Archive for November, 2010

Why students hate books (and what to do)

Friday, November 26th, 2010

As part of a user profiling exercise in class, students interviewed each other about reading as part of their learning activities. Many of them not only hate reading, but have actually refused to buy the course books or read them unless forced by the threat of exams. The tone of their answers varies from impatience to indignance and outright anger that reading is included in the program.

What they said: a selection

Question: “What role does reading play in your learning activities in school?”

Student 1: “None. I learn more from practice than reading. I don’t remember what I read. The reason I don’t remember is that I don’t like to read.”

Student 2: “Not much of a role. I don’t really have many books. We don’t get many assignments requiring us to read, and I wouldn’t read something on my own. Unless I found it interesting.”

Student 3: “If it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll read something in a book for school. But I’m not in favor of it.”

Student 4: “I don’t read in my free time… I wouldn’t know where to start.”

There were dozens of answers like these.

To put all this in context: many of the same students turned out to read about some kind of subject they were interested in, and many had complaints about the way the books were used in course activities. They also complained that English was a second language and that teachers underestimated the difficulty – and the difficulty of the material. And many said that too much of the content of the books wasn’t really used for the course, so they felt they were throwing away money on extraneous information.

The question: why read books?

But there is a real problem here. Let us older teachers refrain for a moment from expressing our horror at all this and just calling them dummies.

Supposing 18-year-old design student asks you: “Why should I bother to read the book?” And follows this with reasons that have a certain validity:

- you can learn the same things better from practical exercises
- search engines cut out all the fluff and you get the same info quicker
- you can learn the same things better from live interactions with students and teachers
- information on internet is more up to date

What would you answer?

My answer to my students

Actually, the use of ‘book’ to mean ‘paper book’ is outdated – there are sites and e-publications and all kinds of new forms of professional literature, linked or not. But amid this growing ‘hyperliterature’ (Willem Velthoven’s term), the question is still valid. Why read a pre-selected, large, ordered collection of texts by a single author, in advance of any obvious practical use for it?

Students: here’s the reason you have to read the course book. I’m heavily indebted to cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham for the precise wording of all this.

1. It will develop your ability to think (and solve problems)
Our brains are not designed for thinking. They’re designed more for seeing, moving and using memory to act correctly in our environment. So most of what we call ‘thinking’ is actually accumulated memory, put into action at the right moment.
Facts and procedures in long-term memory play a key role in your ability to solve design problems. The key facts and procedures have been collected in the book.

So if you don’t know that there is something called design research, that it contains several methods, and so forth, you will not be able to quickly produce this knowledge at the right moment to solve a problem. (Like when the client asks: Are these visual designs and functionalities right? For our target group?)

2. Search engines only work when you know enough to form effective search queries
Sorry to put it so bluntly, but in four years, I’ve never seen a first-year student find enough valid results in Google to help them. Whereas over-50′s like me always find up to 20 more useful results than they do. Why is that? The accumulated knowledge allows me to quickly re-formulate many valid variations on search queries. And: I have a framework of topics like ‘design research’ which allow me to filter and narrow down results quicker.
The only exception is specific answers to questions on software skills, but our profession demands much, much more than software competence.

The source of that knowledge is books. (And articles and reports and all kinds of other literature, on- and offline.)

You didn’t know the names or work of people like Wroblewski and Laurel. Now you do. Each of those people is a magic portal to the exact terms, titles, concepts, project names, etc. you need to do an effective search. And they all offer great work and examples. Often, the best result a search can give you is another person.

3. The ability to read quickly and put the knowledge to use is an essential competence

When working for clients, you will have to:
- read extensively to understand who they are and what they do
- filter out the essential points for your commission
- offer them the latest relevant theories, authors and sources
- find out what a new trend involves (‘user-generated content’, ‘social media’) and give a qualified opinion on it

And don’t forget: to graduate, you will have to do research and write a design rationale.

I’ll leave it at those three for now.

Now, about that required reading list in the website…

The good news: we don’t require you to read every single section of the book. In fact, the requirements are pretty modest. (We integrated most of it in translated form into the lesson activities.)
The bad news: we’re going to treat every class and required reading like an exam. You can be required to do a test at any moment, on any of the material.