I’m a slow learner. I struggle with focus. I was tested for learning issues at a young age. After four decades in the education system in some form or fashion, I learned how to get A’s. It wasn’t always that way. I failed a number of classes in high-school. I even failed gym class.
I scored an 18 on the ACT. I did a year at a community college to help me with my studies. I’ve had the distinction of being put on academic probation with two universities. Now my GPA is near 4.0 in a difficult masters level program. Here are seven ways I learned to get A’s:
1. Believe you can learn it!
Growing up I realized there were some subjects that came more naturally to me and some that didn’t. I would tell myself, “I can’t do math.” After doing some brain research, I realized I CAN learn ANYTHING! And you can too! Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something. Never limit yourself by proclaiming what you cannot learn. It may come slower than your peers, but so what? It will come. God created your brain to store trillions of memories over your lifetime. You CAN learn ANYTHING. It’s just information. Just like you learned your ABC’s, and colors, you can learn calculus. It may take you more time and effort, but you can do it. Start with success in mind.
2. Find the best ways you take in information.
Finding out how you best load information into your brain is critical to your academic success. Some students aren’t cut out for the classroom style of learning. Many of them get labeled as slow. Everyone is smart, just in different ways. Everyone can learn and everyone has something to contribute; we just learn in different ways and our contributions may seem valuable to some and worthless to others.
You may need it quiet to study or you like a little music in the background. You may like to sit at a well-lit desk or maybe you prefer to move around a little as you learn (like me). Maybe you’re detail oriented or perhaps you see better the big picture. Maybe you remember better during a lecture, or maybe you like pictures. Whatever the case, no one style is bad if you learn what you need to.
So how do you learn? Begin to watch yourself and your study habits. Try different techniques and remember what works. If you had the opportunity to take one test, and if you passed this test, you would receive a million dollars. You have one day to study for this test — how would you study? However you would study for this is a good indication of how you learn. I recommend the book How am I Smart, by Kathy Koch. See the recommended resource in the top right corner of this blog.
3. Get a head start.
When I get together with other students in my program, I realize I am often out of my league intellectually. They have thoroughbred brains. They can learn and read so fast! So what do I do? I sneak a head start! I find the class materials for my semester as far in advance as I can and I begin reading the texts and learning the concepts sometimes months in advance. I get to the finish line at the same time, but I start the race early. You can find class materials by asking students who have already taken the class what books are required, you can look at the syllabus (if it’s not out yet, find someone who has an old one), ask the instructor or college bookstore manager what materials the class requires.
4. Learn the language of your discipline.
Every discipline has a language. Chemistry speaks of moles and valences. Philosophy talks in essences, forms, and deductions. Even golf speaks its own language of bogeys, birdies and pars. FOCUS on learning these key words early in your course. Use flash-cards or Quizlets (see Quizlet.com) to help you. Don’t progress until you have laid a solid foundation of the language in your courses.
5. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.
A lot of students quit before they really understand the concepts. We look at our peers and see them not studying at all and we have to work so hard! How do we deal with this? Well…we work hard! Do what needs to be done. If your peers need to do only five practice problems in order for them to understand it but you have to do twenty, DO TWENTY!
Each activity, sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch causes activity along a set of neural pathways in your brain. The more you repeat an experience, the stronger the pathway becomes. If repeated often enough, the experience becomes a part of the permanent memory.
Imagine your brain as an empty field. Every day you walk across the field along the same route. A path begins to wear in the grass. Soon, the path grows larger and firmer. Then, you pave a road over the path and it becomes a part of your permanent landscape (memory). Work your subjects enough to pave the road!
6. When you feel like you’re drowning – go back to where you can touch.
Knowledge builds upon itself. Like swimming, you start in the shallow end and progress toward the deep. If you find yourself lost or drowning it’s because you kept going deeper without understanding. The teacher kept giving you concepts, principles or vocabulary to learn but you disengaged your brain from understanding a while back.
She pulled you to the deep end and you didn’t learn the basics. So, go back to the last place you understood. Then learn one step at a time. If you try to balance chemical equations without understanding atomic weight, moles and significant figures you will be lost. Go back to where you can touch and review earlier concepts. Don’t keep going! Stop and touch, then build slowly on understanding. I never read without a pen. When I run across a word I don’t understand I DON’T KEEP READING. If I do, my brain will disengage and I will keep sounding out words but without understanding. I go back to that word and look it up and write the definition in the margin. Then I read the sentence again. This slows me down, but I don’t drown.
7. Use multiple sources.
If one book doesn’t explain the concepts well, use another. Recently I had a theoretical physics class. Not my best subject. The instructor assigned a book that introduced the vocabulary of theoretical physicists – quantum mechanics, gravity, and general relatively. I found myself in the deep end. I searched You Tube for lectures, I found other sources like Khan Academy and other open-source lectures to help explain things in a little different way. This helped tremendously! Here’s a secret – I often will use children’s or junior-high level books to help me understand difficult concepts. I go back to where I can touch! I have a stack of “For Dummies” books in my office because they put the cookies where I can reach them. (Yes, they have a Quantum Physics for Dummies.)
Don’t be LAZY. In the information age there is no excuse for not learning – even if you’re a bit slow! You can do it!