Learning to learn

I have to admit: This week I intended to write about a séance – a fully-fledged, Ouija-board-wielding séance – put on by one of U of T’s more obscure campus groups. Unconventional events like these are – in this writer’s humble opinion – one of the truly golden things about university life. They also tend to turn into great stories – and occasionally, great blog posts. On Friday, however, I stumbled across something surprisingly and almost indescribably valuable, and thus felt compelled to blog about it. So this week, you get 800-words-(ish) of my explorations of how I traded an hour of my time to finally learn how to learn.

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As a Cognitive Science student, I like to think about thinking. And to think about thinking about thinking – and so on, inductively! And to be meta! Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about learning.  I feel like the way I learn is rapidly changing. It’s much less of the rigid memorization I discovered would help me through a substantial number of 100- and 200-level courses, and much more of the flexible, dynamic, intuitive, geometric approach toward the flow of ideas that I had had when I was young enough to still be building cardboard rocketships in my backyard (uncorrupted by silly ideas like the laws of physics, or what kinds of things are most likely to receive research grants). This year, though, I have welcomed back my old ways of doing things. I feel more creative and liberated and open and “myself” than I have for a long time. Rapidly adapting my new ways of thinking to the demands of university life, however, has been proving somewhat difficult.

Early last week, one of the many advisors and mentors I have on campus recommended I chat with a learning strategist who might be able to acquaint me with new ways of organizing and mining the seemingly endless flow of information racing above and around and through my mind. Don’t get me wrong – university has been a pretty joyous oasis – but for the hardcore truth-seekers among us, sometimes it can feel like a bit of an avalanche of information and a tidal wave of life-altering, keeps-you-up-at-night, unsolvable, fascinating problems. I may or may not be riding such a tidal wave. As a result, as little as I expected to get from the meeting, I decided to see if there might be something valuable to know about the way in which I learn that I could have overlooked. Something that would radically improve my life as Sparta (aka: Exam Season) approaches.

So, I spent part of Friday afternoon explaining the weird ways in which I organize concepts, connect ideas, visualize information, and extract semantics from endless pages of text and equations. The learning strategist with whom I was working made suggestions, asked specific and pointed questions, and showed a genuine passion for the inner worlds that are students’ minds. My discussions with her made me realize how diverse students can be in our manners of mentally representing the world – before we even look at differences in culture, belief, and personal history.

How many of you have taken a serious look at the ways in which you think and learn? Do your representations of ideas take a spatial form, a verbal one, or something else entirely? Do you think in English? Your native natural language? Some yet-to-be-determined mental language? Do you learn better when you hear something, or when you read it? Are there ways in which you “tag” information, to come back to at a later time?

These are basic questions that can help you get started in thinking about learning. The types of questions you may need to ask yourself may be quite different from these. Time spent with advisors from Accessibility Services or the Academic Success Centre will almost certainly create better questions and strategically-valuable answers. So what have you got to lose?

Trade an hour of your life to gain a greater understanding of how you learn and what types of strategies will make the most of your study efforts. If you’re anything like me, you may have a room full of chart paper with networks of meaning, or tables of ideas at multiple levels of abstraction. Maybe you take lecture notes in two columns – half for what the instructor says, and half for your own intuitions and questions. Maybe reading the conclusion of a reading first helps you to create context to engage with the text as a whole. Maybe you create mnemonics in your second language as a reference point for recall of large volumes of information. Maybe all of these seem completely ridiculous to you – that’s fine, too.

Given the amount of time we spend learning course content, doesn’t it make sense to put some time aside to learn how we each uniquely undertake the very act of learning itself? Take some time to explore how the world paints the specific pictures it does for you. You may be surprised at what you’ll find.

- Jennifer

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