A strategy for recovering your confidence and fixing the problem when struggling with confusing course material

A seriously productive way that I have found to cope with a course or tutorial that I’m struggling with, is to turn myself into an amateur course reviewer and re-designer.

This is how I get over the excruciating humiliation of struggling with anything that feels to me as if it been written ‘for the contemptibly ignorant’ (as anything which somehow manages to combine being insultingly condescending yet bafflingly unintelligible seems to be intended to make you feel).

The (er, apparently insufficiently humble?) person who put the course together was themselves also ignorant at some point in their past, so a bit more humility would do very nicely, thank you.

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As my first example of the kind of unacceptable (but almost certainly unintentional) arrogance that this tutorial detox approach is aimed at fixing, let me admit (and you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn) that I’m personally just as guilty of these very transgressions (yes, even in the course of ‘correcting’ the very same kinds of transgressions of others) as anyone else (sigh, I feel better already, probably a dangerously premature sensation: this article is itself a skimpy kind of ‘tutorial’, so I’m pretty sure I’ve already committed plenty of you-know-whats, for example, see items 9 and 10 below).

Here’s a list of things you can look for in the course material: any one of them can make the whole thing much harder to understand than it needs to be.

    1. unexplained terms
    2. confusing or inadequate explanations of terms
    3. inconsistent ‘difficulty level’
    4. dives ‘too deep too early’
    5. missing explanations of concepts
    6. lack of context/background/relevance given
    7. lack of flow/connectedness/structure
    8. no indication of how to apply concepts/techniques
    9. convoluted sentences
    10. very long paragraphs
    11. too many concepts before an example is given
    12. a shortage/absence of examples
    13. examples that seem to make things harder, not easier to understand
    14. unrepresentative/irrelevant examples
    15. unrealistic/unhelpful examples
    16. too many new concepts ‘bunched together’ in a short piece of text
    17. confusingly self-referential examples
    18. seemingly (or actually) self-contradictory claims
    19. unnecessarily complex diagrams
    20. unhelpful/inadequate exercises

Obviously, just being able to spot these kinds of flaws won’t necessarily render the confusing course material intelligible, but at least you will be able to reassure yourself that the fact that you are struggling cannot simply be put down to the possibility that you just don’t have what it takes to learn the subject.

They demonstrate that the author was fallible too, and that if these shortcomings were addressed, the learning process would be more productive.

If others have struggled less than you with the material, it may be because they already had some prior knowledge of the subject matter, or because they have more of an aptitude for untangling or deciphering what essentially amounts to unnecessarily cryptic material.

Coupled with this is the possibility that, as a result of the things that are inevitably making it harder to understand, many others may not have really understood it even though they thought that they did, with the consequence that there may never have been the feedback that the author would have needed in order to change the content.

If the content has been around for a long time and used by many, the fact that such fundamental flaws as those in the list above can still be found in the materials usually says a lot about the failure of feedback to fix the problem so far.

By the way, did you notice things that I deliberately left out of that list?

Things like:

Failing to cite sources, not providing sufficient further reading recommendations, chapters/sessions too long, unnecessary repetition, not explaining how/why you got some answers wrong in the exercises.

Why leave those out?

Because becoming an amateur course reviewer purely to help yourself cope (psychologically? it’s probably mostly about convincing yourself not to give up) with the struggle you’re having trying to make sense of the course material, does not mean that you have to turn yourself into a professional course designer, and that shorter second list is just the beginning of a much longer list that experienced professionals will be expected to address.

It’s just a means to an end

But, if you’re like me, you might just find that you get carried away with your own enthusiasm, or just feel inclined to give payback for the nightmare that the original course designer put you though.

A word of warning, if that’s how you end up feeling:

Sometimes the preparation of introductory course material can be a (lengthy and arduous) labour of love, and it’s just not reasonable, helpful or fair for you to let the well-intentioned efforts of the author of that material go unrecognised, whatever difficulties you have been experiencing.

Keep the whole thing positive and sympathetic

Despite your feelings of indignation at the seemingly condescending tone of the material, unless you have almost superhuman insight (or at the very least a powerful natural gift) which allows you to put perfect introductory course material together quickly and painlessly, you need to realise that some of the ‘worst offenders’, in terms of the things which make many ‘beginners guides’ infuriatingly frustrating, are in many cases materials that you are likely to have discovered to be available for free online.

If the course material was obtained from someone who published it for free online, then rather than ‘getting mad’ (and just complaining) or even ‘getting even’ (and just showing off that you can do it better than them) why not consider entering into the same spirit of generosity as the person who put together and freely released the original material, and attempt to ‘get into correspondence with them’ offering your efforts as feedback?

If tentative contact with the course material’s author (and as this is intended to be productive and collaborative, I would recommend being as friendly, grateful, respectful and discreet as possible, so I wouldn’t recommend initiating this in a public forum or social media) reveals that they are positively receptive to you providing feedback on their course material, remember to tread much more lightly on their feelings than you feel they trod on yours.

Just pause and recall how easy it is to unintentionally sound annoyingly overconfident when you are explaining things (I’ll bet that what I’ve written here suffers from my own lack of sensitivity to this).

Any ‘how to’ tends to be very ‘instructional’ which makes it quite hard to avoid coming across as a know-all: nonetheless it’s a good idea to try and lighten things up by trying to be a little more chatty and informal whenever you can.