Friday, October 21, 2011

Another Reason for Reassessment

In a recent post, I talked a bit about this continuum of understanding/stages of learning:
  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence
One big reason that you want to get to UC is that you'll be building skills on top of earlier skills; if you're wrestling with motion (CVPM, CAPM), it'll be difficult for you to confront a situation where you're not interested in the motion, but with things that change the motion (forces, momentum, and energy analysis all presuppose a real fluency with motion!), you'll be stuck spending a lot of effort in the wrong place.  Imagine how difficult it'd be to make sense of Killer Angels if you had to sound out every word.  The more that you can 'automate' skills, the more mental effort you'll have left to deal with the newest skills.  This can really derail a physics student!

Another importance reason for getting to the fluency and automaticity of the unconscious competence stage of learning is retention.  Not only is it easier to apply a skill which you have mastered to the point of not needing to consciously think through it, but you'll also retain that understanding longer.

When you really know something, it sticks with you for a long time.  Cramming, on the other hand, might (probably not in physics!) get you to conscious competence, but that level of understanding isn't nearly as stable.  At that point in the learning process, you know quite a bit and can do quite a bit, but you don't have the perspective to put all of the pieces together.  It's not until you can do problems in multiple ways, explain where things come from, and what other phenomena they influence that you're really there.

I think that it's all of those connections that help you retain this level of mastery over a loner period of time.  A strand here or there may break, but if everything's interconnected in your mental model, then there are more strands to help to hold it up, and you have a basis for reconstructing that lost knowledge for yourself.

If you've struggled to gain even a minimal level of competence (consciously incompetent), then your understanding is fragmented enough that it will be all be gone in a matter of a few days or weeks, and you'll be back where you started.

After all of the hard work that you put in to understand a subject, it's wasteful to let it slip away!  If you're not mastering the material when the big assessment/test rolls around, it's crucial for you to address that right away, because the situation will only get worse.

The lower your level of understanding is, the faster it erodes.

Apart from concern for grades or concern for building later knowledge on a firmer foundation, it's vitally important to do some work to maintain or increase your understanding as a defensive measure against losing what knowledge you already have!


  1. Josh,
    I like this graph too—I think I'm going to incorporate them into my post game analysis sheet. Did you make this graph in omnigraphsketcher? Also, my students were wondering if these graphs are based off of real data...

    ps. This is the third time I'm trying to submit this comment through blogger. Is there any hope of pulling Newton's Minions into the WP borg?

  2. OGS: yes. Real data: no, unfortunately. I'd love to see if any of your mindset data correlates with it. I suppose that I might have some data once some first unit standards come up later in the term, though. Yeah, ActiveGrade!

    Advantages of WP? I'm not opposed!

  3. I'm thinking of putting up a list of the levels of mastery you've enumerated with their descriptions and having the kids rate themselves.

    The number 1 advantage of WP, IMO is far superior commenting—both for the commenter and the moderator. Also it has native support for LaTeX.