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Learning to Learn

September, 2012
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People are often surprised to find that I’m not a great a role model when it comes to study habits and time management. Despite having excelled in academics most of my life, I am generally a slave to procrastination, addicted to Facebook, and completely and utterly incapable of keeping my desk clean for more than two hours at a time.

So how have I managed to stay afloat all these years?

jessica-hao-1There are many experts who can tell you all about the latest research into effective study habits and techniques, and outline how you should manage your time and divide your efforts in order to be the most effective learner possible. These individuals are extremely knowledgeable, and their advice is undoubtedly valuable to students, but what they can’t tell us is how to be ourselves, which I believe is the most important piece of the puzzle. Although I may not be able to follow every rule in the expert’s handbook, I know which ones work well for me and which ones do not. This means that despite my negative habits, I still know how to make things work for me.

I was lucky to have been given control over my own learning at a very young age. No one ever prescribed ways for me to study or learn, so I was able to tackle learning many different ways as a young child. I quickly discovered techniques that were extremely effective and techniques that were not. For example, reciting learned material aloud and creating review notes (even if I don’t then use the review notes to review) were two techniques that were particularly effective for me. Creating flashcards and charts on the other hand, were not so helpful. Having an understanding of my own learning preferences made it very easy later on in my studies to be more effective with every second of my studying time. The same goes for my friends who were successful at both the secondary and post-secondary education levels. Some have a preference for mnemonic devices, some for writing practice problems, some for group studying, but what they have in common is an understanding of how they study best, regardless of what experts have to say about those particular study methods. If it works for you, stick with it!

The same goes for studying environments. Some prefer a quiet place, some prefer music playing in the background, some prefer a perfectly clean work surface, and some prefer a place where they can lay out and see all their clutter. There is no right or wrong study environment, as long as the environment is a place where you can focus. However, here is where self-control becomes very important, for we can be convinced that something in our environment is beneficial, when in reality it is not. It’s important to be aware in these situations so we can remove distractions disguised as aids.

For example, I often face the dilemma of deciding whether or not to turn off my internet when studying. On one hand, the internet can be a great learning tool, allowing me to search for information relating to concepts I am not familiar with. On the other hand, the internet is one huge distraction. From Facebook to Tumblr to Skype to the endless spam from Amazon in my email inbox, it seems as if every time I log on to my computer and the internet, I have at least 40 minutes of browsing to do before real work becomes even a remote possibility. In most situations, I will turn the internet off (even if it’s wireless!) and make a list of words and concepts to look up online after I’ve accomplished my studying goals. Then, I’ll sign on afterwards to browse and finish up my studying to maximize actual studying time and minimize time spent procrastinating on various social media outlets. I admit, sometimes I cave and turn the internet back on to just “check Facebook for two seconds”…which inevitably becomes two minutes…or ten…or an hour. The moral of that story is try to establish boundaries for yourself so you don’t make such slip ups.

jessica-hao-notebookAnother aspect of effective studying that experts focus on is time management. Experts value time management because it allows us to keep track of our progress and helps us avoid having to resort to cramming and all-nighters in order to complete our work on time. On top of this, I found another great reason to plan: stress management. When I was younger and joyfully less busy, I firmly believed that planning out your time was an utter waste of time. As I got progressively more busy, however, what I found was that personally, planning didn’t necessarily help me become any more effective at finishing my work, but it did serve as a great form of stress relief. Normally, I would look at the time I had to work and the amount of work I had to do and freak out because it always seemed like I didn’t have enough time. But after planning out my schedule and visually having proof that I could finish on time if I worked effectively, suddenly my workload appeared to be a million times more manageable. The weeks when I do plan tend to differ very little from the weeks when I don’t plan in terms of productivity, however the difference in stress levels is enormous. I feel very comfortable once I’ve planned my week out, whereas I feel very stressed out and out-of-control during the weeks when my work is not planned out. And of course, many less late nights result when I’ve carefully planned out my week, which probably also helps with stress levels in the long run.

If you are someone who has trouble convincing yourself that planning is worthwhile, do what I do: Use it as procrastination. Don’t want to start on this week’s work yet? Sit down and give yourself a half hour to plan out your week. Use a tool that will make the process fun for you, whether that’s an electronic calendar (Outlook, iCal, Google Calendars, etc.), an agenda, a physical calendar, or a whiteboard. Set yourself goals, both short term and long, and cross out or check off each goal as you accomplish it. This will remind you that you are constantly moving forwards, so even when you feel like you haven’t been the best student, you can be reminded that you are still making progress. In addition, don’t just plan out work, plan out breaks and insert activities you’ll enjoy, like walking your dog or having dinner with friends. Giving yourself room to breathe in your schedule will also make you feel less overwhelmed, and therefore more likely to actually get focused and stay focused while you are working.

This brings me to another very important point: To be successful inside the classroom, you have to also be successful outside the classroom. Very few people can bury themselves in schoolbooks all day and maintain a love for learning and academics. And to those of you who can, I tip my hat to you. The rest of us, however, will have to struggle to find a good balance between academics and other hobbies in order to prevent burnout. And again, to be successful at finding balance, one has to develop a self-awareness about what activities truly excite them and add meaningful diversity to their lives.

jessica-hao-roots-and-shootsFor some, the answer will be a sports team. For others, it will be a volunteering opportunity. For others yet, it will be a school club (art?), or a stay-at-home hobby (knitting?), or perhaps an extension of an academic subject (robotics?). The possible ways to add diversity to our educations through extracurricular activities is virtually endless, and it’s important to give these different opportunities a chance in order to find what works best for you. For myself personally, my go-to life balancer was swimming, which allowed me to escape the troubles of everyday life for a few hours a day. In addition, swimming was a healthy reminder of why goal-setting is important, why dedication is important, why being a leader and a team player is important, and it kept me on my toes when it came to planning out homework time around practice time. My other activities, such as my work with Roots and Shoots and the Community Center Shanghai, were enjoyable because they were an opportunity for me to do meaningful work in a social environment. As someone who generally studies alone, it was nice to be able to escape that daily monotony and interact with others at least a few times a week.

And it doesn’t end there. Productive balance alone is not enough. Make time for family and friends. Don’t let everything you have to do keep you away from the people who matter most in your life. Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t feel like you have to be working every second otherwise it has been wasted. At the end of the day, you will forget the days you holed yourself up to review for that chemistry test or to write that English essay, but you will remember the times when you hosted a surprise party for a friend or just bummed around watching movies with your younger siblings.

I guess what I’m trying to say is work hard, but don’t let life pass you by. Every second is valuable, so listen to yourself and always put that first when deciding how to live your life. Do what works for you, do what you love, and don’t let experts tell you that you’re living the wrong way. Stay on your toes. Decide for yourself. And maybe you’ll find that even with the occasional Facebook procrastination break, you’ll still one day grow to be a successful and happy individual.

Best of luck, friends.


By Jessica Hao,

Class of 2011, Shanghai American School

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