Learning How to Learn | By Jenny Lou

I Swear I’m Not An Idiot, But It’s Taken Me Fifteen Years to Learn How to Learn

Today, I woke up with the disconcerting realization that I am entering my third year of my undergraduate science degree.  It has taken me fifteen years- starting from kindergarten to second year university- to grasp that I’m only now understanding how to learn.

When my grade ten English teacher introduced me to the term “metacognition” meaning thinking about thinking, the concept flew over my head. School was easy. Everything was straightforward. Back then my learning process consisted of:

1) Understanding the simple concepts.

2) Memorizing the few things I did not understand the night before the exam.

This lazy process didn’t distinguish between what I actually understood and what I did not. However, seeing as it worked well on exams for years, I failed to think about how I learned.

Then along came my second year of university. Concepts were much more complex and much more in depth. Exams were no longer a matter of memorizing and then recieving my A+. Instead, I had to understand the simple and the difficult concepts. Some exams even required that I apply what I learned!

It was a shocking revelation to my indignant self that memorizing facts did not mean that I understood the concept. I learned quickly that there is a difference between memorizing and understanding.

To favor memorizing over understanding is to sabotage yourself. You are robbing yourself of the opportunity to truly learn. Understanding requires that you connect an idea to a network of others, you are able to extrapolate that idea to predict or understand novel situations.

This epiphany led me to experiment with different techniques aimed to maximize understanding. I found Scott Young’s blog (http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/) to be extremely helpful. Scott Young is a learning phenom who taught himself four years worth of MIT computer science courses in one year. Using some of his advice,  I started visualizing and making analogies during lectures. I also toyed with daily review, which upon reflection, I wish I had firmly implemented.

Here are a few tips to staying sane and learning how to learn:

Daily review requires discipline, but it pays dividends in stress relief and retaining one’s sanity.

Looking over a lecture after class makes a world of difference. My first review of the notes is dedicated to making sense of the concepts, while the second review is for internalizing the material. An abundance of detail may necessitate a third review. In terms of figuring out concepts, writing them out in my own words is magical.  Even after I explain ideas aloud to myself, a dense fog of confusion may persist. However, when I write things out, the fog instantly dissipates. Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff: writing my own notes requires copious amounts of time. Ultimately though, learning requires time, effort, and discipline.

On Cramming

Sometimes, there is no avoiding cramming. Although, since taking physiology 214, I have sworn to minimize cramming.  Out of desperation, the day before our physiology final, a few friends and I locked ourselves up in a classroom and crammed for 15 hours. It was probably the worst day of my life. Every hour that raced by was agony. We had slides the size of Mount Everest to study, and I was constantly rebudgeting the amount of studying time for each topic.

Argh, I didn’t get through the endocrine system in two hours!! Now I have to do the reproductive system in one and a half hour and the renal system in an hour?!

As our doom approached, my bloodshot eyes were accelerating through slides at a speed my brain couldn’t process. In truth, I was panicking more than I was studying, and that simply doesn’t facilitate learning. The next day, we cried rivers of tears at the funeral for our grades.

Tip: For all the students taking physiology 214: Do. Not. Cram. There’s too much material for cramming to be effective.

While learning to learn is crucial to academics, perseverance may be more so.

Performing badly on a midterm is never grounds for giving up on a course, especially if the course is curved.  The curve can work miracles. In my second semester of first year, I took a physics course that taught me about the nearly invisible line between success and failure. After doing horrendously on a midterm, I doubted that I would be able to achieve my goal of an A. I ended up receiving an A-. When I went through my final exam with the prof, he told me that I was only 1% away from an A. Naturally, I was regretful. If I had only just gotten one or two more questions right on the final… If there was just one more concept that I had went over… Of course I didn’t know at the time that just a little bit more effort would make such a huge difference. I’ve learned to squeeze in every iota of effort, because I don’t know if it could push me over that fine line.

With the new school year, take some time to think about how you learn. Learning to learn could be the most valuable skill you acquire in life. When coupled with perseverance, this skill will unveil incredible opportunities for growth- such as internships, research and travel.

Good luck with the new school year! Despite all the challenges you may face, remember to persevere. This excerpt from one of my favourite poems, entitled “You Mustn’t Quit” by Author Unknown summarizes this sentiment.


“Success is failure turned inside out-

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt-

And you never can tell how close you are,

It may be near when it seems afar;

So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit-

It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.”

Image courtesy Lifesupercharger on Flickr

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