Mar 28, 2016 | Thinking Better
This article continues the series on how to be an excellent student and life learner. Read the previous article here: Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning and After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom.
In After Learning, I shared what I wish I had done as a student to grasp the subject of my courses better. Here, I’m sharing tips specifically on how to be an excellent student who is not just smarter, but wiser, knowing how to contextualize and apply the knowledge to real life situations.
These are not meant to replace the usual taking notes, completing assignments, and regular studying that are given activities of a student’s life. They are, instead, ways to get the most out of those other activities, be it lectures, assignments, office hours, etc. The goal is primarily to increase and deepen understanding of the subject, which secondarily, I would think, would reflect in the grades. These are also written in the context of a high school, college, or graduate course, but the principles are applicable to other learning contexts.
Before the Course
Study the syllabus. Your instructor has put together a plan on how she would guide you through a particular subject for the whole semester. This is done with no small effort. The syllabus is the highest level of perspective on everything you will learn. It tells you a lot about how the instructor thinks and what she deems as important. I used to not pay attention to this, to my own detriment, like the table of contents of a book. But in fact, this is a roadmap that, if followed, will guide your way throughout the semester. Study it; pose questions on why it is arranged this way. You can even ask the instructor the why and how she arranges her course during office hours. Let me tell you a secret: most instructors would be thrilled to be asked these questions by a genuine and true inquirer.
Studying the syllabus also helps you to know, before coming to lectures, what will be covered on a given day. This way, you won’t be a passive recipient of information, but an engaged, active listener. And an active listener will always absorb and retain more information.
Skim the textbook/reading materials. Spend a few minutes to an hour to skim the textbook and reading materials. The purpose of this is to get an initial impression on what you will learn. Read the first and last few paragraphs of each chapter to get a sense of its key ideas, flow, and arrangement of thoughts. When the course eventually gets to each section, your brain will have some memory and familiarity to the subject, and will absorb information better. Psychologically, you’ll be more at ease in facing a more familiar topic than a completely foreign one. If you’re majoring in something that requires loads of reading, skimming will help you retain more insights on the reading materials.
During the Course
Reflect each day. Ask yourself, what did I learn today? What happened in class? Sometimes we get too busy taking notes, running from one class to another, that we don’t get to absorb what is being taught. Take a few minutes to review the day. Remember, repetition deepens impression.
Each week, ask yourself, how does this week’s lessons connect with last week’s? Where are we now in the roadmap? How does it differ or enhance the previous topics? Refer back to the syllabus to see where you are in the context of the whole semester.
Converse with classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors about the subject. Ask questions that come up during your personal reflection time, listen to what they think, and synthesize your own conclusions. I may not remember what a lecture covers, but I can usually remember good conversations.
Go to office hours. Most instructors and TAs are just waiting for you to come and talk to them. They usually don’t see many students until an assignment is due or before exams. The truth is, they would love to have conversations with students from the beginning of the class. These are people who dedicate their lives to academia. Nothing gives them more joy and fulfillment than seeing students who love to learn. So talk to them. They’re humans, trust me. Ask them about their career, why they chose to be in academia. You may be in for surprises.
If you want to take it to the next level, create your own thought process map or chart in organizing the course materials. If you were to teach the course, how would you do it?
After the Course
Once the semester ends and final exams are over, don’t just discard the materials you’ve learned and dump all memory to oblivion. Spend some time contextualizing the course in the bigger framework of your life education.
What are the key principles you learned from the course?
Connect the subject with other courses or fields of study. How do they relate to each other? How do they make you a better doctor/engineer/social worker or whatever career you are pursuing? This exercise helps you understand what relevance does this subject have in the world. Write down your thoughts to summarize the course and the whole semester.
These things don’t have to take a lot of your time; a few minutes here and there will do. And you don’t even have to do all of them. You can start implementing one thing into your daily habits, and add on later. In fact, I would argue any one item would naturally lead to the others, since this is about approaching school as a wisdom seeker. When this self-evaluation becomes a habit, it will change the way you live and learn hereafter.
If you want to learn more on how to be an efficient learner, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It has a brilliant section on how to skim a book!
Photo credit: Freekpik
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Mar 14, 2016 | Reading Life
March 14 is a glorious convergence of nerdiness. It was the birth date of Albert Einstein—the greatest mind ever graced the Earth—and the date that resembles the mathematical constant pi, hence Pi Day. With the recent detection of gravitational waves, astronaut Scott Kelly’s safe return to earth after a year (or to be precise, 340 days) in space, and our recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, our household has been especially, giddily geeked out this year.
Our house has been experiencing a resurgence of scientific interests, and if you’re feeling nerdy too, you may be interested in the following educational resources we’ve been consuming:
This is an 8-episode series of about 15 min each documenting the preparation, launch, and duration of Kelly’s mission at the International Space Station (ISS). It’s such a bold and difficult, understatedly, mission that humans undertake in the name of science. Incredible.
Similar, but different.
That hyperlink will direct you to the PBS website, but you can also view it on Amazon here if you have Prime subscription. Yes, we’ve been seeing a lot of Brian Greene on our screens.
We spent 2 hours on Saturday night browsing the aisles of our local site of Half Price Books. If you haven’t been to one, check if one exists in your area. Some stores are better stocked than others, but the one near us is awesome. Since I’ve been wanting to study Physics again, this is a great place to find used books at low prices. The clearance section is also super; I got these books for $2 a piece.
Today, I’m celebrating with this gem, which is amazingly concise considering it is packed with groundbreaking science.
Happy birthday, Einstein, and Happy Pi Day to you all.
Mar 2, 2016 | Books, Thinking Better
The following experiences happened within the last 3 months:
Tried on a winter jacket at The North Face store, nicely designed, warm, and smooth. Went to a next door store that sold jackets with one-fifth of the price, but it was plastic-y, with rough hems and zippers that caught repeatedly.
Waited for an hour at a doctor’s office, ended up having a 10-min visit with the doctor, during which he gave his regular spiel (overheard him from another room) without ever addressing me personally or mentioning my name. The visit cost $70.
Got my car checked at the dealership. Greeted by a representative who introduced herself and addressed my name with a smile. Answered all of my questions in a calm, unhurried way, performed requested services, and sent me off with a handshake. Good job, Honda.
Visited a Greek restaurant during restaurant’s week. The place was busy and well staffed, but everyone was super alert and watchful over the customers. There was no slacker there–no one standing around spaced out having nothing to do. Everyone walked like they had somewhere to go, quickly. Used plates were cleaned and replaced, drinks refilled, boxes offered without being asked. Free valet service was offered to all customers, and they speed walked to get the car. All around efficiency–loved it!
Waited almost half an hour in a baggage-drop line at the airport with only 3 people in front of me. Despite the long line formed, one of the agents strolled off and disappeared into the back room, never returning until who knows when.
Read a journal paper that was meticulous in its problem definition, step-by-step in its explanation, and comprehensive in analysis. Edifying from the first read.
What made some of these experiences extremely pleasant? Excellence.
When a person, a company, or an establishment is excellent in product design, service, academically, or technically, they can command loyalty from customers and assign higher prices, and people would pay willingly and happily. I have visited many doctor’s office in my local area and to this day, I have not settled on one yet. Whereas with my car, since the first day I came to this particular dealership, there was no thought of going anywhere else. The one time I did, I was sorely, sorely disappointed.
Both establishments surely need to make money and serve as many customers as possible, but one tries to hide this from the consumers’ experiences and takes time to perfect their services, and the other doesn’t. It troubles me somewhat that the assembly line mentality is present in health care services more than my particular auto service provider.
Excellence matters, not only because it makes good business sense, but also because it enhances people’s experiences and brightens up their days.
The Moral Imperative to Be Excellent
Paul Kalanithi, in his book When Breath Becomes Air, reflected deeply on the moral imperative to excel in neurosurgery, where a millimeter-level error could result in an altered life and identity of his patient.
“As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed–or fail–were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”
“Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear. Certain brain areas are considered near-inviolable, like the primary motor cortex, damage to which results in paralysis of affected body parts. But the most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language… If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?”
Early in his medical training, he realized the soul aspect of his work:
“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life–and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul–was obvious in its sacredness.”
Contrast his commitment to excellence with an incompetent resident he came across during treatment. Paul wrote,
“Meeting his obligation to me meant adding one more thing to his to-do list: an embarrassing phone call with his boss, revealing his error. He was working the night shift. Residency education regulations had forced most programs to adopt shift work. And along with shift work comes a kind of shiftiness, a subtle undercutting of responsibility. If he could just push it off for a few more hours, I would become somebody else’s problem.”
The difference? One saw his work as a sacred calling and another saw his as a job–a checklist of tasks to do and get by.
The Fullness of a Work
Certain professions have greater immediacy to life-threatening danger upon failure. How would you like to fly on a plane designed to survive 99.99% of the time? The number looks impressive, but 99.99% means 1 out of 10000 flights would fail. With about 100,000 flights scheduled each day in the US, this statistics is way too poor. Nothing less than 100% is good enough in aviation.
I would argue, however, that the life-threatening level is not the only measure to the importance of excellence. One’s work doesn’t have to implicate life and death to carry moral weight in society. Instead, most work makes a difference in other people’s lives, improving or deteriorating their experience and quality of life.
Yet more than avoiding liability, excellence brings joy. Encountering excellence in a good book, a great teacher, or an excellent service makes us happy. The task is not just done, but fulfilled–filled to the full. This goodness multiplies in the recipients of the work and propagates to others they would in turn impact.
I would further submit that this is also the way to work happily. Excellence is never accidental, always intentional, effortful, and focused. And when it bears fruit, it’s extremely fulfilling.
The old adage says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A truly wise saying.
Follow this post with the Anatomy of Excellence.
Image credit: Freepik