This edition is more up to date, but the basic message has not changed much. A fundamental idea that you will encounter over and again, is that learning is not something that just happens to you, it is something that you do to yourself. You cannot be “given” learning nor can you be forced to do it. The most brilliant and inspired teacher cannot “cause” you to learn. Only you can do that What follows are some fairly explicit “learning activities” or behaviors, but they are all your activities, and now and then those of your fellow students.
But there is also a basic assumption underlying these ideas, and that’s that you do want to learn something while getting a diploma. Without that desire, nothing will work. Some words we need to understand It happens, too often, that someone reads a passage or paragraph, as you are, and gets an idea very different from what the writer intended. This is almost always because the reader has somewhat different meanings for the words than did the writer. So that we don’t have that problem here I’ll make clear the meanings I intend by the words use. We’ll start with: Learning: While few people think of it this way, learning is a biological process.
It is indeed biological because thinking occurs when certain webs (networks) of neurons (cells) in your brain begin sending signals to other webs of neurons. You, of course, are not conscious of this process, but only of the thought that results. But there is no doubt that thinking is the result of webs of cells in your brain sending signals to other webs. How can knowing what causes thought help in the learning process? Start by considering that human learning has two components: 1) understanding 2) Remembering Either of these by itself is not sufficient.
Knowing a bit about how the brain arks when you’re thinking will help you to see why both understanding and remembering are necessary for learning. Anytime you encounter a new idea (and that, after all, is why you are in college) you need to “make sense” of it, or, to understand it. And if you are actually trying to make sense of it, your brain is firing a lot of webs of neurons until one or more of them “sees” the logic or causality in a situation. Understanding sometimes comes in a flash and we feel, “Oh, I get it! ” Other times it takes repeated exposure or the use of analogies until we finally “get it. But if we never get it, then we still don’t understand-?we haven’t tried enough circuits in the brain. So, right from the beginning, making sense of what you read or hear involves focused attention and concentration, in other words, “brain work. ” I’m confident that almost all college students “could” understand what is required of them by focusing attention on what is being read or heard, and stick with it until the thoughts in their heads pretty much matched those of the speaker or writer. Unhappily, this is not the way all students in college behave.
The most frequent complaint I hear from college instructors is that too many of heir students are simply “passive observers. ” So the big rule about understanding is that it cannot be achieved passively. It demands an active and focused mind. Some very bright students find little difficulty in understanding what they hear or read. But some of these smart people get very poor grades and sometimes drop out. The reason is, they neglect the second part of learning, which is remembering. For most people, I suspect, remembering is more difficult than understanding.
I would suggest that this is because few people know much about memory, or that it is likewise a biological process involving the firing Of ebbs of neurons in the brain. Most people think of memories as ideas, pictures, or events that are lodged somewhere in their heads, and these places simply need to be “found. ” The fact, however, is that memories are not things always present somewhere in our heads. Memories must be reconstructed each time they are remembered. This reconstruction, in biological terms, means firing up almost the same webs of neurons that were used to perceive the original event.
This would seem to be easy, but it is not in most cases. Here’s the reason. Use it or lose it These webs I’ve been speaking of are networks of connected neurons. The details do not need to be understood, but the fact is, the connections between brain cells are not necessarily permanent. Much of our brain is not hard wired. One can think Of neurons as having a big, important rule, “if the connection I made gets used a lot, it must be doing something important or useful, so I will strengthen the connection so it doesn’t fall apart. ” And that’s exactly what it does (even though, in fact, it itself doesn’t know what it’s doing. Now the bad news. If a neuron makes a connection that does not get used (no matter how useful it might have been) it breaks the connection and it’s probably gone forever. In short, neural circuits that get used become stable, those that do not get used fall apart. So it is that we can understand something quite clearly, and some time later not be able to remember what it was we understood. The biological explanation is that the ‘Web of understanding” was not used enough to become stable, so it fell apart. If you’ve followed all of this you probably see the bad news coming.
If learning means both understanding and remembering, we have to practice what we understand. Without rehearsal, that fantastic circuitry that enabled our understanding will gradually disintegrate and we can no longer reconstruct hat we once understood. Some readers are no doubt wanting to get on to the “tricks” for getting high grades. But for a lot of college courses, getting a high grade involves only one trick-?learn the material. Learning, as described here, is the trick that always works. Learning is the goal-?keep that always in mind through the rest of these pages.
Grades will take care of themselves. 2 The Classroom The classroom might be very traditional-?a collection of students in chairs and an instructor at the front-?or people seated at computer terminals, or alone at home with the computer. So long as these are in some way interactive” with an instructor, the following suggestions will be valid and useful. The reason something must be said about so commonplace a thing as the classroom is that too many students see it incorrectly and so they waste a highly valuable occasion for learning.
The most common misconception is that the class period is that occasion when the instructor tells you what you need to know to pass the tests. Seen this way, it can only be a dreary thing, and from this perception flow a number of bad habits and behaviors that make learning more laborious and less interesting that it can be and should be. ‘Taking” notes old like to see the expression ‘taking notes” removed from the vocabulary and replaced with one often used in Great Britain, that is “making notes. “Taking” implies a passive reception of something someone else has made. It too often consists of copying what’s on a chalkboard or being projected on a screen. Copying from a projected image is usually quite difficult and trying to copy what someone is saying is nearly impossible. Attempts to take notes in this way produces something that is usually quite incomplete, often garbled and has the awful effect of turning off the listening part of the brain. We are to capable of focusing attention on two different activities at the same time.
So we miss what an instructor is saying while we concentrate on writing what he has already said, or copying from the board or screen. Some instructors compensate by making notes for the students and passing them out. This practice can help the better students-? those who already know how to learn-?but for many others it only makes matters worse. For a passive person, having a set of teacher-prepared notes means that they now have nothing to do during the class period. So they just sit, or daydream, or doze off, and often quit coming to class altogether.
Why not, if its all in the notes? Two more definitions will help to see that this is a recipe for failure. Information vs. Knowledge Even college professors and authors of books often confuse these words or use them interchangeably. In fact they mean very different things. Lets start with information. The world is awash In information. All the books in the library have information, as do journals, magazines, and the uncountable number of websites and postings on the internet. All of this information is transferable from one medium to another, sometimes with lightening speed.
None of it, however, is knowledge! The reason being that knowledge can only exist in someone’s head. Furthermore, the expression “transfer of knowledge” is ridiculous because it describes the impossible. This might be a novel or surprising idea so let’s examine it further. Suppose your chemistry teacher has a correct and fairly thorough knowledge of oxidation/reduction reactions. Can this knowledge be transferred to you? How wonderful if it could be. Something like a “transfusion” or “mind meld” and you know instantly what he/she knows!
None of that is possible. All your teacher can give you is information, and perhaps the inspiration for you to do our part. This information is always in the form of symbols. These symbols might be words,-?spoken or written-?numbers, signs, diagrams, pictures, and so on. You cannot learn anything unless you have previous knowledge of the meaning of the symbols. As a clear example, you cannot learn from someone speaking Fairs if you know only English, no matter how accurate and useful the information embedded in that language.
This idea-?new knowledge depends greatly on prior knowledge-?will come up again later. 3 But if, happily, you can indeed “make sense” of new information on chemical actions (or anything else) you can then construct your own knowledge by using the new information and incorporating it into your prior knowledge base. But, as noted above, this will involve using some not-used-before neural connections, so if you want to remember what you now understand, you must practice, that is review a number of times, or use the new knowledge repeatedly to solve problems or answer questions.
Remember the rule about new knowledge-?use it or lose it. So, what do have to do? All of this talk about brains, information, and knowledge is not just abstract theory. It is the way we learn. The way to learn, then, is to align your own activities with those behaviors we already know will work. Time Time is nothing at all like the way we talk about it. How often do you hear someone say that they “didn’t have time? ” It’s a perfectly meaningless expression. When you wake up on a Sunday morning, you have exactly 168 hours of time until the following Sunday morning.
And everybody on the planet gets 168 hours. No one ever has any more or any less time than anyone else! Time cannot be ‘found,” nor “stretched,” nor “compressed,” nor “lost. ” It cannot be “saved” or “bought,” or in any other way “managed” for any legalistic meaning of the word “manage. ” So why do we use all these meaningless expressions? It’s because they let us avoid the embarrassing process of examining our priorities, a ranked list of those things we hold to be important.
Sleeping is a high priority for everyone-?it’s a biological necessity, like food-?so we all spend a fair amount of our allotted time blissfully unconscious. Now, what about the rest of our 1 68 hours? For someone who has to work part time to meet expenses, work is a high priority activity and they show up on schedule and on time because losing the job would mean going the income and the consequences would be serious. So, after sleeping, eating, working, and, one hopes, going to classes, the rest of our 168 hours are spent doing whatever we find personally important.
For some, doing assignments, reading books, writing reports and the like are important, so they always get done. For some others, TV, “hanging out,” the internet, and partying are of primary importance, and sometimes they fill up so many of the 168 hours available that there is nothing left at the end of the week. Remember, no one gets more than 168 hours, so anyone who thinks they can do it all” is always going to “run out of time. ” It’s your priorities and not the clock that will determine the outcome of your college experience.
If it’s really important, it will always get done, and always at the expense of the less important. Studying You and your teachers will use the word “study’ frequently, and always assuming that it means the same thing to everyone. But it doesn’t. For way too many college students, particularly in the first year, study never happens until just before a test. Teachers are amazed at the idea, but many students simply see no reason to study if there is no test on the horizon. So here in a nutshell is a most serious misunderstanding between college teachers and beginning students.
For teachers, the purpose of study is to understand and remember the course content; for students the purpose Of study is to pass the tests. Now in an ideal world these would amount to the same thing. But in the real world, unfortunately, you can pass some tests without learning much at all. This is not the place for me to beat up on my colleagues, but some do produce truly simple-minded exams that do not require much by way of preparation. So here’s an absolutely heroic idea if you find yourself bored tit a class; try learning more than the teacher demands.
Wake up your childhood curiosity and ask why other people find this discipline so interesting that they spend 4 their lives at it. I can about guarantee that there are bright, articulate, and interesting writers in every college discipline. Find a good book and read. That way you’ll learn something even if the teacher doesn’t demand it. But such “gut” courses might be rare in your college. The ones that cause trouble and hurt the grade point average are those where the teacher expects serious learning, but leaves most of it up to you. How do you cope with that? Tough Courses What makes a course tough?
Well, sometimes it only means large amounts of material, many pages to read, lots of writing assignments, and the like. But the really tough course is one where the subject itself is complex, or presents difficult problems for the learner to deal with, and often goes faster than students would find comfortable. Suppose we add to that a super-smart teacher, but one who simply assumes you know how to learn, and sprays information like a fire hose. For a typical first year student this is the famous “worst case scenario. ” The whole purpose of my writing is to help you cope tit worst case scenarios.
During the Lecture In these tough courses the first idea you must abandon is that you can sit, “take” notes, and worry about it later. Here’s another key idea to bring with you to every lecture period. Worry about it now. You can look upon your teacher as an adversary, something that stands between you and a diploma, but that’s a defeatist and erroneous idea. It’s better to think of the instructor as your private tutor. Most teachers welcome a considered question on the content. They nearly all resent questions like, “is this going to be on the test? ”