Learning to learn

By Jesus Perry,2014-01-27 13:32
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Learning to learn

Learning to learn (better)

    You are probably not a good learner.

    Oh, please don’t get insulted by that phrase. It is what a university is: a place where you become a much

    more powerful learner. Some students do not realize that. They think it is all about atoms, molecules, integrals, bugs, forces, fertilizers and energies. Actually university is more about you and your ability to

    learn, about you and your brain, not molecules or integrals.

    This document is intended to give you some pointers about how to increase your learning power. Some people think that success depends simply on how much they study. In fact, it actually depends more on

    how and when they study. One hour of good studying can be as valuable as ten hours of banging your head against the wall… So it pays to ask yourself what you can do to be more effective in your learning. It may well make the difference between getting a degree and becoming a drop out. Besides, it may free up time to do something fun, too, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of fun now and then. In fact, you need that too to be successful.

    From high school to university: adulthood

    Many people find the transition from high school to university a pretty difficult experience. Many things change, not in the least because they are now expected to behave as adults.

    This means a lot of things: being away from mom and dad, making new friends, dealing with boyfriends, girlfriends, living in a dorm, but also: having far more responsibility for your own learning, making choices about what classes to take, dealing with a large university system, dealing with success and failure.

    Being an adult, it is really up to you to find what works best for you and that can be a demanding job. This document cannot do it for you, but hopefully it will give you some pointers and some things to consider and help you in the process.

    Please keep in mind that this story is written for the (non-existent) “average freshman in CH101. It is a

    compilation of the learning topics I do in my class. I am sure that you are not “average”, perhaps not in

    CH101 or not even a freshman. Thus, only certain things may apply in your case. Other things may not, but then they might apply for other students.

    The resources at your disposal

    University learning is much more about you actively using resources that are put at your disposal than

    about you passively ‘being taught’. In fact with 250 students on their hands, do not expect to “be taught

    by” your instructors at all. Rather expect to “learn from” your instructors. That sounds like a subtle play

    of words, but it really is not. In one case you sit there passively to be ‘spoon-fed’, in the other you

    actively go hunt your own food. And that can make all the difference.

One could say that, in a sense, any university is as good as you make it to be. The faculty cannot make

    you learn any more than they can make a horse drink; they can only lead it to the water. Vice versa, there is little a professor can do to stop you from learning if you are determined to do so. Therefore to a considerable extent we faculty depend upon you to make this a good university. (Go pack!) Of course,

    we can be very useful to you in your learning, but nothing is more demotivating for us that you just sitting there . (So, please be a wolf, not a log…)

    There is a whole menu of things that you can try and weave into your study practices and you need to do some experimenting to see what works best for you. And yes, it is part of your job as a student to try them out and optimize your study skills.

    How to use the textbook

    Get confused

    The book has many functions, but the first and perhaps most important one is this:

    Read your book BEFORE class.

    The purpose of this is to get confused. That sounds silly, but it is not: the truth is that we all get confused by what we are supposed to learn at some point in time. The proper timing of your confusion is crucial.

    If you postpone the point of confusion till the evening before the test, your test results will clarify your confusion in rather painful ways. F’s are instructive, but not pleasantly so.

    It is much better to get confused before class than after, because it gives your instructors the chance to un-confuse you in lecture. (If not, you should make them.) This already means you have used both the

    book (to confuse) and the instructor (to clarify) and thus made a good beginning.

    Studying is not reading

    Of course just reading the book before class is not nearly enough. You need to study it afterwards.

    Studying is more than just reading. It means that you work on it sufficiently that you can put it away and teach somebody else what is in it. If no human victim is available, take a wall and teach it chemistry. Obviously just reading the book once more is not going to allow you to do that, so you will have to go back to your book quite a few times, if your wall does not understand you. It is actually the repetition

    that will allow you to be able to call the contents your mental property at some point. Human memory functions at various levels. Look at something once and you still know it a minute later, but not two. Look at it again two minutes later and you may remember an hour later. Look at it a third time an hour later and you know it the next day and so on. So studying requires a sufficient number of repeats. Therefore, reading the book before class is a good start of this repetition, because then the lecture will already count as repeat #2.


    A good way to convey scientific meaning is to use a diagram. Unfortunately, people often treat them the way they do with commercials on TV: ignore them as useless visuals. Study diagrams until you understand what they are trying to say. Don’t skip them! Teach them to your favorite wall!

Later reactivation

    Another function of the book is to be able to revisit the things you do forget, even after the course is

    over. That makes selling the textbook a very expensive proposition. It’s like selling part of your memory.

    Most of what you learn in a class will hide itself in this big underground cellar of your subconscious mind. No, it is not gone. You just need to learn how to reactivate it later in life. Looking at your old book is a fine way to do that.

    How to use the lectures

    If a lecture does not exhaust you, there is something wrong. Ideally, the lecture should be the most exhausting part of the whole process, because you are being bombarded with one piece of information after the other and you hardly have time to process it all. And, yes, you should be processing like mad. In other words the lecture is a time where you do a lot of active thinking. One excellent way of ensuring that you are processing at your maximum capacity is to take notes.

    Note taking for mental processing

    If I asked you to take the previous paragraph and pick only two words out for your notes, which ones

    iwould you take? (Look at bottom of document for what I would take.)

    In fact that is what taking notes is all about: process the ore and pick out the diamonds. Write down those gems. Often your instructors will show you slides or write on the board. They will also talk. The talk is gone the moment the sound dies. The slides or the board may still be around, besides: the pictures may be more of an illustration anyway. So: focus more on what is being said. Copying whole

    slides is a bad idea. Think more of writing a headline for a newspaper. Which title is better:

    NCSU wins!


    Yesterday in the Mile High Stadium, despite all efforts to the contrary, the surprisingly great strength of their opponents and all dire predictions, North Carolina State University’s “Wolfpack” eked out

    some kind of victory anyway!

    I’d say the first one, wouldn’t you? So jot, jot, jot! Summarize! Abbreviate! Compress to bare essentials! Vanquish verbosity! Actually, drawing some doodle may in some cases be better than writing whole sentences with all bells and whistles, because it allows you to listen better and still process actively. Not

    drawing that doodle at all, dozing away in your chair while rearranging your facebook page, does not have such beneficial effects unfortunately.

    The whole secret behind note taking is in the mental processing of what you hear and see, not in the

    recording of things. Silly? Not really! Your book already has almost everything anyway and I do give you my slides at some point. So, you do not really need to record, but you do need to process. Academia has used this note taking trick since medieval times to great effect and transformed many young minds into processing machines. Yes, it works! Our traditions may be quaint at times, but they are hard to improve

    upon. They are the reason why academia has been the single most transformative element of Western society for a millennium now. People disrespect that at their peril.

    Asking questions

    Your instructors are quite happy to ramble on like a freight train. They have an awful lot of stuff to cover and don’t want to fall behind. They often have no idea whether what they just said was fully understood,

    kind of understood, not understood or even terribly misunderstood. This is why sticking up your hand and asking a pertinent question can help not only you, but also your instructor and the rest of the class. Of course, if all 250 students ask 10 questions per lecture the poor lecturer does not get to cover much ground... But there usually is space for a limited number of questions. They are more appreciated by everybody than most students realize. Yes, it is scary to ask one… Show some guts, maybe? On the flip

    side, asking irrelevant or even obstructive questions makes you lose credibility, with your fellow

    students perhaps even more than with your instructors.

    How to use the homework assignments

    Homework assignments, whether through webassign or not, are means to an end, not a goal in

    themselves. They are there to train a certain aspect of the material. Please consider that webassign puts considerable limitations on the kind of questions that can be asked, because they need to be in a certain format. Thus, it can only train certain aspects not others. A good trick is to always go back to the book (or ebook) and identify that particular aspect. Do not think that tests are based on the homework alone.

    They are based on the skills and the knowledge practiced in the homework, not the homework itself. They may also reflect material straight from the book or the lecture.

    How to use the tutorial center

    Be aware that the tutors in the tutorial center are people with other things on their mind than just your learning. They are trying to accomplish their research to graduate. Also, they all have their own strong and weak points. Some are better in one topic, others in another. You might have to find the right person and figure out their schedules. Yes, tutors can be very valuable, but particularly so if you actively engage them with specific questions, not if you passively want them to do your homework for you. How to use the SI sessions

    GO TO THEM! There are too few people going and often the ones that would benefit most, go least. Yes there are scheduling problems, but you might be able to go to one that caters to a section of CH101 different than your own.

    How to use office hours

    Office hours are your only chance for a little one-on-one time with your instructor. Experience shows that only a handful of students actually make use of this opportunity. More distressing is when people come to the office hours for the wrong reason. They come when they have a bad grade after the test is over, rather than before to ask a question or do an exercise . Your instructor would much rather give you some extra exercise than hear you complain about not having exercised enough… Write down things you do not understand or do not know how to do and talk about that at the office hour. Take the lead on that. Pick your instructor’s brains!

Should I take a private tutor?

    It costs money and only you can decide if that is necessary enough to justify the expense. In general the experiences with tutoring are pretty favorable. So it can be good value for money. Of course it depends on the tutor, too. Make sure they do not do the heavy lifting for you though, that grows their muscle,

    not yours. They should be your coach, not the one doing the exercises…

    Non-native speakers

    Tu hablas español? Tenemos personas que hablan tambien aqui. Look for a Hispanic grad student

    e.g. The same goes for 中文. We have plenty of those too. Other languages you may have to shop

    around. Of course, don’t forget that the test will be in English, or worse than that: in Scientific English.

    And yes, that is a language you too need to master sufficiently to pass tests and be good scientist. How to use your class mates

    You can learn a lot from each other, but it is a dance: you need to make the right moves. Make a thesaurus together

    Writing down new concepts and their definition in a thesaurus or on cue cards and quiz each other on them is a great way to acquire difficult languages like Scientese!

    Comparing notes

    Comparing notes you made during a lecture with the ones some of your class mates made is a great way to get in another “repeat”. This is most effective, when done on the day of the class itself, because then

    you still remember a lot you did not jot down. It can also be fun to see what a different story each of you heard coming from the same mouth. It allows you to compare what you picked as important to what somebody else picked. Ask them why. Selecting the right tidbits is a skill that needs practice. Doing homework together

    This can work just fine, but there is a trap. It can easily degenerate into somebody else doing the heavy lifting for you, rather than you getting in a good brain workout. Make sure you keep learning enough. E.g. try to tackle to problem yourself first; then work with your class mates.

    Talking about learning preferences

    Below, a number of preferences in learning are discussed. It can be very helpful to understand yourself better by talking about those with your friends. Pick someone with a different preference and see how they would tackle studying. You may be surprised how varied study methods can be… You may well find

    out that learning preferences also greatly influence what parts of the lecture people do or do not pick up. There are various ways to characterize learning preferences, like left brain versus right brain or visual

    1versus oral, but I prefer to adapt a study by Honey and Mumford for the following.

     1 See e.g.

Are you a CEPT?

    Read the following statements about learning styles and decide which of these following four persons

    resembles you most.

    CEPT Open ended Delimited


    E: The experimental learner P: The practical learner

    I love to jump right in and try things out. When I love to fix things. Give me a practical

    I get a new device I chuck the manual in a problem and I’ll solve it. Why do we have to

    corner and start pushing all buttons to see learn all these useless things without ever

    what they do. I quickly learn how to run a new discussing what it is good for? What a

    program or game that way. Maybe, if I get waste of time! Like math… Utterly useless,

    really frustrated with being owned by others unless you can fix something with it! So

    in a game, I’ll grudgingly consult the manual if why not talk about what it is good for first?

    the garbage collector did not pick it up in the I wonder… Would this manual help me fix Hands on

    mean time. I sometimes participate in my problem? In that case, maybe I should

    brainstorming new ideas but it should not go have a look at it, even though it is full of

    on forever. That’s boring. Isn’t it time to go try other useless garbage. I hate these

    something new and exciting? Must we really brainstorming sessions about nothing in

    solve that boring old problem first? particular. What’s the problem, really?

    C: The contemplating learner T: The theoretical learner

    I love to think. Give me a wall a foot thick and I I love clarity. I really do not see how people

    think myself through it. Brainstorming sessions can deal with things if they are not

    are wonderful ways of stimulating my thinking explained step by step. I hate it if people

    and coming to some new insight. Math can be jump right in and throw away the manual.

    so boring, All these finicky small steps. Why The manual should be read cover to cover

    can’t we talk about the concepts of the before touching any new equipment. I love

    broader picture? My new device? Yes, let me math because it is so nicely logical. Who

    deal with that tomorrow, because I first need cares that the application is not even talked Mental

    to think about this manual. I read some parts about? It is a thing of beauty in itself.

    of it randomly and it is quite a mess. I wish I Brainstorming is infuriating! All these

    could rewrite it. How can anyone read such a people defying all logic and going on about

    messy book cover-to-cover? And why do an “definite maybes” at best. What a waste of

    experiment without proper thinking about it time!


    On this chart where are you? And where is your neighbor? And who do you think is the best learner? C, E, P, or T?

     Actually the CEPT is the most powerful learner. That is the person who can do all four equally well; in the diagram that would be the four corner point in the middle. A CEPT can experiment, solve problems, be flawlessly logical and think him/herself through a wall all at once. Few of us are perfect CEPT’s but

    none of us are, say, purely C either. So, if you had trouble choosing, that’s good. Pure E’s, C’s, P’s and T’s

    are limited learners.

    We usually do have a preference, but please do not give in too much to it. Just like being left handed or

    right handed: do not throw away your other hand! Try to develop the other learning styles and respect people who have a different preference. Because of their preference, they are not inferior learners (let

    alone inferior people), but people you can and should learn from: they can help you become more of a CEPT.

    Why must I do a class in boring old chemistry, before doing the fillintheblank I really want to do?

    Ah, a very good question! The answer is that the folks in Civil Engineering, Biology, Veterinary science, Poultry Science, Aerospace of whatever you fill in the blank, have some experience with someone like you doing CH 101. Their experience is that General Chemistry is a pretty good brain booster. It has a bit

    of everything. It can be practical and experimental. This is why you have labs and the E’s and P’s often

    learn a lot from that. Chemistry can be quite logical, even mathematical or require conceptual thinking and T’s and C’s love that. CH101 can be quantitative (like stoichiometry) and logical, but there is also quite a bit of linguistics involved. Thus, it also trains both brain hemispheres. You are learning a new language (call it “Scientese”) that is an enhanced version of English and that trains the other side of your brain. You cannot do any fillintheblank if you are not able to express

    yourself in or glean meaning from scientific communication.

    Whatever grade you take home from this course, it can be guaranteed that you will walk out with a much stronger brain at the end if you are willing to do some daily heavy lifting. Oh, and yes, you’d be surprised how often you run into chemistry once you are in your “fillintheblank”

    classes, too. But still, this course is more about you than it is about molecules or atoms. Failure

    OK, so you gave it your best. You do the test and end up with a grade the likes of which you have not seen in your life so bad. What do you do?

    While it is quite alright to bang your fist on a pillow with your teachers picture on it, please remember

    they are just humans trying their best.

    Another point is that you are no longer in a cushy high school where you got A’s no matter how little you learned. You are amongst a whole bunch of at times very clever people. So, maybe expecting an A+ was not so realistic?

     Once you have dealt with your emotions, try to analyze.

    There are a huge number of reasons why failure could have happened and it is very important to find out what went wrong. Some possibilities are given below.

    Study choice and motivation

    The privilege of your age and this society is that virtually all doors are open to you and you can become a lot of different things in life, almost anything you want. However, many students struggle to find what the right door is for them to take.

    So, you chose “fillintheblank” and need to do chemistry? But, maybe chemistry or “fillintheblank” is not

    really such a hot idea after all and you just found that out the hard way.

    Is that a disaster? Not really. Better now than later! The younger you are, the easier it is to change course to what fits you better. Maybe you were already playing with that thought in your mind and subconsciously were not so motivated for this test? Brains do play tricks like that! Motivation is essential

    for success in academia. Are you motivated? Really? Why? Or: why not?

    Fear and other disabling factors

    Freshman classes regularly have sizes on the order of 250 students or more. For some students that may be as big as their whole high school. Some people just love large classes; others are reduced to a nervous wreck, particularly when they have to take a test.

    So, you had this metallic taste in your mouth during the test and had trouble even reading what the question said. Afterwards you could hit yourself for giving such silly answers.

    This is a tricky one, because it has to do with the strength of your young personality. It needs to grow and that goes beyond my competence as a chemistry teacher. But do talk about it. If not with me than with others: your parents, siblings, buddies, pastors, imams, rabbi’s, guru’s, other teachers, whatever. A

    private tutor may also help. If all else fails consider DSO (Disability Services), say if you need some peace and quiet when doing the test or some extra time.

     For some, that really helps, for others it is a way of being dishonest with themselves about their true abilities. Unfortunately, those may enter the wrong door and be stuck in that for life. Remember: as you get older you will have fewer and fewer choices. In general DSO works best, the more honest you are with yourself. If you have something like dyslexia or color blindness, of course it is wise to ask for some advice how to deal with that. Your instructors may not know that well how to cater to your needs. They may need to know too. Please talk to them.


    As said above, linguistics plays a considerable role. Are you able to glean the important tidbit from a text? If not, maybe ask your English teacher to train that? Sometimes reading the question properly or leaving it aside and revisiting it later can make all the difference. Leaving it aside does not mean that your brain stops processing it. Your brain is pretty amazing at times.

Effectiveness of your way to study

    So, you spent a lot of time on it. But was all that time also well spent? Did you get confused on time? And the un-confusing, did that happen too? Maybe you should make a change in your habits? Do something you normally do not do? Use the ebook after lecture? Did you really use the means at your disposal? Which ones work? Which ones do not?

    The ol’ panic button

    It is ten o’clock pm and tomorrow is the test.

    “OMG! Tomorrow is the test and I haven’t really…”

    So what to do? The answer is: relax and go to bed. Go to sleep. Your brain needs the sleep and you need your brain to pull you through this pickle you are in. You may be surprised what your brain can do, if you give it a chance. If you pull an all-nighter you rob it of that possibility. So, go to bed, get up, have some breakfast and take some vitamins, minerals etc. and leave it to your brain. Don’t be late for the test.

    If you did hit that panic button, pulled an all-nighter and now have a miserable grade: please vow to never do that again. Your teacher and your brain will be eternally grateful. Oh, and do some daily

    learning. It makes things so much easier…

    More can be less

    How much did you study and how much did you sleep? Bodybuilders know that all that training they do does not increase muscle mass. On the contrary: exercise damages muscles. It is the sleep that follows

    that makes muscles repair themselves and grow more than before. Your brain is no different. It needs sleep and nutrition to grow stronger. So maybe you spent too much (useless) time on those problems and not enough time sleeping?

    On a smaller scale the same thing goes for the time just after a lecture. Your brain is still trying to process all this new information. Give it a break. Stay away from that cell phone, that email message or that facebook page, especially if you are between two lectures. Your brain needs a little break. Be nice to it.


    Please take some time to consider what the way of testing contributed to the disaster. E.g. when using scantrons you really should work out the problem on paper (use the test paper itself) to find what the right answer is, including marking the right answer on it. Then copy it to the scantron form. Doing too

    much in your head at once is a recipe for unnecessary mistakes. Another thing: if you really do not know the answer, do fill something in. Of course the test cannot be done properly by gambling. Your instructor is there to make that impossible. But a blank is always wrong, a gamble has 20% of being right. The test usually assumes that all questions get answered, if only by gambling.

    Personal things

    Did you break up with your significant other? Had this big crush and got rejected? Troubles with your parents, because you, their little baby, are no little baby no more? Got into this new crowd that is pretty demanding on your time? Involved in extracurricular activities? Sports? A job?

Make no mistake: those things can cause a lot of mischief in terms of grades, but at least you know why

    it is happening and once you get in better control of your life the grades may well improve. Do be honest with yourself though. These things are quite legitimate hurdles, but yes, it is up to you to deal with them properly.

    Jobs and sports

    You have a job on the side? Make no mistake: the curriculum is based on the idea that you make studying your full time job… You may deviate from that idea, but if you do, the consequences are

    entirely on you. You are an adult. Thus it is up to you to come up with a realistic plan. No, you cannot

    ask your instructors to change the world for you. They cannot and they will not. You do lose their respect as an adult, if you ask.

    Having a full time job to fund a spectacular car and be able to party, say, three nights a week, plus doing “fillintheblank” (including CH101) all at once is not a realistic plan. If you fool yourself about that, you

    are not adult enough for a university and you will not be here very long.

    Sports are wonderful ways to relieve stress and to have a healthy lifestyle. However, they can also do harm. E.g. having a concussion plus doing “fillintheblank” is not a realistic proposition at all. Concussions

    damage your brain for good and affect your memory. You cannot build a career on your brain, if you go mess it up at the same time. That also goes for large amounts of alcohol or other forbidden fruits. You cannot build up your brain while messing it up with chemical pollutants.


    I hope this document will help you walk through the halls of learning with success, as I believe in your ability to be a powerful learner for life. I salute you as my fellow scientist and hope that you will pick up the torch of science with dignity, responsibility and pride. A lot depends on you, the future to be exact.

    Dr J.C.W. Folmer, Raleigh Oct 28, 2010

i Take notes or active thinking

    This is what I would have underlined. Notice that I cheat: I could not decide between these two either. In fact, the fewer things you can jot down, the harder note taking becomes, because you have to be even more selective. Being selective means more processing and analyzing and that is really what note taking is all about, not the

    recording of information. In fact, if you processed and analyzed sufficiently you could probably throw away the notes afterwards. Yes, you can bring a voice recorder, but will it also process for you, you think?

     If you want to know more about note taking and study strategies there are some fine resources on line.

    A little goofy and very disrespectful to the good sides of our medieval methods, but with some good pointers like: “lecturing to the wall”:

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