Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How do you teach students to generalise?

A plea for help here. I have a student who has been finding the class difficult all semester. I find myself wanting to say, when describing her problem, "She really understands the material. She isn't struggling with the concepts when we discuss them. But she can't apply them to new data. She finds it hard to do her own analysis."

Now, if someone said that to me, I'd reply that I don't think a student really DOES understand the material unless he/she can apply the concepts to new data. But in this case I would have to disagree with my hypothetical self. My student comes up with clever, on-topic insights in class. She can explain a concept in her own words. She can even come up with original examples of a concept.

I've become more and more convinced that there's a general skill missing. And I'm starting to think the skill she is struggling with is generalisation from specific instances to "types" of instance. There's an assignment I give for homework just before we start the semantics module of the course that asks, "In what ways can the meaning of two words be related?" Underneath in brackets it says, "Hint: if you are stuck, start by considering the following pairs: man–woman; hot–cold; small–big; plant–tree; dog–animal; buy–sell; kill–die".

In her answer, the student basically wrote, "Hot is warmer than cold. Man is male and woman is female. A dog is a type of animal. A tree is a plant. Kill is the cause of die. When you buy something, someone sells it." When in class I pushed her to consider whether some of these pairs are "similar" to others, she looked really blank, and then repeated what she had already written.

So it seems to me that this is not a problem with her understanding of linguistics. And it's not that she just misunderstood this one assignment. This was the clearest example of what it is that she is struggling with, but now I look back on her other work, I think this has been the stumbling block all along. But I don't know how to go about teaching someone to generalise, if it's a skill they haven't naturally picked up. For now, I've referred the student to the Academic Skills and Learning Centre, but any suggestions for work I can do with her on this would be hugely appreciated.

11 Comments:

liz said...

I'm not sure if you can teach someone to generalise. I think it may be something you get by a certain age or you don't.

However...she may be helped by going through exercises in the American SAT study books. There are a bloody TON of Soup:Pot Flowers:____ a)sink b)pond c)vase type questions.

Bardiac said...

Wow, that's an interesting problem, but I'm clueless. It's like she doesn't get opposites, or this is a subset of that? Does she get Venn diagrams?

The Scientist said...

rather than saying "in what ways" just say "why are the words in these pairs related"

"in what ways" seems (at least to me) to be getting interpreted as "how," which she is describing.

i'm no linguist by a long shot, but seeing how she responds to that would be interesting, and might explain that the problem is simply reading comprehension with interpreting the question.

StyleyGeek said...

TS, I think "why" is actually more ambiguous. Personally I would interpret that as wanting to know how they have come to be that way, rather than the types of relationship involved.

Also, I wanted the students to come up with a list of different types of relationships words can have, e.g. "they can be opposites, they can be synonyms, they can have a part-whole relationship, one can be a subtype of the other, they can describe two different ways of looking at the same event", etc. The question "why are the words in the following pairs related" sounds like it is asking for one generalisation, not multiple ones, and also the pairs were only meant to be a starting point for thinking about the question, not the point of the assignment.

But I take your point that it might be a matter of reading comprehension (in this assignment, at least). The problem is that the student ALWAYS has trouble going from specific examples to coming up with a more general rule, or applying concepts to new data.

I like Liz's suggestion of using SAT-type questions.

Bardiac, I think opposites are a subset of the more general issue. Given specific examples of opposites, the student has trouble stating "these are opposites". Going from specific examples of "part-whole" relationships (finger - hand; page - book; room - house) the student has trouble stating the generalisation. Given specific examples of a rule, the student struggles to articulate a general principle. Venn diagrams might be a really useful way to get at this sort of thing, actually. Thanks!

Jana said...

Is it offensive to suggest that not everyone has the capacity for abstract thought that academic work requires, and that some things can't be trained?

StyleyGeek said...

I wonder, Jana... Certainly it is true that not everyone can learn the abstract thinking required for academic work, but whether generalisation specifically is a skill that can't be taught (given a certain level of intelligence) is, I think, not so clear.

What I think IS offensive (to a student without the capacity required for academic work) is that the university lets him/her enroll in a program. Whether or not that is the case with this student, it is certainly true that some students ARE allowed to enroll who do not have the abilities necessary, some of which may not be teachable. And in some of these cases (I'm thinking especially of mature-age or international students), the university probably knows they are going to fail, but lets them in anyway, which is the equivalent of saying that their fee-paying ability is more important than their psychological welfare.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I have problems like this on a regular basis. Sadly, I don't have a good solution for you.

Sometimes it helps to ask them to come up with their own examples and then explaiin why it is an example of the concept.

I would also disagree with the assessment that she understands the material -- it sounds as if she's good at parroting back or paraphrasing the material, but until she can work from the specific to the general, she doesn't get it.

This is why I ask the synthesis questions on exams. They show the real comprehension -- when they need to make a generalization and apply the theory to new material.

StyleyGeek said...

ITPF, it's not just paraphrasing, though, since she can also come up with original examples of a general concept. So she can go from the general to the specific, just not so well the other way around. That's why I think it's not a general lack of understanding of the concepts.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how useful this would be, but sometimes when a student has trouble with similar understandings, asking them to do what they can (going from general to specific) and then asking them to do it *backwards* (from specific to general) can help. I'm not sure why, but using the word "backwards" has helped when I've had students (in a different discipline) make "horse before the cart" kinds of arguments. It's almost as if they understand language patterns or analyses spatially. Good luck!
Barb

Anonymous said...

Sorry - obviously, that should have been "cart before the horse"!
Barb

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