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Learning About Learning

23 Jan 2014

People joke that studying abroad is just time spent dicking around. This is not an entirely false portrayal as my data has demonstrated. Traveling, socializing, and wasting time far overshadowed studying. But that doesn’t mean nothing was learned this term. Far from it actually; this has been one of my most educational semesters. Not only did I learn a surprising amount of technical concepts given how little time I spent in class, I also gained many real world skills and values.

Arguably the most important of the skills I’ve picked up is how to learn. Learning is something we’re always (or should always be) doing, and one can always do it better and more efficiently. To explain what I mean we have to start from the very beginning.

When I was in elementary school, my dad built me a program to practice basic arithmetic. I was to do a predetermined amount of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division per day, then take a screen shot of each set when I finished as proof. I figured out that I could instead just do four sets of addition, then edit the screen shots to make it look like I did the different operations. I didn’t actually care about this stuff; I only did it because my parents made me.

My dad eventually picked up on it. It seemed odd I could crank out the difficult division and multiplication problems at the same rate as the simple addition. He’d make modifications to prevent my cheating, but I’d find ways around the new features, and we continued the cycle until the program became unhackable. By that point I mastered arithmetic as a byproduct, despite trying everything I could to not. It probably helped that at the ripe young age of 9 my brain was an information sponge.

In elementary school, learning to me was gaming the system. I did it solely to please my parents.

When I hit high school, the tricks took on a different form. Gaming the system now meant being good at doing assignments and taking tests. Knowing what teachers will be looking for, how to make stuff up to get part marks, and how to make educated guesses on multiple choice questions. None of this actually required knowing any of the material, and that worked fine for me. I just wanted good grades to get into college.

Unfortunately, in order to get the grades I wanted to get into the colleges I wanted, the tricks alone weren’t sufficient. Most of our marks were comprised of assignments that I could do by simply getting word-for-word responses out of textbooks, but the tests were still significant enough that if I wanted A’s, I had to do something more for them. I now had to occasionally do real learning.

As everyone knows, the way to optimize real learning – to do it in the shortest amount of time possible – is to cram it all into my head right before the exam. This was totally fool proof. It got me what I wanted most of the time (grades) and it meant I didn’t have to exert mental effort for most of the school year. It didn’t matter that I forgot everything immediately after the exam. When I didn’t get the grades I wanted, I’d freak out and try to salvage the situation. It never occurred that maybe I should make changes to my study habits.

In high school, learning was committing things to short term memory. I did it to get into college.

I had one particular teacher in high school who took an unorthodox approach to teaching – Dr. Alan Letarte. His tests were unlike any of the practice problems and each one built upon the previous. They were all extremely difficult, requiring a deep understanding of the material along with creativity to get the answers. It was normal to fail the tests, but that didn’t mean you failed the course. His grading scheme factored in how much he felt you learned and how hard you tried.

Essentially, you couldn’t aim for marks. All you can do is aim to properly learn the material, and the grades naturally come with it. Dr. Letarte was trying to teach me to learn for the sake of learning, but I was so focused on getting grades that I didn’t think about how that applied outside of the class.

After I got into college my motivation for learning vanished. I saw people in my freshmen year being as I was before: obsessed with marks. But what was the point of it all now? Did it really matter if I got an extra point on this exam? A diploma is still a diploma. This thought process is probably why my grades tanked first semester and I lost my scholarship, but at least now I sought after a more meaningful purpose.

During this soul searching I found I actually enjoyed my classes. I took notes because what the professors said interested me, not because these were points to memorize for tests. What I learned had real world applications and I actually wanted to know more. Derivations weren’t just lines to recite and regurgitate on exams anymore, they were explanations for how things worked. I inadvertently found my purpose for learning: to learn.

Even though my purpose changed, my methods hadn’t really. Outside of class I was still too lazy to put in effort, and so I still crammed for exams. But even the cramming felt easier since things actually made sense now. And more of the material stuck around in my head after the exams. Just like with Dr. Letarte’s class, the grades naturally came.

It’s funny how I can hear the same lesson a million times and it won’t sink in, yet one day out of the blue it just does on its own. I guess they’re just meaningless words until I’m willing to accept and apply them.

In the first years of university, learning was still committing things to short term memory. I did it for the sake of learning.

With all the free time in the world on my hands this semester, I decided to focus on tasks outside of academia. There are many skills I’ve wanted to improve at, but always told myself I didn’t have enough time for. Well now I had the time.

I dove into the deep end and just did them. I told myself I had to start somewhere and it’s normal to suck at first. You have to suck before you can get good. Otherwise we’d all be masters at everything. One of the skills on my list was oral French. I joined a club where you speak with fluent francophones and I purchased a couple of French movies. And sure enough I sucked. Even after weeks I still couldn’t hold real conversations. There were gradual improvements, but it took huge tolls on my ego and confidence. I constantly felt frustrated with my failures and wanted to quit. I switched to speaking more English and considered leaving the club. Why did I do these things anyways?

I eventually arrived at the conclusion that it was because they interested me, and this got me thinking that perhaps there’s an overlap between learning skills and academics. When I cram for an exam, I don’t just dive in and try to study everything all at once. I break down the subject into the individual modules, then think about what I need to do to learn each of those.

I applied this same methodology. What are the specifics I want to get better at? What steps can I take to get better at each? Going one step further with the analysis, I broke down specifically what I did poorly and focused on those. For French, my main problems were identifying the words being spoken to me (speech segmentation) and then understanding the words (vocabulary). To practice distinguishing words, instead of just passively watching the movies I paused every time I didn’t understand a phrase and rewound. If I didn’t get it then, I’d try with English subtitles, and if that still didn’t work, French subtitles. It’s okay if I didn’t know the words; I just wanted to identify them. Vocabulary I practiced separately.

Approaching the smaller goals felt much more manageable and the progress much more visible. I could also space them out and work a bit at different skills each day, instead of dedicating whole days to just one. The busier days some got left out, but room still could be made for one or another. Not having time really was not a legitimate excuse.

Even things I had done for years without seeing much improvement changed. I’d been cooking since high school, but I always made the same dishes and never gave thought to how to make them better. This time I focused on knife skills, plating, getting meat to the perfect tenderness, and expanding my repertoire of sauces. To practice knife skills on its own, I read up on professionals’ techniques and bought weeks worth of spring onions at once and chopped them to oblivion, stopping after every batch to dissect my technique. My confidence rose and learning became fun. It seems there’s a pretty thin line between learning being fun and it being frustrating.

Since the methodology got revised, I applied it back to academics. That is, instead of cramming, doing a bit every day and analyzing where I have to improve. As a side effect, since I reflected on the material it began connecting in my mind with previous courses I’d taken. It’s as if there was actually a purpose to all our courses, like someone crafted what we learned into a curriculum or something.

Now, learning is doing things habitually in manageable steps and reflecting on how to improve along the way. I do it for the sake of learning.

I’m sure not everyone had to go through the steps that I did to reach this final conclusion, but it makes me wonder if there’s a way to teach people – like me back in the day – who don’t want to learn. Is there a way to help them reach the mindset to want to learn? Looking back, it’s a shame that I wasted all those years. There’s so much I want to know that I’m sure got taught to me back in high school, but that I’ve since forgotten.

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