Confessions of a College Student

I used to really enjoy learning! Having been in higher education for six years now, I feel as if that ambition has been picked away at more and more each quarter. The emphasis on grades is mentally taxing!

I want to be the best student I can be. However, in the eyes of the current educational system, that means specializing in memorizing specific ideas and using them too often in abstract ways. I have always wanted to relate ideas to other concepts in real-life, and as a result bring my education “to life.” But there is no reward for that, if anything, I lose time I could have spent continuing the cycle of memorizing enough to pass but not understand.

University favors strategic learning in place of deep learning. As vital as deep learning is for being successful in industry, it is too often neglected and not incentivized. Unfortunately, any beneficial deep-learning gets pushed to one’s free-time, if you have the privilege of having a lot of free-time during college. This unfortunate factor leads to the loss of so much talent. But for now, many of us including myself will have to get by with strategic learning until we are granted a diploma.

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Why is deep learning so hard?

It is not easy to figure out how to learn deeply. In the early stages of developing your identity as a deep learner, one of the smoothest ways to engage in deep learning is to seek out skilled coaches who understand the principles behind deep learning. If the mentors you find are good coaches and have many years of practice in the art of teaching, they will likely have collected effective techniques to guide you in deep learning and effective repetition. Assuming these teachers are willing and able to act as your mentor, you can leverage their guidance simply by following their directions. In this scenario, all you have to do is give your best effort on pre-designed activities that specifically engage you in deep learning. Sadly, this “simple” solution of finding master coaches who are also content experts is out of reach for most novice learners. This is especially true in the context of the US higher education system. In this post, we explore some substantial barriers to seeking out expert coaching while earning your college degree.

Continue reading “Why is deep learning so hard?”

When there’s no line at the library…📚

I use to think reading assigned readings in my courses was unnecessary. Many of my peers assumed that as well because we can get by while only doing a fraction of what’s expected; 3 hours of work a week for 1 unit enrolled, yeah no thanks. But after 5 years of STEM college education, I realized that reading is extremely necessary to unzip the foundational knowledge many of our professors expect us to do. Here are some categories to creating significant learning experiences from L. Dee Fink’s writing.

Taxonomy of Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink

In fact, as I’m in my upper-division coursework, it’s required to read deeply, just to pass. Gosh, that would have been nice to know earlier on – a huge mission to TLC is to allow you to know earlier. This realization challenges the work of educators and students alike who have long assumed that learning how to learn – is something we all will figure out during our right of passage – that are the letters after our name – in our education. However, the data of college dropout rates in STEM disciplines challenge the work of all parties involved, when we do not explicitly teach the science and art of how learning works. 

But who really cares? Who besides The Learning Code, and a handful of serious educators – which include but are not limited to parents, tutors, mentors, fellow associates, colleagues, and teachers – have a stake when we drop out from college? By focusing on outdated metrics and celebrating the ‘few’, I think many of us overlook the deeper question of, what in the world are we actually learning? The truth is, it’s on us the learners to study with purpose, because very few professors have the ability or freedom to do that for you. At the very least, the people who formerly believed that learning how to learn with intentionality doesn’t matter, I invite you to begin changing your minds.

If any other establishment I worked for was loaning their most valuable items, say less – an urban phrase derived from say no more – there would be lines even more chaotic than the ones we witness on Black Friday as a nation out the door. The retail shop, burger joint, even the electronics store * when we probably would be better without the surplus of digital anythings brainwashing us on a weekly basis * would have a line wrapped around the block. But not the library. I never saw a library with a line out the door. 

Now that we’ve moved many school textbooks and readings that could be loaned through the library or openly accessed online, it’s even more convenient.

A century ago, information was scarce and books were far harder to obtain than they are now. A couple decades ago, obtaining instructions on “how to do” something was difficult. To this day, my parents still think I’m doing black magic when I reset our router and modem. 

“It’s too pricey,” or “I can’t get access to a solution” used to be really good excuses for not reading. But we have obscured the truth. The truth is, it’s hella work to change our minds

That’s why there is no line out the library, who is giving away their most prized possessions. It’s too much work to change our minds. It’s hella scary to fail, especially when we don’t have any safety nets there to catch us. It’s too much work to plan, act, and reflect. It’s hella work to develop concept images. It’s even more work to go from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. It’s just too much work to imagine walking through the world with multiple/critical/intersectional lenses, knowledge, and empathy.

That doesn’t have to be the case. We can refuse to be brainwashed into accepting the existing conditions, beliefs, and mental models, and we can commit to finding the human / resources, engaging with them and learning significantly.

If we care enough.

Somehow I’ve gone through two decades of formal education, without ever thinking about what it means to study or learn – which are two different words & verbs. The conclusion I came to about four years ago when Conquering College by Jeff Anderson was presented to me as I had no idea what I was doing to study. For an introduction on Conquering College please read the article: Deep Learning

And for extra credit, the credit is a small deposit into your own learning bank, look through Reading Mathematics and it’s comment field. 

The National Youth Poet Laureate, a bold black woman wearing a bright yellow coat who is honored with an award for outstanding creative and intellectual achievement presented “The Hill We Climb” after the siege on the Capitol. Here are the final words from that poem:

When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid,

the new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to BE IT.

So go ahead, begin reading for yourself and your mind, you get to skip the line.

Community Engagement:

What comes up for you when you read this?

How have you or are you changing your mind this year?

How do you learn with purpose

Reading Mathematics

With only so much amount of time in the day, I have felt the need to evaluate what my priorities have to be as I sit through my lectures. Although each lecture is only about 50 minutes in length, to dissect and engage with every 15 minutes of content takes me around an hour on a good day! So each lecture takes me about 3 to 6 hours. While I am okay with 3 hours to each lecture, the 6 hours per lecture tend to set me back and create scheduling issues for the future. I would like to find a way to break down 50 minutes of content consistently within 3 to 4 hours, but I do not know if its possible. However, I do know that if I’m going to be spending all of this time engaging with math lectures, I might as well learn deeply, and hopefully efficiently, by keeping some principles in mind. Thus, I sought out advice on how to deepen and better my experience with math from How to Think Like a Mathematician: A Companion to Undergraduate Mathematics by Kevin Houston. 

Luckily for me and other readers out there, the chapter Reading Mathematics offered just what I was looking for. Before I demonstrate my list of principles from the advice offered in the book, I  want to acknowledge that I struggle to be consistent with large lists. Therefore, I have chosen the four most important principles that I believe can keep me best engaged and efficient in my learning. 

“Before reading decide what you want from the text. The goal may be as specific as learning a particular definition or how to solve a certain type of problem.” – page 16

Trudging through a lecture for hours with no end near in sight is incredibly intimidating. I have found it to be very helpful to skim through the lecture or notes (if provided), to seek out important definitions, equations, or ideas. At least by initially having a roadmap of the content, I can anticipate how long certain topics will be and if they will be related to other presented topics beforehand. Therefore, this principle allows me to consider the relationships of ideas as I learn about them. Also, if I notice that there are few topics to cover, I am not as discouraged when I am taking hours to get through one topic, knowing in advance that there are fewer topics to cover.

“The first reason for using pen and paper is that you should make notes from what you are reading – in particular, what it means, not what it says – and to record ideas as they occur to you.” – page 17

For me at least, I benefit from writing “what is says” and then “what it means.” By slowly writing down what I see in a lecture video or a textbook, I understand better what the author is trying to teach. As soon as I reach any hesitation or vague understanding, I make sure to comment my raw thoughts and confusion in my designated commenting area with a contrasting blue pen to my main black pen. This principle has helped me in recognizing and tracking and addressing my patterns of confusion.

“The second reason [for using pen and paper] is more important. You can explore theorems and formulas by applying them to examples, draw diagrams…Physicist and chemists have laboratory experiments, mathematicians have these explorations as experiments” – page 17

Following this principle, I make sure to not concern myself with fully understanding a theory or idea before looking at an example. Although I have a stubborn habit of rereading something and thinking about it until it makes sense, it has also been helpful to attempt related problems which can then reveal how and why the theory works. Although I would think that understanding the theory is vital to solving a problem about that theory, sometimes solving the the problem is vital to helping me understand the theory. I guess you could say that you can read about a subject as much as you want, but finally interacting with it is when you learn whether you truly understand it.

“Ask ‘what does this tell us or allow us to do that other work does not?'” – page 19

This principle pairs well with the first principle as it forces me to be in the driving seat of my learning. If I happen to get caught in the lull of simply memorizing without understanding, constantly asking this question throughout the lecture can help me stay engaged as I relate it to something I already understand. In other words, build your concept images!

Thanks for reading. (:

Question to the audience: How long does an “hour’s worth” of reading/lecture take you to understand on average, and why?

Steve’s Personal Plan, Act, Reflect Cycle

Plan, act, and reflect. As defeating as it is to know events have not turned out as planned, it is just as empowering to know that one can adapt to the circumstances.

These last two weeks in school I had high hopes for a stellar start to my quarter, but I have found myself falling behind early. Thus, I dedicate this post to demonstrating my plan, act, reflect cycle. I previously had a post on my plan for the quarter, so I will be reflecting on how my week has gone using those ambitious goals.

I have seen a lot of people rave about time-based goals instead of completion-based goals, so I thought I could change the way I schedule to get a better experience. I designated specific amounts of hours to study per day, but it had pain painful to see myself not complete the tasks within that time. Moving forward, I will focus on keeping my number of tasks per  day low, but doing everything in my control to get those done. Perhaps, having an additional stress of time is just something that does not work well for me. In addition to setting amounts of time to study, studying in intervals seemed like a great idea that I know has worked for many, but it was not working for me. Studying in intervals of either 25 or 50 minute study sessions often left me disrupting my studying as I was beginning to enter “the flow state.” Although the idea of taking breaks often was initially appealing, for me the hardest part was starting, so I rather not have to constantly test my willpower by restarting that process often throughout the day. To manage these completion-based goals, I used google calendar which I believe is very helpful. Although I do not want to be as strict as I previously was, having a loose structure of when I expected to study throughout the day helped me carryout through my day with intention.

I have often found lecture notes and my textbook to be a good enough source for me to have a great understanding of the course material. However, I have found myself in an environment where these resources are still leaving me curious and confused about certain content. I have had to learn to replicate the feedback of others in forms such as online math exchanges and videos. I have to keep my system of collecting knowledge robust and flexible to be able thrive in the new environment I have found myself in (upper division math, online pre-recorded courses). It also saves me a lot of time to seek out online resources after a few attempts instead of staring at a textbook or lecture slide until I get it an hour later.

Lastly, this is my first time taking a full course load, I can’t spend as much time leisurely diving deeply into content for the sake of my own curiosity. I need to be able to get through my lecture notes quickly (around 2 hours), and spend more time on exercises and homework problems. I was too often taking 3 to 4 hours to rewrite my notes for each class, leaving me little time to do homework until right before the due date. However, I definitely need to do spend time doing homework daily throughout the week so I can get more feedback and not feel so pressed for time. As active as I was during my note-taking, it will never be as active as solving problems because that quickly makes you realize how much you do or do don’t know.

Although I have talked about a lot of things I want to change, I also want to acknowledge how far I have come since beginning my journey in college since 2015. It’s a privilege to be in higher education, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to study and grow as a person!

Antiracist Learning: Start with Small Steps

Part of our mission at the learning code is to empower you to advocate for system transformation in honor of the next generation of learners. The process of transforming the college education system starts by identifying and acknowledging problematic policies in your classes, institutions, and governments. From that perspective, I can think of nothing more pernicious for learning in college than the historical and living legacies of racist ideas and racist policies in the United States. When we engage in the struggle to re-design our higher education systems by centering antiracist policies, we work to make learning achievable and meaningful for every student who wants to earn a college degree. Learning how to be antiracist and how to advocate for antiracist policies does not happen automatically. To grow these skills, we must engage in deliberate effort. In this post, we explore a few antiracist learning practices.

Continue reading “Antiracist Learning: Start with Small Steps”

Steve’s Game Plan Ritual

Every quarter, I sit and think about where I fell short in terms of my potential as a student navigating higher education. I have many skills that work for me now, many I probably even do unconsciously, but I am always looking to refine my workflow.

In the past I have fallen for the trap of wanting to address every aspect that I would like to change, but over multiple years I have learned that change is slow and gradual. Although I feel as if I have several weak points that can be improved, to supplement the student I am today, I have narrowed down some solutions to implement this quarter. I will omit personal goals (working out, video blogging, cooking, etc..) from this list, but I still take them into consideration when planning.

However, I would not have been able to come up with solutions if I had not spent time at the end of my quarter reflecting on things I wanted to improve. Here is that raw list of complaints:

  • “Because I am struggling to follow along with lecture, I have no idea what is going on. I do not even know what I am confused about and what to ask questions about. My time in lecture feels wasted, and thus I occasionally skip lecture to instead study previous lectures and then eventually I catch up on a recording of the zoom lecture. I feel as if I should be regularly attending lecture to ask questions, I wish I could be prepared and feel engaged in the live lecture. I had originally planned to prepare for each lecture, but whenever I began to fall behind, I was confronted with the decision of previewing for the next lecture or reviewing the previous lecture, and I chose the latter every time. Perhaps I should not think about completing one before the other, but instead distribute some time apart for both.”
  • “Throughout my first three weeks, I found it incredibly difficult to match my previous 6-8 hours of studying daily. I beat myself up for not keeping up with that goal, I would like to set my goal lower in the two to four hour range and gradually increase it. Also, I should take into consideration that studying from home (covid-19 time) for multiple hours is so much more demanding from studying at a library. Start with smaller increments of time for studying, perhaps I must build up my focus like a muscle.”
  • “I feel as if college is a unique atmosphere where I can learn beyond the classroom through students, faculty, and organizations, but I did not get that experience this time around during zoom university. I know that clubs and some departments make some effort to maintain that social aspect of learning, but I have not made the effort to engage. I am on several mailing lists and have ignored online seminars, lunches with faculty, and clubs. Get involved! Perhaps I was scared for my first quarter back that I would not be able to manage being involved in extracurricular activities and balancing school, but now I know that I am capable with my academic success from last quarter.”
  • “I’m glad I created flash cards for my math classes, but I’m sad that I did not use them enough to make them beneficial. As I wrote my lecture notes, I created the cards, but I only ever practiced with them 2-3 days before an exam. If I want to see some benefit, then I’m going to have to focus on frequency of practice and place more emphasis on flash cards that I struggle more with.”
  • “I tend to underestimate how behind I am because of how I organize my notes. I store all my first drafts of lecture notes together, and gradually replace them when I update my notes for each lecture. However, at any given time my set is complete and mixed with finished notes and my first drafts. I believe that my final notes need to be an independent set so that when I see the most recent lecture notes, I have the last notes I updated instead of the most recent lecture which I have not yet studied.”
  • “I need to make scholarship writing a habit.”

After reading these, I can feel my exhaustion in my endless pursuit for being “the perfect student.” For future reference, I should write about what I did right too. The little wins are also important! By being specific in my reflections, I have been able to create my 2021 Winter Quarter Game Plan to address these problems through a few new tools and goals. Although my game plan does not show my already developed habits and study-skills, it does show the direction I hope to move in.

Winter Quarter 2021 Game Plan

The list may not seem too ambitious, but that is because I have experimented with much larger goals and have always found myself not keeping up with those goals. Even now, I have highlighted two goals that I anticipate I will be struggling with because of how different it is to my current style of learning. I always print out this game plan and keep it somewhere I see it often (usually a binder or my home desk).

Here is some bonus footage of my first game plan from Winter Quarter 2017 at UC Davis. As you can see, my goals are fewer and now more specific than before.

Winter Quarter 2017 Game Plan

I will be expanding upon this post with a video about implementing this game plan on top of my current study skills once I receive my syllabuses to tailor the video to my specific needs for the quarter! Stay tuned!

What is deep reading?

Reading is one of the most magical activities designed by the human mind. The written word provides a time travel machine in which ideas that exist in an author’s brain can jump across space and time to invigorate the brain of the reader. Reading also allows us to accelerate our learning by leveraging the expertise of the author. A good author might spend hundreds or even thousands of hours over multiple years researching, synthesizing, drafting, editing, publishing, and revising her work. That literature might be built on a whole collection of other writings that represent tens of thousands of hours from other authors. As readers, we reap the benefits of this labor without having to pay the upfront cost. When we read, we leverage work that was created on a time scale measured in years for a cost that can be measured in hours. With this in mind, one of the most powerful practices you can use to develop your learning skills is the habit of reading. This habit is particularly important in learning how to build a career that you love. In this blog post, we explore six different types of reading. This work sets a foundation for others posts on the subjects of learning, personal growth, and professional development.

Continue reading “What is deep reading?”

Steve’s Study Corner: Using Flash Cards

The use of flash cards to train with active recall is something I have been wanting to incorporate for a long time. It was not until my latest quarter that I finally began to implement this study tool, but from that experience I learned so much about how much more effectively I can be using this tool. To further expand upon my intuition about learning, I sought research-based principles from How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose.

The initial problems that I ran into were that I did not take into account what I was struggling with, how often I was practicing, and whether I was actively learning or just relying on short-term memory. From reading Ambrose’s book, I realized I was neglecting her components of learning.

“Research has shown that learning and performance are best fostered when students engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion for performance,targets an appropriate level of challenge relative to students’ current performance, and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria” (127)

I did not have a specific goal or criteria when using flash cards, and I lacked the frequency of practice to make them effective. I have already developed the habit of creating the flashcards, but I need to create the habit of using them. A small sustainable metric for me would be 10 minutes of daily practice. To address having a criteria for performance, I need to implement strategies that keep the level of challenge consistent but dynamic. By reading the same flashcards repeatedly and for too long, my brain became less occupied with active recall, and relied more on short-term memory.

Two of the strategies I will be using are interleaved practice and distributed practice. Interleaved practice entails introducing various approaches to avoid reliance on short-term memory. In the case of flash cards, I will stop separating my cards by chapter, and continuously shuffle my cards in a random order to always get new combinations of questions. To better demonstrate this idea, I’ve included two tables. The above table has randomized columns, whereas the bottom table has the same column multiple times. After several iterations, resorting to a strategy based off the second table will allow you to memorize the sequence of the questions and answers instead of forcing you to work on actively recalling solutions.

ABC
 BCB
CAA
mixed

vs

AAA
BBB
CCC
repeated

With interleaved practice, I can also target my weak areas by focusing on cards I consistently struggle with, instead of continuing to use my time on cards I have already mastered. Distributed practice is the act of spacing out practices to several shorter sessions instead of one long session. I often found myself using the flashcards only within the week before the exam, which lowered the frequency and thus lowered my potential of learning gains to be made. Therefore, I plan for the ten minutes of daily practice to help me take advantage of learning efficiently.

I hope to invite you to join me in using Ambrose’s principle of reflective learning to reflect upon our study skills and adjust them accordingly.

“Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning” (125)

Study Skills: Previewing for Lecture

An important study skill I have continuously tried to implement into my arsenal of tools is previewing material before lecture. The idea of being exposed to material more often would obviously make me better at retaining and understanding that information. I could use this benefit to be more engaged in lecture and ask more questions. In addition, the better understanding from lecture can save me time that I would have spent trying to understand the lecture during my lecture rewrites.

From Susan Ambrose’s How Learning Works 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, her principle “Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes…it influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge” (4) directly contributes to the idea of developing some prior knowledge to then efficiently expand upon.

So why have I consecutively failed to keep up with this habit of previewing lecture material. By the way, this blog post is just as much for me as it is for the next person. By identifying some of my pitfalls, hopefully, I can save you the trouble of making these same mistakes. I have narrowed down the issue to two different aspects of scheduling: setting time-based goals instead of completion-based goals and creating a habit through routine. Lastly, I did not have a method for how to preview material.

Pitfall #1: Completion-Based Goals (AKA Chasing Rainbows)

What do completion-based goals have anything to do with previewing lecture material? Time after time, I find myself in some variation of this scenario, I have multiple tasks to complete including: previewing for the next lecture, reviewing for the previous lecture, and some assignment related to previous lectures. My reaction every time has been to throw previewing out the window and dedicate my time to masterfully reviewing the previous lecture, and then spend whatever little time I have left over finishing an assignment. I find myself in this situation often, and thus abandoning lecture previews becomes a habit, even though I originally set forward to make previewing a habit of mine. This is the result of spending more time than anticipated on completing tasks, otherwise known as failing to follow through with completion-based goals.

Current Solution #1: Time-based Goals

Instead of completing each assignment one-by-one whether on schedule or not, I will begin to dedicate time to each assignment, regardless of my progress on it. For example, if I had six hours to dedicate to the three tasks, I could designate time to each task like two hours for review, three hours for homework, and one hour for preview. Not only would I get exposed to all three tasks, but I could also get a better understanding of the necessary time to complete each task later.

Pitfall #2: Lack of Routine, Lack of Habit

Just like rewriting my lecture notes, previewing my lecture notes is optional. Thus, I have more often relied on motivation instead of discipline to get me to routinely preview lecture material. However, rewriting lecture material is habit I routinely follow through with, unlike previewing lectures.

Current Solution #2: Habit through Routine

One thing that can help with that is setting aside a weekly routine where I preview material at the same time every day. I can get rid of the spontaneity of previewing by treating it as a physical class, where I must routinely be physically and mentally present. I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour the night before a lecture. I personally would avoid previewing right before lecture, as I can easily exhaust and overwhelm myself right before class. But do what you must do!

Pitfall #3: Aimlessly Previewing

If you’ve ever tried to read a page out of a math textbook, I think we can both agree it’s taken us multiple rereads just to get a bit of understanding from one paragraph, and sometimes even just a sentence. Yes, that can be very demoralizing, but that is why it is important to distinguish between reading a textbook and a novel. Do not expect to read the textbook like a novel!

Current Solution #3: Strategic Method for Previewing

When previewing material, it is important to keep in mind what you expect to get from that one to two hours spent. From skimming the lesson and paying attention to bold and highlighted texts as well as examples, we should hope to deduct the following:

  • What is the big picture of this lesson?
  • What are the main ideas/key words in this section?
  • What is being asked of in the questions?
  • What is being given in the questions?
  • How does this lesson relate to or expand upon previous lessons or previous courses?
  • What am I confused about?

Being able to relate the lesson your previewing to previous knowledge can make covering the content afterward much easier to digest. As a learner of the material, we have concept images of how everything relates to each other. Thinking about relationships and how new information fits into our concept images is shown to be effective as explained with “researchers have also found that if students are asked to generate relevant knowledge from previous courses or their own lives, it can help to facilitate their integration of new material” (Ambrose, 17). Therefore, when spending our time previewing information, we should emphasize the context of how this new information fits into the agenda of our curriculum if possible.

Lastly, it is important to identify what confuses us, so that we can get that addressed as soon as possible. Preparing questions will also ensure that we stay engaged in lecture as we will be listening for the solutions, and we could also ask the questions when relevant. We much rather find out what we do not know before the exam instead of on the exam. So, fail early, fail often, and fail forward my friends!