On learning.

This week is my first week back at university for the semester, sometimes known as “syllabus week”. In my experience, there’s usually only one lecture that covers the course outline and expectations, and then professors tend to dive right into the content. These introductory classes are generally perceived as necessary but dull and often include the same logistical information regarding late submissions or technology usage as every other university course.

Today, though, I had two excellent introductory lectures (my discrete mathematics and software development courses) that not only clearly communicated the objectives and strategies of the classes but reminded me how exciting it is to be in school and learn. I think what was particularly noticeable about these two lectures is that they were both for second year students, but being in my fourth year I could clearly see the importance of the habits and techniques that the professors were emphasizing. I’ve found that one of the most striking qualities of learning is looking back on the advice I was given earlier and realizing how much better off I would be had I truly taken it to heart. I imagine it must be challenging for educators to witness students’ ineffective strategies despite their best efforts to encourage more fruitful habits, and conversely the feeling of success and pride when a student truly gets what they’ve been trying to communicate.

So in an attempt to implement the advice given by two of my professors today, which is to continually reflect on your learning and synthesize your experiences at university, this post is about three major lessons that I feel like I’ve internalized during my undergraduate career. Incidentally, all three of these are tips that every educator likely tells their students every semester – I guess that sometimes it takes a while for these lessons to really hit home!

Lesson 1: You can’t ‘get’ it unless you do it.

I took a physics course for the first time in my second year of university. Here was my ingenious strategy for learning physics: I would attend class and copy down everything my professor wrote on the board, hardly paying attention to what he was actually doing. When I went to tutorials and the TA gave me time to try a problem, I would check my phone until they took up the solution, which I would then copy down. Before quizzes, I would read through my textbook, think about the concepts, and make notes of all the formulas. Here’s what I never did: actual physics problems.

Especially in the context of mathematics, which many of my university classes (physics, linear algebra, statistics, discrete math, etc.) have involved, there’s no shortcut when it comes to learning how to solve problems — you have to actually do them. The classes where I skipped practicing, I did poorly; the classes where I dedicated myself to solving the assigned problems, I not only did well but I enjoyed it because it made sense! It seems incredibly obvious that you can’t learn how to do something unless you actually do it. Surprisingly enough, it took me some time and pain to really internalize this one.

Lesson 2: Showing up matters.

This is true for a lot of things in life, but especially (I think) for school. There are some truly awful classes out there where showing up is an actual waste of time, but in my experience those are the exception and not the rule. The first element of this lesson is that not showing up hurts. I took an environmental science class on rocks in second year to fulfill a science credit, and I stopped attending lectures because they were too early in the morning for me. Once I stopped going I didn’t even realize all the content I was missing, and by the time I learned it all it was too late to a) do well and b) appreciate how it all fit together. After taking that class, I realized that skipping lectures kept me from recognizing how far behind I was falling.

The second element of this lesson is the numerous positive experiences I’ve had when I consistently showed up — and not just attended class, but paid attention and tried to be engaged in what was happening. When I was following along properly in my discrete math class, I could actually ask questions and receive clarification from my professor. When I did the readings in my trees class, I could contribute meaningfully to class discussions and benefit from my classmates’ insights. I didn’t just get more out of the class — my marks improved because I had a clear sense of what ideas and concepts were important, and my professors recognized me and I could build positive professional relationships with them.

There have definitely been times (super boring lectures, really bad TAs) where I’ve wondered to myself if it’s worth it at all to go to class and if I’d be better off just clocking 8 hour days at the library with my textbooks and the Internet. I honestly think the answer is (usually) no. If university is just about information transfer, maybe that’s the right way to do it, but I don’t think that it is. To me, the difference between cramming content for an exam the night before and learning it at the pace of the class over a semester is like the difference between catching up with your friends for one weekend every four months and seeing them for an hour every other day. I have this lingering feeling that something important happens when I learn from a professor and my classmates rather than just on my own and when I put together the material over the course of a semester rather than all at once. Regardless, my experience has been predominantly positive when I put in the effort to “show up” in a meaningful way.

Lesson 3: If you want to know what the reading says, read it.

This lesson stems from classes I’ve taken in philosophy, literature, and political thought, but has some clear similarities to the more math-y first lesson in this post. When I started university, I thought that lectures were a kind of shortcut wherein an intelligent instructor would draw out the significant points of a text that I probably wouldn’t be able to understand anyways. Luckily, I realized early on that this really isn’t the case. Most instructors do a great job of highlighting specific themes, providing context, or connecting the text to contemporary issues, but it still isn’t a substitute for actually reading it. Think of the last book you read: if someone asked you what the book was about, you could probably give a summary, but it’d be a far cry from what they would learn and experience if they read it themselves. In my social and political thought class, I could tell that my own insights and interpretations of the text felt so much stronger and more meaningful to me when I knew for a fact that they were drawn from what was actually in the reading, not the summary of the reading my professor or friend gave me. Spoiler alert: this is why professors assign readings – so that the students will read them!

Reflecting on these lessons, I can see that despite the variety of classes and instructors I’ve had throughout undergrad, many of them were teaching me the same thing in a different way. It has been a challenging process, but going through the difficulties and triumphs has made me understand these things in a way that I just didn’t before. The other noticeable part of all three of these points is that they demand engagement and effort, which are crucial for learning. With all of this being said, I’m excited to see what new things I’ll discover in my final semester of school — it’s a lot easier to dedicate myself to the details when I have faith in the big picture.

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