“Man is a tool-using animal… Without tools he is nothing, With tools he is all.” – Thomas Carlyle
If the above quote is true, then many students in America are not very efficient “workers” in the educational system. Most students have never really been equipped with the tools needed to work efficiently—that is, to learn efficiently. The purpose of the Study and Learning Skills is to provide you with proven learning and study skill strategies that will make you a much more efficient worker in the educational process.
While there are a variety of fairly independent Study and Learning Skill topics, which you may explore in any order. I would recommend that the following information about what successful students know should be considered first. They describe the type of “tools” successful students use and give important background information on some new perspectives on learning.
What do successful students know? On first consideration, you might say that successful students know how to factor equations, work chemistry problems, read (and understand!) Shakespeare, and so on. But what successful students have learned that their less successful counterparts have not is not only a question of subject matter skills. It has to do with underlying knowledge about learning itself. Few students have really been taught this underlying knowledge, since the educational system has not really made an effort to focus directly on these skills. The more successful students have simply learned through a process of trial and error that certain behaviors improve their performance. The six skills that are explained below reflect important principles on which Study and Learning Skills are based.
1. Successful students relate their class work to clearly-defined long-range goals.
Many educators lament over the lack of motivation they see in some of the students who struggle through school. Many students' academic records are marked by a trail of mediocre grades, dropped classes, excessive absence reports, and so on. These students will readily admit that they have a problem with motivating themselves to do their class work. Perhaps they fail to see the relevance of college algebra, art appreciation, history, or other curricular requirements. Their long-range goals are cloudy at best. As one modem-day philosopher has suggested, "Education is one of the few things people are willing to pay for and not get."
Successful students have much more clearly-defined goals. They have taken the initiative to meet with a counselor and consider career or life options. They have established a major and have a much clearer picture in their head of where they are headed and how the courses they are taking contribute to the "big picture." Grades, attendance requirements, and assignments take on a new meaning since they represent intermediate steps on the way to reaching the long-range goals. Overall, motivation is much less of a problem to these students.
2. Successful students have taken control of their educational experiences.
The students who succeed do so largely because they see themselves as the central person in their educational experiences. To use a term favored by psychologists, such students have an "internal locus of control." They play an active role in guiding and shaping the events around them to their advantage. Students who have an "external locus of control" react very differently. They often see themselves as victims in the educational system, almost powerless in affecting the circumstances around them. They registered late and got the toughest history teacher in the department. Their economics teacher is a really boring lecturer. The reading list from their English class has nothing that remotely interests them. Their speech teacher has assigned them to work on a group project with the three laziest students in the class. Students who do not see themselves as the person responsible for their education often look at teachers as the "crucial variable" in the problem of getting an education: if they get a "good" teacher, an interesting teacher, a teacher who gives the format of test they like, then everything will work out fine. If not, they're doomed. Such students play a passive role; things "happen" to them, and they don't really see themselves in a position to do much about it.
Students who have learned to achieve in the educational system refuse to be passive victims. If they get the toughest teacher in the history department, they budget extra time to work with the subject or perhaps organize a study group of classmates to pool their collective understanding of the material. If they get a boring lecturer, they move to the front of the class as a way to stay more actively involved, or perhaps they use a creative note-taking method like " concept mapping" to add interest to the class or make the time go faster. When faced with a reading list that doesn't offer any interesting works, they go to their teacher's office and try to negotiate an acceptable alternative work. When teamed up with unmotivated workers on a project, they take the initiative to lead the group and make sure progress is made. In short, they act in positive ways to exert control over their own education.
3. Successful students have learned to be aware of their own learning and thinking processes.
Effective learners have the ability to "eavesdrop" on their own thought processes, to think about their thinking. They are able to observe and monitor their own experiences and emotions, and make adjustments in their behaviors that lead to productive results. They have a voice inside their head that sends messages about such behaviors: "My mind is wandering and I'm not understanding this reading assignment. I need to put it aside and take a break for a few minutes." "Why didn't I get more credit on this essay test item? What did I leave out?" "I don't understand these notes very well... I'd better go by to see the teacher for some help." "I did a lot better on this algebra test than on the first one... Working the extra problems in each chapter must really be helping me."
This ability of a learner to "pull back" and observe her own efforts at thinking and learning will enable her to exert greater control over the learning process.
4. Successful students recognize that understanding takes place over time; it is seldom immediate.
Real understanding seldom comes to people like a lightning bolt. Our working memory absorbs information very quickly, but its "hold" on the information is seldom lasting: much of the detail we store in our working memory will fade away in less than a day. Effective students have learned that understanding new information requires review and reinforcement. They discipline themselves to spend a little time each day and each week to process details in their working memory to construct knowledge and absorb it into their long-term memory. Since they recognize the futility of trying to learn huge amounts of information in an all-night cram session the night before a major exam, test preparation is much less frantic. They process information as it comes in and work at over-learning difficult information to decrease the "brain drain" that would otherwise occur over time.
5. Successful students use more than one sensory channel to improve their learning.
Learning theorists today believe that people learn by different processes and through different "channels." Many researchers believe that the left hemisphere of the brain, the center for speech and language, functions most effectively handling details sequentially and performing logical or analytical processes. The right hemisphere is thought to be the center for our emotional behavior, absorbs information more "holistically" and functions most effectively with visual and spatial details. While some psychologists balk at labeling people as either right- or left-brained learners, there is a consensus on the notion that learning takes place most effectively when information is processed in a way that involves both left and right brain processes.
Many successful students have learned to take information best suited to left brain processes--the verbal world of textbooks and class lectures--and transform it into visual images, concept maps that represent information in charts or diagrams with clear spatial relationships, or some other physical or tactile form.
6. Successful students look for underlying structure in what they are Learning.
High-achieving students will attempt to determine the deeper structure that underlies the information they are trying to learn. When listening to a teacher's lecture or discussion, they try to imagine the outline or plan the teacher is working from. They preview a reading assignment before they begin to read in order to see the skeleton of main points that give the chapter its structure. When reviewing details in their class notes, they mentally arrange them into forms or groups that will make it easier to recall them on a test. When preparing writing assignments or oral presentations, these students will clearly structure the information so that the reader or listener will not have to struggle to see how the main ideas are related.
Students who have mastered the process of learning are not always the most brilliant people on campus. They have, however, adopted most of the characteristics cited above. As you begin to sample the various Study and Learning Skills, you will start to develop these same characteristics and become better educated on the process of learning.