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When Persistence Isn’t Enough

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I’ve been so impressed and intrigued with Malcolm Gladwell’s observations on the relationship between persistence and success in math. So, at an appropriate moment, I eagerly told one of my students about the woman Gladwell describes in Outliers, who kept trying to understand the slope of a vertical line until she finally got it after quite some time.

“How long do you think she kept working on that problem?” I asked my student.

“I don’t know,” my student said. “Maybe three hours?”

Then it hit me. I want all of my students to cultivate persistence, and some of my students definitely need to work harder. But maybe the woman I was telling my student about wasn’t exceptional because she kept trying. Maybe she’s exceptional because she kept trying and she finally got it.

What if students are already persistent and diligent and still not able to understand the material? Is telling them to persist and try harder really the answer?

When I was in middle school, I was an extremely diligent Latin student. I would dutifully copy out the text we were translating, look up every single word in the dictionary and in declension and conjugation charts, and list my English translation under the Latin word. Then I would randomly try to string the words together into a complete sentence.

For whatever reason, my Latin teacher adored me and repeatedly praised my thorough preparation in front of the class. But wasn’t it completely obvious that I had absolutely no idea what was going on?

Even though she was a world-reknowned Latin scholar who cracked jokes in fluent Latin with her friends at the Vatican, she didn’t seem to notice (or care) that I had no idea how the Latin words worked together to create meaning.

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I didn’t understand her explanations. Or maybe she never actually explained it. Even though I was totally clueless, I got straight As in Latin for three years. But my effort was not enough. I never understood Latin.

It happened to me in other classes too. When I was an Algebra 2 student, I’d work on a math problem until I got totally stuck, and I’d approach the teacher’s desk for help. “You need to try harder to figure it out for yourself,” he’d tell me dismissively, and then send me back to my desk.

Now, some of my students confide in me that when they ask their teacher a question, the teacher responds, “If you had been paying attention when I explained it, you wouldn’t need to ask that question. So shut up and pay attention!” But the student was paying attention, and still didn’t understand!

It’s clear that “trying harder” and “paying more attention” aren’t going to fix anything if the effort is misguided, or if what you’re paying attention to doesn’t make sense in the first place. So why are students chastised to work harder and pay more attention as if those are the only variables in the equation that can be changed? I’ve found that frequently the missing link isn’t more effort or focus, but a better explanation or an alternative version of the procedure.

Students (and teachers) can actually change many variables in the equation.
They can get a book that works better for them, ask someone else for help in hopes of getting a better explanation, watch an instructional video, or even switch to a different instructor entirely.

Maybe teachers hesitate to encouage students to explore these alternatives because it might undermine their authority. But it’s to the detriment of many hard-working and attentive students who struggle in silence, mistakenly believing that if they just try harder or pay more attention they’ll finally get it—or fearing that if they don’t, they must be incapable.

3 Comments on “When Persistence Isn’t Enough”

  • Jessica Stewart on September 13th 3:35 pm

    I am having a different problem altogether. I placed at the bottom when I took the EPT for college. Like an idiot, I dragged my feet when it came to math. I waited and waited until I ran out of excuses not to take the class . I failed the class that covers the first half of Elementry Algebra about three times before finally taking the self paced class and passing with a B. The following semester, I got into the class that covers the second half of the book, and was doing well until I had to go out for medical reasons. When I came back to school, I didn’t want to even attempt to pass a math class without the eyesight I’d lost during that last semester. I am now retaking the class I dropped, and have been crying at the drop of a dime because all of the skills I learned are all but gone. I have since then gotten help , am caught up, and have formed a pretty decent relationship with my math teacher. Now I just need to try and get through the class without pulling out all my hair. Do you have any tips?

  • Rebecca Zook on October 1st 7:33 pm

    Hey Jessica, thank you for sharing your story here. I think you actually know what to do a lot better than you think! You got help, you got caught up, you’ve got a pretty good relationship with your math teacher — this is all great!

    First, it’s totally normal to forget some things if you don’t use them — nothing is wrong with you if this happens. Please just be compassionate with yourself. Even if it feels like you’re starting over from zero, relearning isn’t going to take as long as learning it the first time — unless you spend a lot of time and energy beating yourself up!

    Please look at all you’ve accomplished already – from dragging your feet and not even taking the class, to where you are now — you’re in a completely different place.

    I would say, just do a little bit every day; take breaks when you get overwhelmed (but with the intention of coming back after you’re refreshed – which is different than just giving up); continue to ask for help; figure out which part exactly is the part that’s unclear; if the resources you’re using don’t seem to be making sense, try a different book or check out a math video on youtube or ask someone else for help.

    You can do it– you’ve done it before!! Just keep doing what’s worked in the past for you and you will totally be able to do it! And I hope your eyesight continues to heal. Hugs to you!

  • Teddy on December 14th 1:48 am

    Your article is silmpy fabulous. It’s got a lot of interesting information that is well-written, engaging and intelligent. Your ideas are very smart and fresh. Thank you for creating such unique content for your readers.

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