Learning to learn

Break’s out, school’s in and it’s time to start studying again.

Do I hear groans?

This post is going to be for those of you who want to learn how to study smart. I’m going to take it for granted that you’re in university and want good grades.

In a previous post, I mentioned about having no regrets and not working too hard, but that doesn’t mean your grades shouldn’t matter. So, assuming you want to be able to get good grades and fully immerse yourself in the NTU experience, what exactly do you do?

Here’s what I’ve learnt about learning over the last few years.

First things first

First, quit the idea that you aren’t good enough. You may look at some of your peers and think: “I should just give up. It’s not my place to get a good grade. These guys will get it, however hard I work.” You made it this far, and your grades are not a function of your intelligence. It’s a matter of working hard at being smart in studying, not simply how hard you study. Look at your high-achieving peers as potential mentors you can learn from.

Identify your learning style

Next, identify your learning style. According to this website, there are at least seven different styles of learning: spatial, auditory, linguistic, kinesthetic, mathematical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. One person may have a combination of styles. Beware, though, it’s just a model and reality will obviously be more complex (some have discredited learning styles entirely), but it’s a good place to start.

• The spatial learner is someone who needs visuals to learn. If this is you, you are the kind who absorbs details from pictures better than from words, especially if they are very colourful. A spatial learner is the most likely to derive the maximum benefit from using a mix of highlighters and mind maps when studying.
• The auditory-spatial learner is someone who needs music or sounds to recall things. If you are the kind who can easily recall song lyrics, then you could be an auditory learner.
• The linguistic learner likes to use words, both written and spoken, to learn. Some people write out their notes while others recite them.
• The kinesthetic learner learns better using the sense of touch.
• The mathematical learner, also known as the logical learner, needs to see a clear path of logic in the content they learn.
• The intrapersonal learner is someone who prefers to study alone. Interpersonal learners, on the other hand, like to be with others when mugging.


As you can see, it’s definitely not a mutually exclusive list.

Now don’t assume that you know immediately what kind of learner you are. Take some time to see what works for you. For example, I’m spatial, kinesthetic and mathematical. So after every class, I take a couple of hours to reorganise my notes on a sheet of A4 paper and draw a schematic using my own logical connections. Oh, and I use highlighters, many different kinds. I have more coloured highlighters than most others.

01Ain’t she a beauty? My very special orange highlighter 

How do you take stress?

Once you have discovered what combination of learning styles works for you, you need to identify how you learn.

You might know someone who appears to slack off throughout the semester, yet does really well for the exams. If you think about it, part of the reason why these people who thrive on last-minute cramming do well is because the examination system is a high-stakes system, and the stress helps them thrive.

Many people don’t do well with so much stress though (a little is good, too much is bad!). If you are such a student, then you may need to put in consistent work and break down what you have to absorb into bite-sized chunks throughout the semester.

Einstein defines madness as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. If you are getting the same results, than change what you are doing.

Three intangible ingredients you need to be SMART

Now that you’ve learnt more about yourself, the next objective is to set SMART goals for yourself: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely goals. “I will get an A in Introductory Biology” is not a SMART goal. “I will complete my readings on Dante’s Inferno by tonight and produce a review structure” is a SMART goal.

There are at least three more intangibles that seem important. One is patience. Just because you have ideas on how to be a better learner doesn’t mean that you’ll be one overnight. You need the patience to work at it. Oh, random point, I once saw a documentary that said that kids who were better able to delay gratification tended to do better in life… make of that what you will.

Discipline is also important. So if you decide that you are going to put two hours into smart studying every week, actually sit yourself down to do it. But be realistic: if you are not the sort who can study for more than 30 minutes at a stretch, forcing yourself to do so is merely setting yourself up to fail.

Finally, confidence, not arrogance, in your abilities comes through having repeated what you have done enough times to know that you can do it. The pilot is confident because he has flown thousands of hours before being made a captain. What this means is that you need to do enough of the right thing often enough. For example, if you’re taking a module on philosophy and regularly do your readings, you’ll be confident that you know your work, even if you don’t remember things word for word.

Are you even interested in what you are learning?

Your best laid plans will fail if you aren’t interested in what you are learning in the first place. Only you can decide whether you actually enjoy it. If you find that you aren’t even interested in the programme you’re enrolled in, then it may be a much more rational decision to quit while you are ahead. Listen to this podcast on the Upside of Quitting. We usually do not quit (whether it’s a relationship, career choice or academic programme) because we have sunk so much into it – what is known as the sunk-cost fallacy.

I was a quitter myself, having switched courses midway through my NTU studies. That was one of the best decisions I made for myself and it got me through university. What about you? What have you learnt about learning?

Comments? Email us at hey@ntu.edu.sg