“Learning is not the accumulation of scraps of knowledge. It is a growth, where every act of knowledge develops the learner, thus making him capable of constituting ever more and more complex objectivities—and the object growth in complexity parallels the subjective growth in capacity.”Husserl (as interpreted by Quentin Lauer)
Last week, I posted Algorithms for Every Class (Part 1), which was a collection of tips and tricks that would be helpful in all, if not most, classes. This is the 2nd part of that post.
Take what you love, leave what you don’t. Hope this is useful!
On Getting Stuck
We’ve all been there and this will happen inevitably. We’re working on something, then we reach a part that we don’t understand. This is great because that means we’re at the edge of our competence and we have an opportunity to learn something. Now, what separates the excellent students from mediocre students is what they choose to do when they get stuck. Here are a few methods that can unstick us while being constructive.
The first piece of advice I want to give is probably the most overstated and corny advice for getting stuck but it’s a cliche for a reason: Apply the 15-minute rule to try to figure it out on your own. Before asking anyone for help, try to figure out the answer for 15 minutes. This increases retention and creates a healthy relationship with ourselves. Document everything you do during that 15 minutes to give yourself something to present to the professor or teacher if the problem can’t be solved. They will be able to figure out where you went wrong or what you are missing more effectively. This saves you and your professor time and you will be able to understand the information better because that 15 minutes would have given a context for all of the new information to fit into.
This advice is so cheesy, but when we keep in mind The Relationship with Ourselves and our Identity, the implications that come with giving ourselves that extra 15 minutes are so significant. How we do anything is how we do everything, and it’s critical for us to observe ourselves solving problems that we don’t understand. If we back down and ask for help immediately after encountering a solution, we are creating a relationship with ourselves which proves that we back down when challenged and need help when things get hard. If we use that extra 15 minutes, we create a relationship with ourselves as someone who rises up to the challenge and tries. We can get much further if we know ourselves as someone who tries.
Let me add that professors and teachers will give us the answers we’re looking for, but only if we can explain to them what we don’t know. When we’re stuck it’s usually a lack of specificity. Try to find out exactly what you do not know. You can use the Feynman Technique to figure out what this is. The points that are difficult to explain are the points that we don’t understand. Those little details can usually be turned into questions that can be brought to the professor or teacher.
Articulation to the highest accuracy will give us a deeper understanding of the subject and will help our instructor help us. A proper question should take less than 2 seconds to answer. The answer itself may take longer than 2 seconds to explain, but the professor or teacher should be able to answer it quickly. If you find that your instructor is having a hard time knowing the answer to the question, chances are the question you asked them isn’t specific enough and could have probably been more specific.
Additionally, we need to always ask questions if we have them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known (myself included) who did not ask a question during class and we’re completely screwed later. I’ve also many so much money off people (through tutoring) just because they don’t want to ask their questions in class. A majority of the time a question that a student asks me in our tutoring session could have been answered by the teacher or professor if the student were more engaged in their class. People tend to ask questions too late – ask them right when you get them or the soonest possible moment.
On top of that, everyone has always heard the “someone else may have your question” phrase. You don’t need to ask questions for the sake of others, but you should oo it because risking the embarassment is worth getting the knowledge. Not knowing what to do feels a lot worse than looking dumb to your classmates, trust me.
Some Ways to Lighten the Workload
We can’t really decrease how much work we have to do, but there is a lot we can do to prevent unnecessary work from accumulating.
Get to know your classmates. They might actually be cool people. Plus you can ask them for notes, explanations, assignments, favors. There are so many studies that show students learn more effectively from their peers. Connections and relationships are why the human race has moved it’s way to the top of the food chain and the foundation for all of our significant accomplishments as a species. When you connect with people, they will move mountains for you.
As much as I’d love to say everyone is worth connecting with, some people require a certain skill set to connect with in order to prevent a detrimental outcome. As a student, our primary goal is to learn as much as we can from the course and get good grades. This is more easily done by identifying people of interest. This group includes, but is not limited to, the professor/teacher, the TA, and other friendly high-performing students.
Frontload the work. Either way, we have to pay, and it’s way better to pay upfront than paying installments or paying later. Everyone knows how great review sessions are, imagine if every class was a review session and the actual review session was a 2nd review session, this is active recall and spaced repetition at the highest level. Frontloading give us more time to work on passion projects and gives us some slack when the laziness starts to kick in at the end of the term.
Types of Tests & How to Prepare for Each
Not all exams are created equal and preparation for each depends on what kind of exam we’re taking.
Multiple Choice (MC) – most of us are familiar with these tests, especially in the United States. We’re simply given an array of answers and we have to select the correct choice. Since many standardized tests are MC, we’ll be using strategies for conquering these kinds of tests often.
I say the best way to prepare for these tests is to do practice problems that ask questions in a similar style as the exam we will be taking. This not only helps with active recall but also gets us used to how the questions will be asked. Since MC tests give us multiple options with one of them being correct, recognition plays a bigger role than usual. Now if we study while implementing active recall and spaced repetition, we will be training our recognition skills but with higher retention rates.
If you don’t have access to practice problems, look over the concepts that are going to be covered on the exam, and identify the main ideas of each. Once those main ideas are identified, we can turn those into practice questions. The questions can look something like “What is this main idea?”, “How can this idea not work?”, “What changes can be made to affect this idea?”, “Are there any special scenarios to keep in mind with this idea?”.
Case-Based/ Problem Solving – these types of exams are slightly more involved. Usually, we will be presented a case or a problem and we will either have to come up with a solution or proper course of action. These are usually presented in the form of a scenario. I had a bunch of these exams when I was studying engineering, and again in EMT school.
The best way to prepare for these exams is to practice each scenario that we are going to encounter. I imagine them in my mind. Visualization helped a lot for me. For example, if I had a patient with a heart attack, I would run through the situation in my mind as if I were actually there. I would write down each of the steps I would do to see if they are correct or if I’m missing something.
Essay-Based – these are similar to the case-based exams in that we need to provide a well thought out answer, but we need to communicate it in writing.
Sometimes professors will provide a series of possible prompts, and if that’s the case then create outlines for each prompt and be prepared to write any and all of them.
If the professor doesn’t give a selection of questions, then we can prepare by creating possible prompts for ourselves and creating outlines for those, but while paying particular attention to the kinds of arguments we can make and the relevant research and references used. Having a list of evidence or references to make and knowing how to use them in other contexts is an excellent way of preparing for essay-based exams.
These kinds of exams take significant amounts of preparation, so don’t underestimate the time needed to prepare for these.
Verbal/Oral Exams – most common in language classes. In these tests, we have to communicate or present something to our examiner.
Working in pairs would best for these types of exams. Taking turns leading the conversation will give you both a chance to practice pronunciation and answers. If you don’t have access to another person, you can record yourself and take notes on the necessary improvements. Remember, these tests are mostly subjective and we are examed through our examiner’s perspective so it’s imperative that we practice what we look and sound like objectively, hence the recording. It’s much harder to improve an accent or answer when we have to think about what it sounded like, it’s much easier to see it.
Open-Book/Take-Home Exams – these are the most popular during COVID-19 times. Almost every exam my students take are open book and at home. Honestly, open-book tests seem like a good deal but usually have harder questions and stricter time frames. This is to prevent students from just looking up every answer. Know what the restrictions are before you start the test!! Additionally, examiners are expecting students to look up answers so be mindful of answers that don’t sound like you and your knowledge.
And as a side note for all exams:
Find ways to collect the correct information. Being in the golden age of information, this is more relevant now than it has ever been. There is a lot of information that can throw us off course, and if we’re referencing inaccurate sources then our work will suffer.
In most classes, this comes in the form of the textbook. But if you’re like me and couldn’t afford textbooks, there are so many other ways of collecting the right information. There are answer keys and moments in the lecture when the professors have practice questions up with the correct answer. It’s crucial to work on the right stuff. I can’t tell you how many tests I’ve screwed up because I was working on the wrong stuff.
KPIs for Academics
KPI stands for Key Performance Indicators and these are the things that tell us how we’re doing in a class, I talk a little about KPIs in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems. Our job as a student is to identify out KPIs and move our attention and energy to those portions.
Some classes can get overwhelming, especially when we’ve fallen behind, but we can get through that by staying focused on the KPIs.
In most classes, the most important KPI will be our grades, but that usually isn’t specific enough to help. I recommend paying attention to:
- The make-up of what goes into our grade – exams, homework assignments, projects, presentations, etc.
- The weight of each of those parts – are homework assignments 10% of our grade or 40% of our grade?
Additionally, I recommend finding out if there are any exam scores that will be dropped or replaced. Each class will require us to focus on a different aspect in the class to get the grade. For example, if a class puts 100% weight in the exams and 0% in homework, then it would be wise to put 100% of our time and energy into performing well on the exams as opposed to our homework assignemnts. Now, working on the homework may help us do better on the exam, but our primary goal will be to do well on the exam.
Know which metrics to focus on.
The All-Important Syllabus
The syllabus is where we get all the information we need when it comes to scheduling our terms and identifying KPIs. The syllabus, if written well, will tell us all the assignments to expect over the term as well as their due dates, points, and weight. A good syllabus will also include the professor’s contact information and office hours.
This is where the professor will lay out their policies for their class and where we’ll learn how they feel about late work, make-up assignments, homework, etc. A lot of questions that we have about a class can be answered with the syllabus.
Analyze The Resistance
“If you tyrannize people bad enough, then they will be willing to hurt themselves to hurt you. People are often willing to take a hit if it means reclaiming justice.”Jordan Peterson (1962 – )
For students, keep this in mind when you are making choices with assignments. Hurting ourselves to get back at a teacher is one of the least productive things we can do – it only hurts us and won’t hurt the teacher at all. I’ve had so many students not turn in work as a fuck you to the teacher, and all that came from it was that they had to retake the classes (sometimes with the same teacher). Self-destruction in the name of justice is not worth it.
When therapists have patients who miss sessions, even if the patient says they have more important priorities, it’s the therapist’s job to analyze the resistance and find out why the patient doesn’t want to go to the sessions. Educators need to approach their students in the same way. I’ve seen way too many students made out to be wrong or bad because they have resistance to their assignments. If the educators took the time to analyze why this student doesn’t want to work, then they could make adjustments so the assignments have less friction.
For example, I’ve had a fair bit of students (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) who did not want to do their work because they didn’t respect their teachers nor see them as capable of teaching important topics. These students aren’t naturally defiant but have found reasons to not respect their teachers because of how the instructors carry themselves and approach the class. The students are aware that they need to learn things, but they (like any other rational human being) will only listen to people they respect and admire and I believe that it is upon the instructor to be that kind of person. Whenever I’m working with my students, I make it known that I care about the quality of what and how we are learning things – the information has to be accurate, and when we’re learning it must be interesting and engaging. This takes a lot of the resistance away, but I believe the most effective method I use to minimize resistance is carrying myself as someone who is competent enough to match my students at any level of intellectual stimulation or communication. This always wins over their respect.
I can see my students feel verified and understood when I try to discover why they are not doing something rather than just punishing them or making them wrong, which helps build meaningful connections. Meaningful connections are the easiest way to get students to work. If these students connect with us, they will move mountains on the basis of our recommendation.
A lot of students love to say “fuck it” but never ask themselves why they feel that way. Not only is this a powerful life skill that can help us understand ourselves, it can also remove barriers that prevent us from performing at our highest capacity. Noticing when we want to give up and analyzing why can take us through any challenge.