What are the Traits of a Zombie Learner?

In case you havent noticed, zombies are cool. In a video produced by TEDEd, the neuroscientists Tim Verstynen and Brad Voytek took a light-hearted look at zombies.

Verstynen and Voytek have identified nine traits in zombies. They examined how the traits relate back to the brain. I want to look at these traits in the context of the zombie learner to see if we can extend them to the metaphor.

1) Impulse-Reactive Aggression

Zombies are not full of personality. In the Walking Dead, they are depicted as constantly moving and overall pretty dull. However, get their attention and they work themselves into a snarling rage. Zombie learners like to remain in the background of the class taking it all in. However, ask them to actively participate and they can be very defensive. How dare we interrupt their passive learning by asking them to do something! Once they are confronted with active learning, there is almost nothing you can do to make them happy. They would rather sit and stew. This type of behavior is not as common as it once was. Students are now much more social and likely to participate in a class actively.

2) A Lumbering Walk

How many times have you watched a student enter the classroom with all the enthusiasm of Vienna Sausage? In courses that meet general education requirements, we often find students who really don’t want to be in the class or think that they don’t need to be in the class. They came to college to learn the good stuff in their major! Although they may not say it, you can see it in their posture and how they walk…a lumbering walk.

3) Long-Term Memory Loss

This may be the most obvious trait of the zombie learner…the inability to remember concepts for any period of time longer than when the next quiz or test is. Just this past week, several students emailed me complaining that they had no problem getting through the homework. However the quiz was a different matter – it was so different from the homework. Ironically, the questions for the quizzes are taken off of the homework. They are encouraged to use their notes and textbook on the quiz. However, I think their note taking ability is so poor that they either don’t take them or are not able to read the notes they do take.

If they are able to remember they key concepts for the quiz, it is even more challenging for zombie learners to remember the concepts for the final or apply them to any real life situation. They can do basic percentage problems. But when they are at the big sale at Dillards, can they check to see they are getting the discount that is marked on the rack?

4) Language Deficits

Zombies do not communicate very well. Besides a few grunts or maybe the vague “Brains!”, they don’t interact much on a verbal level. Similarly, zombie learners do not like to communicate at all in class. But the communication deficit goes beyond classroom behavior.

As instructors, we see hundreds of students every year. After several years of teaching, we can often predict the student behaviors that will lead a student to be unsuccessful. It is frustrating to watch students falling into the same traps every semester. I have taken to warning students in class and online about successful student behavior.

  • “Don’t wait until the night before the project is due to start it!”
  • “Prepare before you come to class…read the section or at least look it over.”
  • “Stay organized…use the calendar to know when assignments are due.”

I am sure each of you can add to this list. No matter how many times I say this, post online, or email them, zombie learners fail to do the things that they need to do to be successful. Is it inattention? A language deficit? Or maybe something to do with the next trait?

5) Self / Other Delusion

Zombie learners are often convinced that they either do not belong in a class (particularly developmental classes) or that they can learn the content in a night of cramming. They convince themselves that they do not need to work very hard to complete the required coursework. “Sociology is all about how human society works…I am a part of human society…it is all just common sense.” In math class, we often here students ask, “When will I ever use this?” When the subject matter seems to be trivial or is unconnected to their experience, zombie learners tend to do as little as possible. Certainly this leads to Trait 3 above…if it seems unimportant, memorize instead of understand.

6) Diminished Pain Perceptions

Zombie are known to be unstoppable. Cut off a leg or an arm. They will still keep coming. Certainly we cannot extend the zombie metaphor in a physical pain sense…often an ingrown toenail will prevent zombie learners from coming to class. However, what about the pain of a poor grade on an exam or paper? Zombie learners typically are unaffected by lousy grades. In fact, poor grades are often held up to some type of mark of honor. Zombie learners often like to make their failures public in an attempt to gain empathy from their classmates.

7) Stimulus-Locked Attention

Zombie learners fixate on the most basic definitions and processes. But they fail to integrate these terms to understand the big picture. In my classes, I give weekly homework and quizzes which students may take an unlimited number of times prior to the deadline. These assessments help to reinforce basic processes…how to solve a quadratic equation…how to factor a polynomial. This is the content that is needed to apply math to real problems.

My zombie students will take quizzes 5 or 6 times in order to get 100%. Often they will spend a huge amount of time to simply increase a quiz score (less than 1% of their overall grade) by a tiny amount. Their perception is that getting a good score on the quiz means that they “understand” the math. But when it comes to applying math to a real life situation with the same mathematics, they struggle. They are more focused on the quiz grade than understanding how to use math to their advantage.

8) Flesh Addiction

I am at a bit of a loss to extend flesh addiction to zombie learners and I am a little scared to try. Perhaps traits associated with addiction?

9) Insatiable Hunger

This one is a bit of a stretch…have you noticed how much time your zombie students spend in the dining hall. It may be more of a social need, but they will spend an hour or two socializing over the best that Sodexo has to offer instead of working together in a study group. If the need is simply to socialize, why not in a study group? It seems the zombie student has more of a hunger for food than knowledge.

Do you have any additions to these traits? Can you extend the metaphor to your students?