This summer, I have been taking classes that I should have taken at the beginning of my college career….Oh well. Whereas most of my friends have graduated and are now entering the adult working life (suckers!), I get to commiserate with the next generation of students.
Yes, that’s right. Not only am I taking freshmen level courses in my graduate year of college, but to add insult to injury, I have to take these classes with…actual freshmen!
But instead of whining about my situation, I would rather be constructive about things. After all, as a wiser and more mature student, I ought provide guidance to my protégés. And so I shall. Today, I will write a letter to freshmen.
Put away those laptops. You aren’t fooling anyone. Everyone can see that you are surfing Facebook or watching a YouTube video…and while they don’t really care, you should. Because it’s not helping your grade, and you are paying several thousands of dollars each year for this privilege.
There is almost no conceivable way for your laptop to be the most effective way for you to be spending your class time. I will explain.
Even when I see you filling out a word document with the topic of today’s lecture, I fear that you are failing to take advantage of a great learning mechanism: the written word.
You may protest: you are writing the words…in your word document. But typing is not writing. Writing by hand reinforces the material, while typing the material simply doesn’t engage those parts of your brain [PDF alert].
Writing is too slow, you say? Learn to write more quickly, even if you must develop your own kind of shorthand.
This advice for writing carries to your other study habits. I see so many students who simply highlight parts of textbooks …and I wonder what they think they are getting from the exercise. There is no engagement of anything when you simply read and highlight. But writing…that requires mental concentration. Physical coordination. If you study by writing, you will always even be aware of exactly when you are too tired to continue to study.
I have read a little bit about different learning styles, and while I don’t know so much as to make this a part of my letter, I will point out that many people may underestimate their potential for learning best through writing.
No one told me even to consider that writing might be the way I retain information best…I just stumbled upon the discovery. But what a discovery it was! When I write my notes, I often don’t even need to reread them, because it’s the writing that solidifies the material for me. I can read a section of a textbook without processing, without digesting …but to rewrite that section into my own words rewires care. Writing forces me to take that level of care in a way that reading (or even worse, passing listening,) does not.
Maybe you get my point. Writing is a big deal. We cannot forget this just because there is convenient technology at our fingertips.
But while writing is important, how you write is also important.
I don’t understand note cards.
Note cards, in my opinion, silo off knowledge and facts. As if you were learning a hundred discrete points for an exam. And who knows, maybe in the past your teachers tested you by asking for each of those disparate points one by one.
But if this is how your educational career has tended so far, then shame on those who have so disserviced you. For there will come a point where this compartmentalized view will no longer take you any further.
Context. That is the goal in studying. Contextualization, not compartmentalization. And context demands more space to breathe than a note card.
Here’s a pro tip. You very rarely need to memorize beyond a certain basic point. After you know the functional vocabulary and first axioms of a subject, building upon those should be based on that internal logic, not on sheer mental force.
The reason for this is because when you are memorizing, you are often learning what. You may be learning how as well. But you probably aren’t learning why. And so when you come to a test, you have to regurgitate whats and hows, but if you have forgotten any of this, you can’t reason out to the answer because you don’t know why.
So notes should be about associations, connections, making sense of what appears to be disparate points.
I mean…right now, I’m taking a geography course. Every so often, the geography professor will say, “You just have to learn this” (usually referring to, say, climate patterns.) But the thing is…climate patterns aren’t arbitrary. Climatology as a field of study is based upon axioms (even if not perfectly understood) that the geography teacher didn’t necessarily explain (so that’s why they may seem arbitrary), but one can “figure” out what patterns should apply based on awareness of fundamental principles and vocabulary. And when there appear to be oddities, then that probably means there is a geographical feature that was missed (for example, this area is particular dry because it’s the lee side of a mountain: the rainshadow. But the mountain that blocks the rain is covered in a different section of the course.) To know what “lee side” and “rainshadow” mean are fundamental vocabulary, but to figure out why they work that way is something else.
So, note cards? I just don’t get them. But expansive maps of information? Diagrams and charts and arrows and pictures and cause-and-effects and timelines? These make sense.
Anyway, I could go on and on, but don’t just learn from me what you should be going for or how you can get it. Try it for yourself and learn why it works.
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