One of the quite common sayings that I’ve come across when discussing student/teacher type situations is that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to present the material to the student in a way that they can understand and that if the student still doesn’t understand then the teacher hasn’t done their job properly.
I believe that this approach is also followed in the UK education system nowadays and while it makes sense in a way I don’t think it’s a particularly useful belief to have as a student since it seems to encourage you to be quite passive in the learning process.
I find that when you are in a situation where you are the student it is probably quite likely that you are aware of the best way that you understand new material whereas the teacher doesn’t necessarily know and, unless they have the ability to work out which way you will understand best, they will probably explain something in the way that they would like it explained to them.
If you don’t know the way that you learn best then it’s quite a useful thing to try and work out.
I’ve worked out that I learn best when I can find something I understand already that I can link it to and as a general rule I understand things way better when I can work out a way to visualise it, usually by drawing a diagram or finding an explanation which includes a diagram.
My colleagues seem to have picked up that this is the way that I understand things best so wherever I happen to be working there will likely be stacks of papers with different diagrams on them!
I also know that it often takes me a few times before I understand something but that once I understand something I don’t tend to forget it.
It used to really annoy me that I didn’t understand concepts as quickly as some of my peers at university but now that I’ve noticed that pattern I tend to write down the concept or bookmark it if it’s on the web and then come back to it later when I might have learnt something else which helps me understand the other concept.
Maybe the responsibility really does lie with the teacher, and I particularly like the quote from the last slide of this presentation which says ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’ but it doesn’t do much harm to help them to help us.
I’ve also found that varying the way that I learn new ideas can sometimes be quite effective – for example there are now loads of videos available of people presenting on different technical topics and watching someone who knows a subject really well explain it through this medium can often make it easier to understand than reading an article about it.
One of the best ideas I’ve come across lately was from Pragmatic Learning and Thinking, which suggests discussing what you’re learning with others.
This is useful because you get the chance to see how well you understand the topic by trying to explain it as well as getting their views on the subject.
From our experiences running a technical book club it’s often quite surprising how varied people’s opinions are despite reading/watching the same material.
It seems to me that perhaps the most important skill in the world of software development is learning how to learn new things and these are a few of the ways that I find work for me. I’d be keen to learn ways that other people are doing this too!