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Carnegie Mellon class of 2022.

The roadmap of all my learning, statistics, and biology articles.

We all want to learn. But some popular ideas of “how learning works” are downright wrong, so the best approaches are overlooked.

Interpreting statistics is an important skill. But in my experience as a TA for intro stats, I’ve seen how some concepts are easily confused.

And as a neuroscience major, I’ve been taught a breadth of valuable biology topics. I notice they haven’t necessarily translated well in popular science, though.

I’m here to clear things up. Here’s the rundown:

To learn, a learner needs to store a well-developed web of relevant knowledge in long-term memory.

Formal education offers better sequential organization.

Almost everything taught in college courses can be learned on the Internet for free. But Internet users largely aren’t using it to learn.

Even the most motivated of us are often just left with scattered bits of knowledge that tickled our pre-existing curiosity. Rarely does our “learning” look anything like the rich, well-connected web of knowledge we’d gain from a series of courses in a subject.

(Honestly, who do you trust more to understand physics: someone with a documented A in an undergraduate-level quantum physics course after getting an A in the required intro course, or someone who claims to…

Building richer mental maps of knowledge that stands the test of time— why’s it getting a bad rap?


In the traditional vs. progressive education debate, who wants to defend the musty old method, just lecturing and testing about old facts that’ll be forgotten? Who’d be opposed to engaging activities building creativity and preparing learners for the future?

I say, someone who actually understands what “traditional” education is. Let’s clear up some misconceptions that give it a bad rap:

1. It calls for memorizing isolated facts.

Truth: It calls for building long-term memory of a rich, coherent web of facts. You can’t connect the dots if you don’t know what the dots are.

It’s one thing to know the British defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588…

It’s not politics. The question is how people really learn.

The hot debates in education are not a simple question of “what works.” After all, what are we working towards? Most disagreement stems from a fundamental difference in ideology.

It’s the difference between what’s known as traditional education:

What makes something interesting or useful depends on prior knowledge.

Recently I saw the question, Should students be taught things that are interesting or useful? A glance at today’s curriculum would tell you they’re being taught neither — who cares about proving triangles are congruent or balancing chemical equations? Who actually needs it?

But this question gets it backwards. To teach what’s “interesting” assumes we should emphasize what young people would already find interesting. To teach what’s “useful” assumes we can prepare them for what’s already expected to be useful in their lives.

The point is to expand the possibilities of what can be “interesting” and “useful.”

Facts aren’t inherently…

There’s no all-purpose substitute for subject knowledge.

You’re concerned about the troubling precedent a viewpoint would set? There’s a term for that — the slippery slope fallacy.

You feel it would violate basic human sensibilities? Nice appeal to emotion there.

Your skepticism is shaped by your experience? You must think anecdotes count as valid data.

You spot a conflict of interest that could threaten the credibility of my sources? Don’t you know that’s an ad hominem?

You don’t want the population subjected to an unprecedented experiment? Just an appeal to nature fallacy.

If traditional school subjects fail to “teach critical thinking,” as critics say, what should be…

It measures nothing but subject knowledge. Here’s how.

Lament all you want about “closed-ended” multiple choice questions, but this format clearly isn’t going away. With so many state standardized tests, college entrance exams, and certification assessments taken every year, we need items that are simple to grade — simple to distinguish those who know the stuff from those who don’t.

Thankfully, some of the biggest pitfalls can be avoided with thoughtful design. Some of this lies in the wording of the answers themselves: test-takers should be getting them right because they actually know the answers, not because they know what a “right” answer tends to look like. …

In introductory statistics, students are exposed to key concepts they’re not familiar with — but the words for them aren’t so unfamiliar. It’s too easy to misinterpret whole problems just by mixing up these different meanings.

Let’s be clear about what these common statistical terms actually mean.


I notice a recent revival in “starting conversations with women in public” discourse. On one hand, folks say women are overly defensive, unfairly assuming the worst of men. On the other hand, folks say if women get in situations that make them feel uncomfortable, they only have themselves to blame for getting there.

In reality, there isn’t a dichotomy between letting an unfamiliar man talk to you and letting him down. You can politely push past discomfort for a while, but if he wants to keep pursuing you, you’ll have to let him down eventually. You know at any step…

Now more than ever, we need to be able to pay attention.

Schools of the 21st century call for active learning, say edu-advocates. When students have to figure things out for themselves, they experience “deeper” understanding than if they were just “spoon-fed” by an instructor.

Under this narrative, the way to learn new content is through hands-on exploration, inquiry projects, group work — anything other than sitting silently and being taught directly. If you support the simple old-fashioned way, you want students to be passive.

Perhaps “active learning” originally meant nothing more than “learning through activities,” but contrasted with “passive,” it takes on a new implication. To be a “passive learner” sounds…

Lucia Bevilacqua

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