Did you pick up your tool-box?

Had a very interesting evening of conversation with a couple of friends yesterday, and among the topics we traversed was education. One of my dinner companions is probably what many Singaporeans consider to be the pinnacle of academic success. I believe he achieved perfect scores in his ‘O’ and ‘A’-levels and went on to win a President’s Scholarship to read at Harvard University. Considering how well he succeeded in Singapore’s education system, I thought it particularly noteworthy that he said that if he had the chance to go through his education in Singapore again, he would have studied very differently.

Unsurprisingly, by the time he finished his ‘A’ levels, he had more than mastered the art of rote-memorization and mass regurgitation that our examinations require. Soon after he started his university studies, this friend had to re-evaluate and reinvent his study methodology in college because the ‘old way’ simply didn’t work. According to him, it took him a few months to find and get into a comfortable new groove which worked for him. He ended up excelling of course.

I have another friend who recently graduated from university with a near 4.0 GPA. She too told me once how it took her quite a long while to find a study method that worked for her. She’s the kind of person that hates rote memorization. She’s always fared well enough academically but did not have spectacular grades. In university she finally came into her own when she realized that if she took the time to figure out the logic in the numbers (she was in actuarial science), she had a breeze during examinations. It was a very labour intensive method as it took hours upon hours of figuring out and practicing, but she had never done this well in school before.

Undoubtedly, both friends I mention here are very bright and hardworking people. But they reflect something I’ve found to be a common key to academic success or improvement at the tertiary level – reflection and innovation about HOW one studies. When things weren’t going easy for them, they didn’t just spend time struggling with the academic material as overwhelming in load as that may have been. They strategized about HOW to change their study methods to fit them and the new academic system.

I knew someone else too who jumped from a 1.7 annual GPA to a 3.3 annual GPA because he finally found a method that worked for him – and not just because he spent more time mugging. (in fact, mugging didn’t work for him)

What is it you have learned at the end of 4 years in university? One of my favourite professors once told us he had no doubt we would have forgotten most of the material he taught in his class a week after our finals. He said what he wanted us to learn through his course was to pick up a TOOL-BOX that we can hone and use all through our life. That being a history course, the tool-box included learning to read text critically, to formulate good arguments and to communicate ideas clearly through written and oral media. I can attest to this: I definitely have forgotten most of the material from that class. But the skills I picked up and honed through that very demanding class benefited me greatly in all my subsequent courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

We have all studied for many years. But not many of us learn to LEARN. I think that those of us who benefited the most from our academic years are not necessarily the ones who graduated with the highest grades but the ones who managed to pick up the most important tool-box – learning to reflect, change and innovate when meeting formidable challenges. Learning how to learn – how to adapt and change when a method doesn’t work – learning that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method in learning, and actively searching for a way that suits our individuality. That process itself is the most valuable learning experience of all and it is this kind of real-life dynamic learning that ultimately is the most valuable after we graduate.

Mid-term and finals-besieged undergraduates often have their horizon limited to immediate consequences and as such feel shackled and sometimes even victimized by what they have to study. But ultimately, the material is limited in that it’s passive. It’s dead. The student, on the other hand, can be active and innovate. No matter how well or badly you’re faring now, there’s no reason why you can’t figure out a way to do better.

In my undergrad years (my majors were psychology & philosophy), I found that one very effective way to do well in papers and examinations was to learn how each professor and course was unique. Remember, ultimately, courses are planned and exams are set and marked by PEOPLE. If you can figure out what your professor considers to be significant and how she expects you to present your answers, you have a very helpful guideline in what to concentrate on and how to reflect your knowledge. Ultimately, the assignments and exams are not JUST meant to to assess how well you know the subject or the material per se, but how well you have learned the material AS PRESENTED and FILTERED by the professor who taught it. That is why if you take the same course taught by two different professors, how you need to study in order to pass or to get that ‘A’ could be very different.

Most of us think that school is about studying in order to learn. I think that the fun and the the true pedagogical value is in learning to study. The latter is a subset of that bigger subject we’re all students of: learning to LIVE.


  1. Wow, this you must be an expert at, Ann! Yep, the point of learning about the point of view of the prof is definitely something fresh for me. Since all math/ physics profs only recognize numbers and letters (for algebra, not as in words). That took the subjectivity out of the equation.

    On another note, my cousin once told me there are three things that you get from university that will stay with you for life:

    1) the skill set you obtained from learning (which is what you are describing here)
    2) the contacts/ networks that you built up in school
    3) the life experience

    I found it very true, and wanted to share it. Going to different schools really shaped my life and thinking in various ways. I somehow remembered what he said through the years (he talked to me before I went to uni) and have been telling all the undergrads-to-be the same thing!

  2. Yes, I agree with your cousin too! It’s nice when you have advice like that before you embark on uni life. Hopefully in some ways it enhanced your experience of living through those 4 years!

    As important as all 3 points your cousin mentioned are, not everyone comes away with the same feeling of enrichment. I think we have to choose to be engaged in our learning, in our relationships and in living the experience – to avail ourselves to those experiences – to really take away deeply learned lessons about them. A lot of times, how much we gather at harvest depends on how much we sowed in the spring.

    Having said that, I think everyone would have taken something away… just not everybody recognizes it!

  3. Sometimes it’s not only the mid-term and finals-besieged undergraduates who are having their horizon limited to the immediate consequences and as such feel shackled and victimized. Many working adults today too feel the same. And sadly, these people have forgotten (or perhaps they’ve never known) that the working experience is itself a learning process which one can have fun at and make valuable friendships along the way. There are just far too many people complaining about their “low-paying” jobs and “long-hours” these days, without realizing what it means by living each day to the fullest!

  4. i definitely agree that we learn more than just the textbook knowledges in university…i have learnt a lot this few years.. especially in this fourth year, i think i finally understood the active role a student has in his/her learning experience.. and by active, i mean how we seek solutions to problems we encounter while learning, how we do not take all the facts for granted and think about them critically… etc., this change in attitude has taught me so much, perhaps more than what i have learnt in the past 17 years of education…maybe the change is not apparent for me yet, but i can definitely sense what ur prof meant by obtaining a tool box to be used throughout life :)..

    i guess i am merely giving another testimony here.. :P

    (i know i have complaint a lot about schools, but i guess my point was not to say that we as students should not bear any responsibility in improving our learning experiences.. that is a fact for sure, but sometimes that responsibility has become a burden and instead of finding the root of problems, it seems almost like that we are blaming the victims for the cause of crimes? haha bad metaphor i know :P…naturalization is a hindrance to understanding.. we should all seek to improve, the system and us.. then the world will be a better place :P, okay sorry i am so out of point here :P)

  5. hahah sorry i wanna add that.. i guess the key here is whether u see tertiary education as a mean to obtaining good results , or as a mean for something grander… always keeping in view of the bigger pictures in life helps a lot…

    btw, i am seriously applying ur theory on university (each prof is unique) in my courses..hahaha :D

  6. Thank you for sharing your testimony then, pigeon-hater! *lol* I’m very glad… I can sense the exhilaration of discovery happening in your life! :D

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