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EMT 360: Don’t study hard, study smart

The flipped classroom challenges students to study smart, instead of merely memorizing facts and rote repetition of psychomotor skills

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As intriguing a concept as it may be to allow your students to learn in the manner which best suits them, it fails if your students literally don’t know which learning style suits them best.

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Individual learning styles can be key in mastering new information or skills.

One issue often overlooked in implementation of flipped classrooms – in which you do your homework in class and your classwork at home – is how to study.

You can tell your students, “Learn this stuff at home, and we’ll show you how to apply it on Monday,” but what happens if your students don’t know how to learn? As intriguing a concept as it may be to allow your students to learn in the manner which best suits them, it fails if your students literally don’t know which learning style suits them best.

In every cohort, I encounter students who simply don’t know how to study efficiently. It’s not something new or unique to flipped classrooms; it has been a problem as long as I have been a teacher. Whatever the reason, all too many adult learners seem to have escaped our educational system without ever learning how to learn. Through recitation and rote memorization, they manage to cobble together enough facts to pass a test and fail to retain that knowledge soon thereafter; and by the time you’re ready to teach them to apply that knowledge in a flipped classroom, they’re exhausted, discouraged and disinterested.

In other words, incapable of expending the energy necessary to attain those higher rungs on Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives or cognitive skills.

Learning how to study

I spend a significant amount of time on study skills in the first few weeks of an EMT class. It’s not a natural subject for me; I’ve never had to study. What tips and tricks I can pass on aren’t from personal experience, because I’ve never had to exercise any academic discipline in my life. That’s a gift that I don’t take for granted, but on those occasions when I do need to learn something that I don’t intuitively grasp – like mathematics, for example – I’m left flailing ineffectively at math problems just like many of my students. It requires academic rigor and skills I’ve never had to develop.

Most people do not have one exclusive learning style – effective learners use a blend of visual, auditory, read/writing and kinesthetic methods, often referred to as VARK. However, many of us do have one preferred method or at least one we begin with to help us conceptualize the problem.

I was reminded of that fact while struggling to pass college algebra this semester. I fought college math to a draw multiple times in my youth and dreaded taking it again. The first half of the semester, I worked diligently, doing every problem assigned, all the practice problems I could find, watched every assigned video tutorial and basically worked myself into a nervous wreck.

Average score on the first two exams: 60%, and I reached the time limit on both exams.

I froze on tough problems, leaving the answers blank. I made careless mistakes on easy problems, from reversing signs to simply writing down numbers wrong from my calculator. After a pep talk from my professor (who offered well-intentioned but ineffective advice and encouraged me not to drop the course), I tried something different.

Instead of diligently working problems on the computer and wasting a notebook’s worth of scratch paper, I printed out every single one. I worked it out in painstaking detail, omitting not a single step. I made little notes to myself aimed at catching my most common careless mistakes - “Remember, dummy, domain is X values, range is Y values,” or “Watch the signs here, doofus. You screw this up every time.”

I memorized every single one, until I could see the steps in my head. Then I took the blank problems and worked them again, comparing my answers to my notes. Then I took different versions of those same problems and worked those. On concepts where I was still unclear, I asked my math tutor.

Basically, I rewrote a friggin’ math textbook in my own words.

Along the way, something amazing happened. I stopped making careless mistakes. Concepts started making sense. I started making intuitive leaps, applying concepts I had previously learned to new problems. I learned how to extrapolate and attack a problem in multiple ways.

Average score on the last two exams: 96%, and I finished each with over 30 minutes to spare.

As a visual learner, practice and repetition were ineffective for me; it was just numbers piled upon more numbers. I had to see the entire problem worked out to understand it. Once I framed those meaningless numbers into something I could visualize, math made sense.

I stopped studying hard and started studying smart.

It was an effective learning strategy that I didn’t develop until age 50, because I’d never been challenged at learning anything.

How the flipped classroom model challenges students

I was reminded of that last week in EMT 360 class when one of our students, an honor student in high school and a former EMT whose training had lapsed, remarked that she was struggling to understand physiology and pathophysiology. She’d never been challenged academically, including her first EMT class. Merely memorizing facts and rote repetition of psychomotor skills had been enough to pass.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she groaned. “I’ve highlighted just about every damned word of this book!”

I smiled knowingly, because I’ve encountered this before. “You’re highlighting what you think is important, right?” I asked.

“Yes! And it’s all important! I’m scared you’re going to ask me something I don’t know!”

She was studying hard, but not smart.

“Ditch the highlighter,” I advised. “I had better not see an open textbook or a highlighter in my classroom, unless I explicitly tell you to take it out.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as other students guiltily put theirs away.

“My job in this class is to provide the information that textbook doesn’t provide,” I told them. “It provides facts, I provide context and application. You should be taking notes, paraphrasing what I say in terms that make sense to you. Use your highlighters at home, when you do your required reading. Don’t highlight what you think is important – textbook publishers already do that, in bold type and little charts, tables and boxes in the margins – highlight what you don’t understand. Then, email me for clarification or, better yet, ask me in class because it’s a solid bet one or more of your classmates didn’t understand it, either.”

I was met with stunned looks, and I had to remind myself that while a flipped classroom is an effective method, it asks students to employ strategies and techniques they’ve never had to develop in traditional classrooms. I went on to demonstrate, yet again, our online multimedia library and YouTube channel, and our recorded lecture archives and “Ask My Instructor” feature in their learning management system.

Most of them had been studying hard with varying degrees of success. We’ll see how they do with studying smart.

Follow Kelly’s progress as he implements a new teaching strategy focusing on patient interaction. Read: EMT 360: A new approach to EMT education columnist Kelly Grayson, is a paramedic ER tech in Louisiana. He has spent the past 14 years as a field paramedic, critical care transport paramedic, field supervisor and educator. Kelly is the author of the book Life, Death and Everything In Between, and the popular blog A Day in the Life of An Ambulance Driver.