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.