We’re Judgmental Jerks When We Say “I Don’t Get It”

We’ve all been there — in that classroom, trying to understand what the heck the instructor is talking about and remaining confused. Then we go home, look at our notes, look at the book, phone a friend, ask the audience, etc. but to no avail, the material just makes no sense. We’re stuck.

Or, if you are an instructor, you see the bovine expressions on your students’ faces and no matter how eloquent the explanation, it’s over their head and through their ears and off to la-la land they’ve gone. You try to ask softball questions to build confidence and to bring them back to the land of the living, but they’re done. The lecture is lost.

So, how do we get ourselves unstuck? How do we get our students to understand?

Let’s start with this: Can you finish this _______________?

What should go in the blank? Odds are you said/thought “sentence”, “phrase”, “question”, or something to that effect. In fact, most of us, in conversation, can finish another person’s sentence or at the very least can anticipate what will come next. We know that elephants are afraid of mice and men at work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy oh boy you have no idea what I’m talking about.

You can read about Anticipatory Processes in Speech / Sentence / Language Processing with a few directed Google searches. At the end of this article there is “recommended reading”

In this article, I will argue that there is an anticipatory process in learning and that, broadly speaking, we can categorize learning in two main directions. The purpose is to bootstrap our way out of confusion either as a student or as an instructor (or both).

Confusion, Frustration, And A Simple Conjecture

\(“\)A crucial insight to overcoming the confusion hurdle is recognizing that we’re all judgmental jerks.

A tell-tale sign of confusion is the phrase, “I don’t get it.”. As students or instructors we have probably spent countless hours addressing this, and sometimes we just give up.

A crucial insight to overcoming the confusion hurdle is recognizing that we’re all judgmental jerks. And in the context of learning, this is actually a great thing! Why?

Any time we’re confused about something, it is because we were anticipating something else from what we observed. When we observe something different from our expectations, it jars us a bit and we have to readjust to the new information. For small deviations from our expectations, we can more quickly adapt to the dissonance than with large deviations. And in the context of learning, when the difference between our expectation and our observation is large, we tend to reply with “I don’t get it.”, or we throw our hands up and just abandon the subject, or we blithely ignore the observation and plod on in the way we would have wanted (and this is called delusion or in some cases, suspending disbelief). Regardless, this anticipation is really just us make a judgment, knowingly or unknowingly.

But there is another factor in addition to our anticipation / judgment process that contributes “I don’t get it”. Broadly speaking, we have a bifurcation of a subject into “theoretical” and “applied”.

Comfort With The Unknown

One of the things I have noticed is that, especially with adult students (and likely even true with adolescent and pre-adolescent students but I can’t say that with the same experiential authority as I can with adult learners), there tends to be a fairly clean divide between those who like to have some theory first before they begin working on problems (contrived or “real”) and those who like to just be given some problems first to tinker with before a discussion about theory can begin. And to be clear, I am talking about “like” as in “a preference”. People can still learn the material if their preferential order isn’t met. The ability to learn outside of one’s natural preference (or perceived natural preference) is what gives rise to some of the edu-babble terms like “grit”, “resilience”, “growth mindset”, etc.

Additionally, leaning towards theory first, practice second, or practice first, theory second, is an underlying theme of many different pedagogical models that exist

  • traditional teaching (lecture-homework format typically keeps a focus on delivery of theory often via lecture and application via homework and problem sets and maybe a project here or there (a punching bag for new, shiny teaching method proponents)),
  • project-based teaching (typically keeps a focus on a practical, hands-on, applied context),
  • differentiated teaching where the teacher gives mastery-appropriate instruction to students at their level of content mastery (typically tries to close gaps in knowledge (relative to what is taught in curriculum) at an individualized pace where theory-practice order is likely teacher dependent (maybe student dependent))
  • and so on.

    In any case, the point here is that students tend to generally be comfortable either with hearing the theory first and then putting it use or just be given time to fiddle first and then learning the theory. And this is about comfort.

    Theory Or Practice First?

    The student who likes theory first tends to be generally fine with not knowing where the theory is going. In other words, they don’t really have an anticipatory process for how the theory should unfold. They are just accepting it as it happens. On the contrary, they tend to not like having “to work on problems” without, at least, some rudimentary road map. In other words, they want to be able to anticipate the mechanics of application (but not necessarily in a soulless formulaic way). In yet more other words, this student is playing with the theory to help build an anticipatory process for application.

    Conversely, the student who likes practice first, tends to be generally fine with not knowing what’s going to happen. If the experiment blows up, oh well, just start again. This student is building an anticipatory process for the oncoming theory.

    Also, to speak to both of the above preferences, there are those students who do want to be able to anticipate theory or practice and actually have a good intuitive sense for where either is going. But eventually, and since the overwhelming number of people are not born with a divine knowledge, intuition will be contradicted and their actual non-anticipatory preference will emerge.

    There are students who initially don’t seem to really be bothered by not being able to anticipate whether it be on the theoretical side or the applied side. These are probably the easiest students to teach to. They’ll just take it as it comes. But eventually, they, too, will reach a saturation point and a preference will emerge.

    And finally, there are students who will start, almost immediately with, “I don’t get it.”. These students, many instructors would classify to be the most challenging to interact with, since giving examples or explaining why don’t seem to help.

    In all of these cases, the student will eventually reach a saturation point of how much arbitrary information they are willing to handle / tolerate without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s at this point we hear “I don’t get it.”

    Managing “I Don’t Get It”

    When we hear (or say to ourselves), “I don’t get it.”, what should we do? How do we right the ship?

    It is helpful to get a sense of which anticipatory process broke down.

    Step One

    A first step to addressing “I don’t get it” is getting the student to articulate what they were expecting to have happened, rather than what they don’t get (the latter is a typical default tactic of many instructors (I’m guilty of this, too)). One simple question to ask is “What was I (were you) expecting to have happened?”

    \(“\)What was I expecting to have happened?

    I’ve found that that question alone goes a long way to “curing” frustration and confusion.

    With that said, one can still ask the student what they don’t get as part of the discourse, but pointing specifically to the dissonance by bringing it out on to the conscious forefront by asking for an explanation of the expectation makes it clear to both the student and instructor “what they don’t get”.

    From here, we can follow with questions like “Why did you feel that X would happen? What led you to this?” A simple dialogue like this helps to identify where there is a logical gap between theory and practice. And the instructor can now actually give instruction.

    Step Two

    A second step to addressing “I don’t get it” is to simply alternate between theory and application. If we can identify what anticipatory process broke down, then it likely means we’ve reached an (intuitive) saturation point and we need to change things. So, if I can’t accurately gauge where the theory is going and I’ve reached “I don’t get it”, it means I need to start fiddling with the object (e.g., fractions, finite difference schemes, Ito integral). If I continue to make mistakes in application either because of errors in mechanics, errors in (experimental) design or problem setup, etc., then it is a signal to me that I must revisit some theory because my intuitive processes have turned into random guessing.

    This two-step process, if you will, is, to me, the easiest way to get “unstuck” and to keep learning. Knowing how we get frustrated is half the battle to winning the first half of the battle (knowledge).

    I Don’t Get It Really Early On

    I mentioned the student who pretty much immediately says “I don’t get it”. This type of student poses an interesting challenge. But, I’ll argue that barring just general reticence to learn and wanting to be handheld through the material, that this student actually wants to deconstruct a final product.

    In other words, I think that this type of student who has immediately thrown their hands up, actually wants to see what the end result is (or a close approximation to it) and wants to work backwards so that they can rebuild. It’s an anticipatory process of a different kind.

    This student is often left to fend for his/herself in a mass education system. Some make it through by “resilience” or “grit”. Others have the luxury of resources to get them through. But, by and large, school doesn’t work for them.

    So, how do we reach this student? Let them go backwards. Show them lots of completed products (it can be an actual physical thing or it can be something as simple as \(\frac{1}{2} + \frac{3}{4} = \frac{5}{4}\)) and let them / ask them to disassemble. Expect questions, lots of them.


    The more adept an instructor is at recognizing what the student is anticipating, the better-suited the instructor is to addressing the student’s confusion. Similarly, the student should make a genuine, inward-looking effort to understand a/the source of their confusion. “What was I anticipating? What did I observe? How do I reconcile this?”

    Of course, this discussion doesn’t mean that all the other stuff about learning is to be discarded (thinking, resting, putting in a genuine effort, etc). If anything, understanding one’s anticipatory process is a meta-process to effective learning.

    Recommended Reading

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One thought on “We’re Judgmental Jerks When We Say “I Don’t Get It”

  1. Pingback: Carnival of Mathematics #121 | Life Through A Mathematician's Eyes

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