Midterms are approaching and you have that unfortunately now-common feeling of, “Goddamn it, I did it again.” Well I’m altogether not surprised you haven’t mastered your material, because you don’t know how to learn. You’ve been doing it wrong.
“Learning?” you think. “I’m at a prestigious university on the coast of California. I must know how to learn.” Well, dear reader, learning is a skill, and getting into this school proves nothing about your aptitude. But the bigger problem at hand is that you haven’t even realized how inept you are at learning. And because I pity you, I’ll tell you a little secret.
First, an example: Look into the future and see yourself, happy and content, receiving your diploma. You graduate with your degree and get a job. Now imagine that the job requires knowledge of classes you took here at UCSB. To your horror, you realize you can’t remember most of the things you learned!
With school, the problem isn’t just forgetting after you graduate, but forgetting what you’ve learned over the quarter after the final exam. You’ve formed a habit of Bulimic Learning; you cram your material into your head only to regurgitate it all over your exam, somewhat messily, and then it’s gone.
There are two types of learning, — Deep Learning and Shallow (or Bulimic) Learning — and you adhere to the not-so-healthy Bulimic Learning lifestyle.
“Maybe,” you think, “if my brain were skinnier I would have more friends?” Well, no, you wouldn’t, because you have a boring personality. On the other hand, Deep Learning comes from engaging in your material, continually reinforcing your memories until whatever knowledge you want to remember actually moves into your Long Term Memory (LTM). Think of why it’s so hard to remember someone’s name when you first meet him or her. It’s because you don’t strengthen it, and strengthening your neural connections is memory.
There’s a simple way to learn deeply, and it comes from looking at The Forgetting Curve. The Forgetting Curve is one of the oldest (and most relevant) principles in educational psychology, whether you’re a chemical engineering and molecular physiology double major, or just a silly psych major like myself.
When you first learn something, or hear it, or read it, it sticks in your brain. Your neurons rearrange themselves and connect with each other to form a memory of it. Now, those connections degrade swiftly, unless you strengthen them by thinking. You’re pretty good at thinking, aren’t you? I do hope so.
Look at that red line — you can see at the first day after learning that the red line has dropped down to about 50 percent retention. Not very good! But, if you strengthen your memory (by merely re-reading your notes from lecture), your memory shoots back up to 100 percent. And, if you do that again the next day, you can see that the line has a shallower slope. Your memory starts to fade more slowly and eventually you’ve put the stuff into LTM. This way, you’re not learning the material right before the test; you’re learning it and integrating it throughout the course.
Do schoolwork every day; is that too much to ask? Perhaps it is. “I mean, come on, UCSB already asks me to go to class,” you think. Some students will go through a week without opening a book or even reviewing their slides, and that procrastination starts to weigh heavily on their conscience. To avoid that feeling, they put it off some more. Counterproductive? I agree.
Think about when you wanted to create something for fun, perhaps a perfect paper airplane. In fact, go ahead and do that now. Grab the Opinion section, make sure the folds are perfectly symmetrical, and even take a pencil to the crease and smooth that shit out. Now throw and watch it glide … Swell, huh? That feeling of accomplishment is motivating. You release endorphins from doing, from creating. And that’s what schoolwork is.
Whether it’s doing your reading before class for once, or going over your notes, or starting the outline for your essay, don’t put it off. Accomplish something, and get that easy, cheap high.
Then, maybe, you’ll start to make some friends. But it seems unlikely.
Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Furguson is sort of like Chuck Norris — he never forgets. He even remembers tomorrow.