12 April 2017

Some “light bulb moments” are controlled by dimmers, not switches

Understanding something for the first time is often shown in comics and cartoons as a light bulb appearing over someone’s head. It’s off. Then suddenly it lights up. People use the phrase “light bulb moments” to describe insight all the time. Or even just “light bulb” alone, like Grue does in the Despicable Me movies.

There are few more rewarding moments for an educator than when you see someone having that “light bulb moment” right in front of you. It happens sometimes.

But we might expect too many of those light bulb moments: where there is a clear line between, “I don’t get it” and “Oh! I get it!”

Thinking about my own education, there are lots of concepts that I teach to students now that I remember trying to learn. For many of them, there was no light bulb moment. Instead, there was just an ever increasing familiarity, and in some cases, skill in carrying out tasks related to it.

The way I put it to people is, “I got used to the idea.”

I think at some level we know that learning can be a slow, gradual thing. You might follow an explanation while it’s given, but mostly forget it by the next day. You make mistakes about something you ostensibly “know.”

I think this is particularly important to keep in mind because so much of formal education is timed. We go by weeks, by semesters, and if students can’t learn something in the allotted time, the student is deemed not to have learned the material. I think it biases us to think that students who don’t get it in that prescribed amount of time won’t get it.

Professors get frustrated when students ask about concepts and materials that were covered in previous classes. The student should just know it, and they get badmouthed for not remembering. Instead of seeing this as indicating a bad student, we should see it as an opportunity to let the students get more used to the ideas.

One of the differences between between an entering university student and a graduating one is not their raw intelligence, or study skills, but the number of repeated exposures they have had to core ideas.

A light bulb moment might be a second long, but it can be years long, too.

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