The Ultimate Guide to Kicking Ass Next Semester


The Ultimate Guide to Kicking Ass Next Semester

Your brain is not designed for learning. If you find learning hard, there’s nothing “wrong” with you. Although learning isn’t the “default” mode of thinking, we find pleasure in solving problems under certain conditions. If we abide by The “Goldilocks” Principle, and break down our learning in a way where it’s not too easy and not too hard, we can maintain our energy, focus, and motivation for learning without getting bored or frustrated.

Action Steps: Breaking Down Your Work

(1) Next time you find yourself bored, either in class or when you’re trying to review your notes studying for an exam, ask yourself: “Is this too easy? Is there actually a problem for me to solve?” Think of a way you could change it up. If you’re learning about Kirchoff’s Current Law, how can you frame it as a question to be answered or a problem to be solved?

(2) If you find yourself overwhelmed and frustrated when doing homework problems or working through examples covered in class, take a step back. Slow down and stop trying to rush through to the answer. Ask yourself “What exactly about this problem do I not understand?” Then slowly walk through the problem and break it down into component parts.

These are your new “problems” and should be treated separately.

(3) If all else fails, and you’re just totally de-motivated and have no energy to keep working on what you’re working on, change it up. Change grabs attention in the brain, so switch to a different topic, or go fold your laundry, or get up and move to a different room or your favorite coffee shop.

Stop beating yourself up for not being a “perfect learning machine.”

Here’s a laundry list of things we know we “shouldn’t do”

  • Jumping into a homework set unprepared, without “learning” how to do it first
  • Being ADD and flipping between different subjects
  • Being lazy and sleeping in
  • Procrastinating
  • Quitting on your schoolwork

And we beat ourselves up about it an awful damn lot about it.

Science actually shows us THE OPPOSITE – that when used appropriately, all of these supposed “bad” study habits can actually significantly improve your academic performance.

The Fluency Illusion: the idea that just because you can understand the material means that you’ll be able recall it when it comes time to solve a problem without any supporting materials.

So the students who tested themselves early, with only an initial exposure to the material, seemed to “lock in” that learning much more effectively than those who “waited” to test themselves until they were ready.

So not only is testing that thing you have to do in your courses to get evaluated after you learn something, it’s actually a highly effective learning tool.

Interleaving, is what researchers refer to as “mixing related but distinct material during study.” And they find that knowledge acquired using an interleaving strategy (versus just straight up studying only one subject or topic at a time) is much more robust.

Being Lazy and Sleeping In

This is a biggie. In our culture, lack of sleep = a badge of honor.

It’s also quite possibly the dumbest thing you could do as a student.

“The preponderance of evidence to date finds that sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before… The improvements tend to be striking, between 10 and 30 percent.”

~Benedict Carey

Research has found that solving tough problems is actually aided by procrastination…. when done at the appropriate time.

…if you get stuck and can’t figure out how to solve a problem despite repeated tries, you will probably benefit from an “incubation period” once you’ve reached in impasse (i.e. you work hard until you get stuck and can’t get the answer).

As Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University (and author of A Mind for Numbers) calls it, it’s the difference between “focused” and “diffuse” thinking. Focused thinking locks you into a familiar pattern, but you have trouble seeing other alternatives. It’s what we typically think of when we refer to “thinking” and requires hard conscious effort. Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, is more loosey-goosey.

As Benedict Carey puts it, “we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting”

This idea is what researchers call percolation. And as Carey describes it, it’s “a means of using procrastination in my favor. When I’m engrossed in a complex assignment, I try to do a little each day, and if I get some momentum in one session, I ride it for a while – and then stop, in the middle of some section, when I’m stalled. I return and complete it the next workday”

Lessons Learned

  • Much of the guilt we feel about not concentrating, not feeling like we understand the material well enough, procrastinating, and being distractedis actually misplaced. Instead, we should focus on being honest with ourselves and strategically employing testing, breaks, and distractions to our benefit.
  • Testing our knowledge far before we consider ourselves “ready” significantly improves long-term retention of the material.
  • Flipping between different subjects can actually aid the learning process, creating more robust knowledge than focusing just on simple repetition.
  • Getting to bed or sleeping in is better than staying up to study more(assuming you’re putting in the hard work to learn during the day). This is not “laziness” but is a conscious effort at improving your learning process.
  • Procrastination is an effective problem solving strategy if used at the right time. Use it strategically to activate your “diffuse” thinking mode to access insights that are not available to you when you’re focusing hard.
  • Quitting while you’re ahead is a good thing. A big assignment or project is much better served by working on it in fits and starts than setting aside long periods of work to get it all done at once.

Action Steps: Self-Testing, Switching it Up, Fits and Starts

(1) Employ testing during your study sessions.

(2) When you’re working on a problem and can’t figure it out, stop and shift your focus.

(3) The next time you’re working through a long assignment or project, don’t limit yourself to completing it during 1 or 2 long marathon sessions.

You understand what the professor is saying in class, and the textbook seems to make logical sense. You find yourself nodding along, but when it comes time to dig into the first homework problem, you find yourself at a loss, flipping back through your notes in search of that thing you must have missed. Why does this happen?

Again back to Daniel Willingham, who makes the distinction between three types of knowledge:

Conceptual: your big-picture understanding of how things fit together and relate

Procedural: your knowledge of what to do, when to do it, and the rules that apply along the way

Factual: 1+1=2, Annapolis is the capital of Maryland, and other such “building blocks” of memory

But when it all comes down to it, as Mr. Willingham states:

“Automatic retrieval of basic math facts is critical to solving complex problems because complex problems have simpler problems embedded in them… For most topics, it does not make sense to teach concepts first or to teach procedures first; both should be taught in concert.”

You need to accumulate all 3 types of knowledge in a relatively parallel manner.

…not all classes are structured in the same way. Some, like Calc 1, can follow a fairly logical and flowing progression… Others, like Physics 3, are all over the place.

James Ashenhurst, friend of WTF Professor and Organic Chemistry Master, breaks down two familiar course models that help understand the lay of the land…

First up, Pyramid Classes. As James describes, there’s a base of basic concepts you’ll draw from for everything else that comes later in the semester.

If you got tripped up early on, you’ll know why it feels like class is being taught in a completely different language…

On the other hand, there are Fork Classes. progressing through multiple different forks throughout the semester. They’re not necessarily conceptually related but still fit under the subject’s umbrella

Baseline vs. Progressive Learning

As Kalid Azad, learning aficionado, math concept expert, and intuition guru over at Better Explained puts it, we get stuck in the mode of thinking we need to linearly progress through each topic, learning it completely and clearly before moving onto the next.

He calls this the “Baseline Teaching” model … where you “cover individual concepts in full-depth, one after another.”

Unfortunately, if you don’t have any context for what you’re learning, it’s not going to stick.

Kalid calls this the “Progressive Teaching” model, where you “see the big picture, how the whole fits together, then sharpen the detail.”

You get a vague view of the big picture, then you improve your understanding of each section of the big picture as you go through the course material. But always still within the context and view of the initial image you developed…

The ADEPT Model

Okay this is great, but how do we do it?

Thankfully, Kalid’s ahead of us on that, and has a nice, cleanly-packaged model for how we should approach each new concept we come across in our courses, called “ADEPT”.

  • Analogy: relate it to something you already know about
  • Diagram: sketch it out so you can visualize what’s going on
  • Example: come up with an actual example problem that puts the concept into action
  • Plain-English: describe it in plain english (so that a 6-year-old could understand)
  • Technical Definition: link it all back to the formal language of what you’re studying

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