In many colleges in the United States, almost half of first-year college students do not make it to graduation. Stop and think about this for a minute. Our current US higher education system is designed in such a way that it kills the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of almost 50% of the students who enter through its gates. As you meditate on this reality, let’s run a related thought experiment. What would you say about an airline company that designs and flies planes that kill 50% of it’s passenger? Would you buy a ticket from that company? Would you support letting that company maintain the status quo?
To me, when I think about how our current policy choices fail to support so many students, I see a need for major reforms. I want to avoid blaming students and faculty for this failure. While I believe each of us has a moral responsibility to challenge current policies and advocate for reform, I also realize that no individual shoulders the entire weight of the injustices that are baked into our current system. Instead, I believe we should learn to focus our collective energies on policy changes to better support our local communities in creating significant learning experiences in college and beyond. Such policy changes will require decades (if not centuries) of sustain activism at the grass-roots level.
In the meantime, if you are part of the current generation of college students, our community here at The Learning Code wants to help you develop and refine system-navigation skills so that you can thrive in an environment that is designed to weed you out. As part of this effort, I want to help you develop a scrapper’s mindset, which is exactly what we explore in this post.
While gym memberships cost around $30 a month, upper division undergraduate college education in America may cost anywhere from $300 to $3000+ a month… After 5 years of living through that, I (sadly only recently) realized: lectures, sections, homework, exams, are merely ‘opportunities’ for increased critical thinking, citizenship, integrity, humanity, justice, compassion, curiosity, and autonomy AKA learning how to learn, to become more cognitively fit. Similar to how weights in a gym are merely opportunities for increased physical fitness and identity.
While professors do good work in presenting us information while designing assignments and exams to assess our learning, the truth is, majority of those ‘opportunities’ cognitive fitness, without proper technique, coaching, guidance, and mindsets, lead many students consequently backpedaling towards our collective mission at a university. 1 difference between the gym vs. lecture, aside from the cost, is we can’t visually see how our peers are developing their cognitive fitness, whereas, we can more transparently see how people are becoming more physically fit. When someone is jogging or doing a pushup, pullup, or a squat, I can leverage mirror neurons and mimic their movements. But when my peer gets an A+ I rarely will get to see what / why / how someone is learning to measure up to what our professors are expecting.
An open ended petition to rethink lecture in 2020 and moving forward.
“It makes no sense to expect all students to take the same amount of time to achieve the same objectives” – Benjamin Bloom
While many classes may seem disengaging, irrelevant, or abstract… remember that we are fully capable in developing the practices as well as mindsets of learning how to learn to equip ourselves with the vocabulary, tools, principles and armor to make the most out of our classes.
There are musicians who can understand each note in the image below just like how there are computer engineers who understand computer code and math. But they didn’t have these concept imagesthe moment they were born – they developed cognitive fitness around these languages, just like you have, if you are able to read or understand the words I published here.
Some surface level facts about the brain. Our nervous system has cells called neurons where information from one neuron flows to another across a synapse. Our brain has over a billion synapses. Any time you learn, which we may define as a process of changes involved in: beliefs behaviors attitude or knowledge, your brain is creating synapses. Sleeping refreshes updates and develops these synapses creating stronger more myelinated brain cells.
Learning is demanding and uncomfortable; we learned from Newton’s 1st law of inertia that an object at rest stays at rest. Learning hard skills cause anxiety and stress, not to mention you have a million more entertaining things you could potentially be doing – reading this blog post isn’t 1, but I appreciate you and want to help you learn. This discomfort activates areas in the brain which will direct you to do something more pleasant. However if we remind ourselves we can learn anything we want to learn, and just start, that cognitive discomfort begins to go away.
The more abstract or irrelevant something is, the more important it is to develop neural connections to bring abstract ideas to reality. There really is not much of a short cut to onboarding yourself to musical notes, math, language, computer science, so just remember hard & abstract concepts require more time. You are not alone here, no one gets an exemption from this. The only reason computers are not as abstract for Bill Gates was because he was hella interested in computers, had access to them when he was a teenager, and had mentors or significant people of influence that encouraged him to learn about computers.
Concept images, neuroscientifically speaking, bond together through exploration, understanding and application. They may grow and become more complex and can become part of your working memory and daily function. Walking reading speaking listening are examples of concept images at work. The elephant not in my room is, classes are boring and hard, so: how do we build concept images most effectively, then efficiently?
Solve the problem yourself
Focus on 1 thing at a time
Ask yourself what did you learn, understand the illusion of competence
Space out the practice
Active Recall with Reflection
Ask yourself what did you learn, again, and write those thoughts down
Unlearn old ideas and challenge your intuition
With finals coming up here are some questions, I hope will guide you to learn more in your courses
How may you create mini-study guides / synopsis for each class meeting you have?
What questions would you ask if you were the professor?
While so much of what we’re required to learn is more boring and demanding than watching food videos on YTube, what are some different ways to perceive this material?
What are the key objectives of the class today?
Are you investing some time for self care?
On exam day here are some strategies introduced to me by Jeff that have helped over the years
Invest time to look at the exam in the beginning 5 minutes
Track and Solve the questions that are easiest first, to build momentum and confidence
Shift your thinking from “I’m gonna do poorly on the test” to “I’m going to do my best because I focused on the learning”
Schedule time to breathe deeply into your stomach and channel calm thoughts if you are stuck
Remember when you arrive at your upper division courses, it is common that tutors, resources, study groups will become more scarce just like they have for me this semester. Therefore, the sooner you begin focusing on your learning and investing time to be metacognitive of learning how to learn, the more cognitively fit you will be!
The lecture ends, we take a break, the next one begins… soon enough the day is over with ~10 hours of material (delivered in 3) dumped on us – for us to synthesize and comprehend. We do our “best” to engage in lecture and make these ideas relevant by salvaging as many concepts and ideas our professors painstakingly presented. Without much more guidance, besides a voluntary time management workshop, on how to engage in lecture and make meaningful connections in class, we’re left on our own… which leads to some detrimental outcomes. During lecture we immediately see if we are meeting the expectations of our professors and how we’re fairing with the most advanced & motivated & hard working students in the class. STEM curriculum is really great at making us feel like we do not belong. This is a gut-wrenching reflection in each and every single 1 of my technical lectures every-single-day. Unless we find a significant reason to engage in unpacking what our lectures have to offer, it’s extremely uncommon to spend the hours outside of class doing so, for some limited-dimensional idea of getting a job 2-4 years down the line. This is actually a much more complicated topic which involves motivation theory, academic trauma, belief, inequities, ethics, vision, and much much more, and the deeper I dig, the more I realize how nuanced and consequential that ~40% of college students are dropping out, truly is.
The ability to exercise intellectual labor in cognitively demanding tasks (such as writing an essay, doing math, or coding a program) requires a game plan if you want to really engage in that activity – sure we’ve all winged it before and we can get by in high school as many do, but the realization that winging it in college, especially if you’re in a technical field, ultimately could lead us to feeling like: is education about just mastering some skill or material? Rather could education offer fertile ground to teach us about ethics all while developing valuable skills that our valuable in our society? It could be about learning how to be an educated member of our community or becoming a professional learner, but instead more often than not, my classes provide a lecturer who knows foundational knowledge to these subjects I’m having to learn, that took 100+ years of development from many human minds, and we’re suppose to make sense of it. But where are the professionals that help us understand how learning works and infuse humanity, ethics, justice into their practices? I recognize even my least learning-focused professors, who are overworked & under appreciated, over-enrolled & understaffed (want smaller student to teacher ratios? well your vote matters) address my learning needs more than most of my colleagues in business & tech. However, a problem we are all too familiar with is, how do we get help on learning what is asked of us in our courses? Autonomy is a keystone of living a happy life as Esther Wojcicki writes in her transformative book “How to Raise Successful People” but, autonomy, something many college students have (arguably) too much of, without guidance coaching and mentorship, leads to serious torment.
One way I invite you to making sense of the autonomy you have in your life as a learner is to begin being metacognitive about what it means to learn. So here are some questions I invite you to chew on and perhaps even write responses for!
What do you know about the process of learning something challenging?
How open-minded are you to thinking about learning more thoughtfully than you ever imagined before?
Are you able to imagine being in a class where you thrive by turning boring topics into engaging ones, all while finding your own sense of belonging through scholarship?
How would you feel if no matter how disconnected you felt with your professor or the material you’re being asked to study, you found joy and meaning in the process of learning?
The way I see it is, we have three options.
A) Continue to learn to achieve grades and goals set from a self-centered – parent centered – professor centered – “I wanna get that ‘A'” centered paradigm.
B) Always be at the mercy of someone else’s expectations and doing as they say simply because – that’s what you have to do – it’s my way or the highway – others are doing it why can’t you?
C) Begin developing the intellectual courage and honesty to pursue (write down) meaningful goals, all while challenging and leveraging your prior knowledge to accelerate your learning process. Be proactive for your education and life by beginning with an end in mind and putting first things first.
Which 1 would you choose?
7 years ago, my mom wanted to open a cupcake bakery in Shanghai with me; we both had 0 restaurant experience, but like many immigrant parents dream – the restaurant hustle is a gamble they want to take. We took a 2-week long cupcake class – thousands of dollars down the drain, where “taking” a course I thought I would learn a lot from and use in my life.
However, I thought wrong.
Had I understood what I know about learning now, I would be able to refer back to my notes and learnings from the 2 week long course and make use of that experience in meaningful ways. But instead, the two things that I remember about that class was one: pistachio cupcakes were delicious – two: chemistry matters. My leader, renowned pastry chef, never guided me to understand the why and the how of what we were learning. Rather he gave a little history behind pastries and we began to bake. I am 100% certain he “taught” us more than those two takeaways… looking back on it I’m quite sad I didn’t leverage my autonomy and curiosity to learn more significantly than I could have had.
So why is it that we struggle with autonomy?
Andrew Huberman a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School states that, to rewire our brains and our ability to concentrate – in times of freedom – requires that we induce a sense of “urgency” that produces norepinephrine. This hormone, will make us feel agitated, want to get up and go do something less cognitively demanding, as well as less “boring“. Andrew says that we must apply serious focus to fight that urge, ultimately leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that in combination with the norepinephrine can induce brain growth.
Before acetylcholine can release, AKA when we’re in the uncomfortably boring stages of our learning process, Jeff Anderson from The Learning Code advises himself, by extension all of us:
“How might we reframe our boredom so that we get excited about what we are doing?”
How can we make the “boring” stuff in our classes fun?
Why do we truly think this class is boring?
Is it boring or is it because we’re cognitively overloaded & distracted?
What about this material I’m studying is interesting?
What would this education help me do in the long run?
How do I induce Brain Growth & Why should I bother doing so in this class?
How do I become more cognitively fit?
Moral of this story: making pistachio cupcakes helped me induce brain growth and release acetylcholine. Just kidding, but seriously.
I do not want you to pay and sit through classes, get information dumped onto you, be assigned to do stuff without reflecting on what ‘why’ and ‘how’, and get no long term value out of that experience besides a grade on your transcript. Where ultimately that grade could end up murdering your faith in your learning abilities for that subject. Even really unmotivated students – like me in cupcake boot camp – spend a TON of time being ineffective. Think about how you are spending your discretionary time and autonomy. Let your behaviors drive your attitude, behaviors, and knowledge: in turning often boring difficult to unpack & comprehend content, into meaningful tasks and projects that will provide you genuine value and cognitive anti-fragility down the road.
I failed so many STEM courses I can’t even keep count, so leverage my failures, so that you can learn more effectively THEN efficiently. Let’s rewrite our notes, go to office hours, slow down lecture, make some friends, take a honest look at our schedules, delete that app off our phone, and carry on.
Question your Autonomy & Discretionary Time!
Position ourselves to allow our classes to train our Cognitive Fitness!
You are the future that will lead the communities of today!