Learning how to learn - or a motivational background in becoming an academic coach
It was my first serious read on these topics, and I was surprised to realize that the book was actually bringing together some of my previous learning experiences (and then some). Reading and discussing the book was good, but the needed discipline to fully or consistently apply the theory was a different “animal”. I started college like many freshmen, with a self-misleading low expectation regarding effort. In college, many professors no longer impose methods of short-term motivation and directed learning as used in high school; so I hit the middle of the first semester inadequately prepared like many of my buddies. I cannot deny that going back to my summer reading on learning techniques and meeting my Academic Enhancement Center (AEC) advisor was because I actually needed the help, but this time everything was coming back from a new perspective: I actually needed the transition to a self-driven and managed study approach.
Soon I also realized that my concept of being smart (having innate ability or intelligence) was definitely limited, at least when talking about learning. I started seeing that to a high degree it may be about applying specific ways to acquire and hold new information, to gain and maintain self-motivation and a positive attitude about my abilities. Gaining awareness about that seemed to be “smart” in itself.
There have been certain academic circumstances during high school, when being looked down upon raised in me the thought that “I am simply not a good-enough learner, and there is not much to do about it”. This first year in college, with the help of a book, of my AEC instructor and a handful of professors, I lived to dispel most of that. I turned a believer in the power of structured study, and I became intrigued by the influence that motivation, ability and learning outcomes have on each other.
So why not becoming an academic coach?
I tend to believe that raising and maintaining motivation come from new exposure. One could not gain true interest in something new without first giving it a good try. My expectation is that I can learn much more about how to learn, I can live the science through experiential learning, and then make a real difference for other people that may have gone through similar un-necessary questioning and doubts like the ones I went through.
One challenge I have so far is the discipline to constantly apply study strategies. The variety in which we receive new information and requirements from class, gives me at times the impression that I can lighten my study approach. On the other hand, I found that trying to apply the same set of strategies did not work across the board. There is a need to adapt the choice of applicable strategies to the teacher’s personal style of conveying knowledge and study requirements. I hope that learning to become a coach will give me some answers.
This past year I put at work several learning strategies that had me realize the power of a structured self-study process. I started with putting more time in reviewing the class material for structure and completeness; writing down questions that popped-up while reading and then answering them all; trying to create a mental context around new bits of memorized information; pre-reading and testing my knowledge individually or in a study-buddy group. They all turned out to be major confidence boosters and set new expectations on how much more I can achieve. I would like to share that.
I also experimented with a new way of looking at time management by trying to average my study effort over the week. I first decided to be fully aware of all course requirements as published by each syllabus or presented in class. I had all published quizzes, tests and other milestones recorded from the beginning in a software-managed academic calendar (iStudiez). New tasks would be shortly entered in the calendar each day along with due dates. Aside from benefitting from daily notifications, one helper is that the total number of assignments due the next several days (let’s consider 3) is prominently displayed. So I set my study flow such that work was competed for the next day (day1) but some work was also started on assignments due day2 and day3. With that I gained an early view over the effort needed for days 2 and 3 while also offloading some of the work. So what resulted was an approximation of a 3-day-moving-average on effort. This has reduced a lot of “surprises” (because of a good expectation on the effort required over the next 3 days), and made my effort to adapt to unusually “tough” assignments more manageable. Big spikes in study and associated anxiety tended to go down; they were replaced by kind-of-an-average effort from one day to another. Overall it seemed to result in a bit more work than I would typically expect for each day, but I had a better life reducing big surprises and stress. I also found that by doing that, my anxiety related to failure weakened as well; I think that learning overall has become a more enjoyable activity.
So which are the items that matter?
One that worked for me from the beginning was becoming aware of stereotypes like “you have to be born smart” to succeed. Learning about why that is false was in itself a confidence booster. If one starts experimenting with simple methods of structuring time and information, putting every new piece of knowledge in context, consistently self-testing the knowledge, or any other proven strategy, then trust in intellectual ability begins to rapidly grow; we start spending less time with avoiding failure and more with creatively assimilating knowledge.
Another key was to realistically assess the work needed for each assignment. In my experience it is not my ability to understand but mainly the time and resources needed to master the material that create difficulties with completing a given task. Accessing the variety of required resources (library and internet research, study group meetings, AEC help, etc) also takes time, so I believe that time management is a major factor in having success. However, studying can be done in multiple ways and some of them could really lengthen the required time or yield poor retaining results. It becomes equally important to acquire the right tools to establish knowledge.
Motivation; I saw myself swinging a lot between having the drive to succeed and just being driven to avoid failure. The end results are clearly distinguishable, with systematically lower results when taking the latter approach which sometimes is also accompanied by follow-through issues. Once I realized that getting higher grades can be achieved by applying study strategies, and went over some of my own stereotypes, I was also encouraged to set for my hopes of new academic achievement. The drive to see my academic hopes fulfilled starts taking the place of my previous tendency to do well just because I did not want to disappoint.
So what works for you?