing something many different ways to find the most appropriate style / approach. This is a lifelong skill for lifelong learning that we would do well to instill in our students.

  • […] From Mark Guzdial’s Computing Education Blog: How do we create more autodidacts? […]

  • […] So according to this definition, good teachers make you learn things you wouldn’t normally be interested in. […]


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