Teaching and Learning for Liberation : Winter Roundtable 2022

Last updated: Wednesday 2/16/2022 @ 5:25am
Lead presenter: Dr. Katherine Lee
Co-presenters: Henry Fan, Jeff Anderson

This is a companion blog post for our talk Teaching and Learning for Liberation Through Community Building and Interdisciplinary Collaboration that our team gave on Friday 2/25/2022 from 11:00AM – 12:00PM EST as part of the Columbia University’s Teaching College 39th Annual Winter Roundtable Conference.

As is stated on the Winter Roundtable homepage, “the Winter Roundtable is the longest running continuing professional education program in the United States devoted solely to cultural issues in psychology, education, and social work.” This year’s Winter Roundtable conference is titled “Collective Action & Liberation in Psychology and Education, is a call to students, scholars, professionals, and activists to come together as we chart a path forward toward our collective liberation.”

In this blog post, we share all resources we generated for this talk as well as other resources that might be helpful for participants who want to return to these ideas after the talk ends. Enjoy.

Continue reading “Teaching and Learning for Liberation : Winter Roundtable 2022”

Make Learning Meaningful: What is Foundational Knowledge?

Figure 1: Learner-centered revision of L. Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning. In Fink’s original model, there are six categories of significant learning. In this revised version, we include ten categories of significant learning that are grouped together into larger categories of learning including Content, Character, Community, and Learning.

Our mission at The Learning Code is to encourage, support, and inspire you to create value in your college education. We know that you can succeed in your classes, earn your degree, and build a foundation for a career that you love. The Learning Code community is here to help you in that journey. However, we can only show you the door. You’re the one that needs to walk through it. To really build the type of college education that you value, you need to take ownership over your own learning. As we’ve stated previously, learning is all about change. To create significant learning experiences in college, you need to change the way you think about yourself, your goals, and your own learning. This includes developing a nuanced understanding of what it means to learn and figuring out the type of learning you want to do. In this post, we explore foundational knowledge which is one of eight different types of learning that you can create in college. This post is part of our Make Learning Meaningful series. The next seven posts in this series explore seven other types of learning you can engage in as you navigate your college degree. By expanding your understanding of what it means to learn, you can more easily seek out the types of learning you believe are right for your life and your future.

Continue reading “Make Learning Meaningful: What is Foundational Knowledge?”

The five stages of deep learning

In this post, we develop a model for five stages of deep learning. Remember that we defined learning as a process that leads to change. The 5-phase model we explore in this article helps identify distinct stages in this process of deep learning. This model will help you figure out how to push your learning deeper and develop your expertise in any skill or knowledge that you want to master.

Continue reading “The five stages of deep learning”

What is deep learning?

Our mission at The Learning Code is to help you make your learning meaningful, achievable, and purposeful. We focus our energy on supporting students who want to earn a college degree in the United States. We do so by using three powerful tactics. First, we share with you research-based principles of learning. These principles are founded on cutting-edge cognitive science results to explain how learning works. Second, we feature student stories and battle-tested learning practices that show how to implement these learning principles in your college classes. The learning practices we share with you are designed to inspire you engage in deep learning and also to help you strategically navigate a college education system that is severely flawed. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we work to support you in developing effective help-seeking behaviors so that you can create your own learning teams to facilitate your success in each of your college classes. In this post, we define what it means to engage in deep learning. This post sets a foundation for a later work we will do to explore barriers to deep learning in the US higher education system. All of this will help us develop targeted strategies that you can use to thrive in your college classes. In other words, we are focused on empowering you to become a strategic deep learner and to successfully complete your college degree in spite of institutional barriers that get in the way of your learning.

Continue reading “What is deep learning?”

A Vote for Cognitive Calisthenics

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
fooo reaalll

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 images the 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? 

  1. Reduce Distractions
  2. Solve the problem yourself 
  3. Focus on 1 thing at a time
  4. Ask yourself what did you learn, understand the illusion of competence
  5. Space out the practice 
  6. Active Recall with Reflection
  7. Ask yourself what did you learn, again, and write those thoughts down
  8. Unlearn old ideas and challenge your intuition 
  9. Interleaving practice 
  10. Deliberate Practice 

With finals coming up here are some questions, I hope will guide you to learn more in your courses

  1. How may you create mini-study guides / synopsis for each class meeting you have?
  2. What questions would you ask if you were the professor?
  3. 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?
  4. What are the key objectives of the class today?
  5. 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

  1. Invest time to look at the exam in the beginning 5 minutes 
  2. Track and Solve the questions that are easiest first, to build momentum and confidence 
  3. 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”
  4. 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! 

Not a Chinaman’s Chance

Me Reading this Blog Post

The phrase Chinaman’s Chance from 100+ years ago is related to “The Unrest” that is 2020; my claim (I welcome you to stand for or against in the comments) is we can connect Chance and Unrest to examine how students like myself are learning (or not) this academic year. One origin to the phrase Chinaman’s Chance may be traced back to the development of the U.S. transcontinental railroad. During construction, volatile bottles of nitroglycerine were used for blasting, and often Chinese workers would be lowered over cliffs by rope to place the nitroglycerine. According to a newspaper article in 1870, 20,000 pounds of bones (remember this number for a later paragraph) from Chinese workers who died building the railroad were shipped to China (you may use the ‘find’ feature in your browser for the word “bones” in the summary). Another origin of the phrase Chinaman’s Chance is from the California Gold Rush of 1849. The time it took for the news of the gold rush to reach China, most of the mines were already taken. These Chinese immigrants who arrived late only had lands which had already been exploited, meaning these late arriving immigrants had a spare chance of success. Therefore upon arriving California, “Not a Chinaman’s Chance” of making it. There’s a 3 hour long video PBS is currently hosting in Amazon Prime Video that showcases some of this story. Does the idea of lacking genuine chance resonate with you and your story? This not a chance woe combined with unrest is something I felt & experienced in many (STEM) college courses.

The vast majority of my peers from Foothill College to SJSU are not white, and many of us found ourselves in one way shape or form affected by the gush of racism and plague of covid in 2020; along with the unprecedented fires and choking smoke that made all of us hold our collective breath… so the question is could we have done anything differently to protect ourselves? Simplifying our understanding of race to just be the color of our skin is dangerous due to the hierarchical nature & narrative of that simplification. I recommend you listen to this Curious Minds podcast episode by Gayle Allen if you’d like to learn more about how that viewpoint leads to detrimental dehumanization. Visceral reports of Anti-Asian, Anti-LatinX, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Semitic incidents flooded the Bay Area as they did on our respective campuses. The dehumanizing “rhetoric coming out of the White House” not only “made it hard to concentrate,” for doctor Scott Lankford to empower his students at Foothill, but made it increasingly difficult to derive meaningful value from our online educational experiences out of our bedrooms on Zoom. Some of my international peers found themselves threatened with the sudden message of deportation. My undocumented friends were told that their Dream Act Protections would be gone. All of this was the reality of thousands of students trying to keep up with the expectations of the syllabus or curriculum, all while not having a fair “chance” at learning, in an environment and system that has always been rigged against the ones with least power & wealth. Therefore, pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching matters (most), especially when that’s all what many students have.

Co-Generative Learning Environments Restore Faith in Humanity

How does chance, unrest, and pedagogy relate to learners and students who are (dis)engaged with their course work and The Learning Code?

The director of the Ronald E. McNairs Scholars program Maria Cruz shared with me on multiple accounts for The Learning Code equity and learning grant “in 2019, less than 20% of first generation SJSU students graduated within 6 years.” 

If 🚀 astronomical alarm 🔔 bells 🔔 are not ringing here in terms of systemic issues at play, please re-read what Dr. Cruz researched above with the McNair’s Scholars team. This to me, after insights from the heart of educational professionals that I’ve worked with over the past 4 years, is a clear indicator that the ~80% non-completion rate after 6 years statistic is a manifestation of some surface & shallow thoughts of:

a) 1st generation students just have more challenging lives and responsibilities…

b) they lack healthy sustainable learning habits, or effective study skills…

c) they just aren’t motivated and don’t know how to manage their time to do the work…

d) how can YOU be under privileged or under represented in Silicon Valley?

*okay dominant mainstream narrative, sit your donkey down*

Would you have those thoughts about your mother if she couldn’t learn how to edit a pdf document?
What type of offspring would you be if you BELIEVED those thoughts when you could have showed her how to edit a pdf, and wrote some notes for her on how she might do it next time?
How about if it was your best friend who dropped out of school due to substance abuse compounded with the flawed & narrow minded thinking of (a) – (d) above?
Fact: Drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death in the US for those under 50 years old.
think about it

~80% of students unable to complete their college degree after 6+ years, when many advisors and administrators, state and federal authority policy & funding, expect us to finish in 4… if that isn’t a prescription for a nuclear disaster and untapped familial & societal potential, please tell me what ‘else’ is? Turn on your phone and open your email, but don’t forget to open your 👁️eyes👁️ – do you not feel the consequences when teaching and learning are not treated and funded as legitimate 🧫 petri dishes of cognitive kindness & sciences 🧫? When the DMV warrants drivers licenses (at least back in 2008) without ever guiding drivers to learn how to drive on the freeway, there are serious ramifications of this… There’s a concept of “Linked Fate” that I’ll expand on in a future post. But just because you have the driving skills and habits to be a safe vigilant driver, doesn’t mean you will be immune to the people who lack these skills when you’re on the road. Just because majority of your students pass, does not mean you have given them the lessons they need to thrive in the near future. Just because you live on higher ground, doesn’t mean you aren’t also needing to hold our collective breath during the record breaking wildfires of this year. Lets crown just-because-isms phenomenon as – JFIO Just Figure It Out.

What would it look like for our system to genuinely support the ~80% of students who do not finish in 6 years, systemically? Spoiler alert, want smaller student to teacher ratios, vote. Extra Credit Spoiler, focus on how to learn because the first person you gotta be teaching & leading is yourself… because when “the going” gets rough, we better hope we’ve set the foundation of sustainable learning habits and help seeking practices in our current college rhetoric, to fight the good fight. JFIO.

Why is there not a learning habits and study skills “funded” open access course (club, organization, support center) that leverages the social-cultural capital each and everyone of us embody, to develop agency in our challenging coursework? Who are the students who have the wherewithals to learn by failing multiple courses, and to re-enroll? Who really are the A students besides hard working, disciplined, and interested in the subject? More importantly, how do we not ostracize them just like we do our students with F-C grades? Isn’t infringement on academic integrity a symptom of JFIO(just figure it out)? How many learning disabilities arise due to JFIO? How many students drop out due to JFIO?

Why not give more of us a fair chance? Last spoiler alert, it’s up to us, as students to 1) slow down and critically think about our own academic plan & 2) find reasons to study the material beyond the learning objectives our professors have set for us.

There are ~5000 1st generation students at SJSU, 20% of that number is ~1000. A thousand first generation students who do not graduate per year at SJSU is on the smaller side of the ledger. If we multiply ~1000 by 20 pounds of bones per student body, that number becomes eerily close to the number in the first paragraph. Shame on me, Henry Fan, not graduating college should not be compared to tragic deaths due to merciless physical labor, but I argue they are similar, in a sense of a Death of a Dream. When my ancestors came here to help build the railroad or mine for gold, they were sold a dream for a better future. When my peers started their college education, they were advertised a dream they’ve been told can be achieved in 4 years for a brighter future, too.

Sobering Fact: I’ve interviewed 3 senior engineers that told me it took them 6+ years to get their undergraduate degree 12+ years ago… So why in the world are we being advised & pressured to graduate in 4? The truth is, many people (unfortunately including ourselves) are navigating college as if we were a Toyota Corolla in a production line. However we are all human, we are not cars.

With the developments in the digital age, I’d like to make a bet our STEM curriculum and course of requirements only had more stuff crammed into it, since. Solution? Teachers JFIO (just figure it out): Speak Faster *Jeff can you add your goofy sound byte here of, “don’t dooo ittt”? that would be perfect* We all been in those rooms when the only person in the loop is the speaker, that environment is not friendly and directly contributing to the ~80% of students who do not obtain their college degree…

This begs the question: do we have a “chance” at a college education? Do people in positions of power have our learning interests at the top of their minds or are they simply preserving rigor? Why do startup companies get more attention & assistance than the thousands of college students who do not complete their degrees? How do we get our demanding learning needs met, assuming we have our basic needs already? How the *bleep* do we JFIO?

Here’s some insights when vailent students try to advocate for themselves in addressing their learning processes in a standard computer science class. 

Summary Dialogue on Learning 

Student: *right after lecture in office hours* wow, that was a lot of content

Professor: Yes, and?

Student: How am I supposed to remember all that material, for my exam?

Professor: wow, I hope that’s not why you are trying to remember it

Student: what should I do then?

Professor: Come on Henry, I thought you knew better as a returning college student after working for 6 years after high school. You should be trying to learn something here. That way when you go off into the “real” world, you’ll understand how to apply this stuff

Student: hmm, I’m certainly trying to learn something… may you give an example?

Professor: You know like learn data structures, algorithms, and programming languages and then be able to apply it to your life and in the professional world.

Student: But I’m talking about making sense of lecture and making sense of the material you delivered along with the other 4 hours of non-trivial lectures today… rote or applied, how do I unpack that?

Professor: Tutoring, form study groups, revisit your lecture notes, ask questions, gotta spend the time, the standard stuff you were suppose to have learned in high school.

Student: *Inner Thoughts: 1) why do you have to throw less engaged students in the deep end then point to these bandaid services? 2) how might you address the issue of failing students at it’s source for genuine enlightenment for all parties involved *hint: pedagogy & TLC*? 3) the ethos of college is to toughen us up before industry, but who is that really serving and harming? As I flash back to high school experience, but never having practiced any of those skills my prof. recommended* Okay got it, thank you for your time. I wish our class was not overenrolled, because it’s conversations like these, where students stories may act as a catalyst, for real change to happen.

The End of a 2.0 GPA Drop Out

Before I met really student centered professors and staff members like Jeffrey Anderson and Katherine Lee at Foothill College, I felt there wasn’t a chance for me to graduate with a STEM degree because each STEM class was like a high intensity crash course in a whole new language. What ultimately relieved a ton of pressure from these oppressive dehumanizing feelings were deeply pragmatic ideas & methods of how learning works all while unpacking my social cultural identity to develop effective reasons to study, beyond the grade.


A primary motivation for all the work we do here at The Learning Code is help students feel and experience – AKA begin developing a track record of study skills & learning habits that can be leveraged term after term – that whatever it is they want to learn in their life – specifically in their courses they are investing thousands of 💵💵💵 for – they may learn and utilize in their professional & personal lives for many years to come. We genuinely believe you all are some of the brightest (AKA most hardworking) students on our campuses… not because of your GPA or how many clubs you’re involved with, but rather the humility through lived experiences we know so many of you embody. We can all use more people in our lives that believe in us, so let’s continue to build trust, to seek guidance and counsel on reimagining purpose and happiness, all while developing career capital, in our lives. What I am working to achieve through every bit of content whether it be blog or any form of media is to give you all an insider look on just how difficult yet fulfilling learning may be. Fair or unfair, we do have a chance, and The Learning Code exists to provide you skills, tools, mindsets, and encouragement that you can, Yes You Can.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s bold vision I recommend you read out loud:

“I have a dream that one day right here in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.”
What’s your Dream?

I have a dream that students will make the most of their “chance” to transform otherwise not engaging or relevant material in their lives either in or out of school, into profound pieces of knowledge to be benefitted from, for rest of their lives. I have a dream that no matter the “unrest” or academic performance anxiety students encounter, they will be seen as intellectual beings, who simply haven’t figured out the habits necessary to play the academic game. I have a dream that one day students of any race ethnicity gender socio-economic class will be given a fair “chance” to engage in discussions & intellectual collaboration around STEM and other disciplines, not because knowledge work is the magic bullet, but rather, it’s within those dialectical clashes and curiosity filled thoughts, are where our roots of quality and character have a chance to grow deeper. Those roots will emancipate us to solve problems we otherwise would not be able to solve in the world, abundant with growth & opportunity only to be realized by focal skills & thinking that requires deep contemplation.

Besides supporting yourself and your family what problems do you want to solve? What degrees or skills do you need to unlock, to position yourself to solve those problems? Is that pursuit one you’d like to be remembered for when you’re 80 years old? What is your safety net if you were to fall short of that aim?

I want to inspire you all (by extension myself, lol) to become self-regulated learners, not only because it’s one of the most important aspects to my education, but it is a valuable outcome that will pay us and our families (by extension our communities) in spades. Truthfully the journey to becoming a self-regulated learner requires a ton of independent heavy lifting, but research what that takes and continue to follow TLC to not be alone in that push. No, we do not bet on Tesla or Facebook or their shareholders to solve some of the most demanding problems that exist in our communities at their roots. Our bet is on YOU, the most important shareholders to the future of our cities!

I’ve worked in hospitality long enough to understand the differences between transactional vs. transformational service. The more student success equity committee meetings I participate in, the more I feel STEM education is becoming far too transactional in terms of standards, grades, and what they are aiming to deliver. I fault myself for not having the study skills and learning habits needed to see beyond the transaction-ality of grades, and I have the wherewithal to learn through failing class after class, and the great fortune of meeting life saving people at Foothill College, but what about the ~80% of maltreated students? What if those were your children?

I’ve been led to read some of Milton Freedman’s work in consumerism economics, by my all star Humanities professor Cynthia Rostankowski, and I’d like to paraphrase what she said during my check in with her today:

“…what Milton Freedman misses is that to be able to be as free as capitalists think the people in a economy should be, it requires others to have a duty to allow them to be that free – when they do not acknowledge the duty of others for them to have a right to make a pile of money, this leads to a failure of libertarianism in turn neoliberalism, and much much more…”
Words like: duty, right, free, will require me some time to wrap my head around

I encourage you not to pursue STEM (or any college degree) for the sole sake of obtaining rare and valuable skills for deeper pockets, but to realize your pursuit of a college degree allows you to exercise cognitive calisthenics long form thinking: all while actualizing your coexistence with the others around you, challenging with the better critique, comparing with a stronger alternative, deep research … you know, processes you’d normally practice on Yelp or Amazon but for your own personal vision & mission… because it’s within these stages of thought where we develop mindsets & skills that will ignite & propel our drive to become better version of ourselves – a global citizen.

I wrote this post instead of studying for my midterm to empower us all to focus on our learning, so that we develop more “chances” and opportunities in our lives to live out the potential we know we have. I see a ton of youth & adults without the ability to engage in long form contemplatory thought… and live in a whirlwind of anger, regret, and loneliness due to it. This is a very complex problem, and online-keyboard warriors screaming and bashing everything is a small warning sign. However, The Learning Code and Foothill College community has opened my eyes on what learning and living can be, so the least I can do is remind all of us: we have a chance, and the earlier we focus on what/who/why/how we’re learning while restoring our faith that 1) we need each other to thrive and 2) we are as hardworking and intelligent as our out-of-touch counterparts, the higher that chance will be.

The Misery of Autonomy: From a Student’s Perspective

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!

  1. What do you know about the process of learning something challenging?
  2. How open-minded are you to thinking about learning more thoughtfully than you ever imagined before?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?”

  1. How can we make the “boring” stuff in our classes fun? 
  2. Why do we truly think this class is boring? 
  3. Is it boring or is it because we’re cognitively overloaded & distracted?
  4. What about this material I’m studying is interesting? 
  5. What would this education help me do in the long run?
  6. How do I induce Brain Growth & Why should I bother doing so in this class?
  7. 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!

We Bet on You!