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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Philosophy of Education: Study Habits

If friends ask us how we did on an exam, how would most of us answer? Would we say that we realized that we understood certain concepts but needed to study others more?

When we cram by purely memorizing, thinking only of the grade, we miss the point of education: not only to know facts, but to be able to use them to solve new problems. As we cannot apply facts we do not know, education requires some memorization as a means to reach that goal.

However, we should not forget that memorization is not the goal itself. If we can use the material we know, we will do well in not only that class but also in later courses that draw on the same concepts.

We may tell ourselves that we do not have time to understand the material in one 10-week quarter, but how long do we spend memorizing lecture slides and old exams?

While only memorizing might earn us a passing grade in many classes, we could instead spend those countless hours understanding the material. If we do, the knowledge will not leak out within a week or two after the test, which commonly occurs when we solely memorize.

However, pure memorization does have an appeal: it is a mindless, mechanical exercise when done without attempting to understand. If we lack interest in a class, we often turn to brute-force memorization as it seems easier.

Unfortunately, many of us do not connect this approach and our resulting mood. After a night of cramming, how do you feel?

Do you feel relaxed and happy after a good night’s sleep? Or do you feel stressed and irritable after a sleepless night? While we may pass the exam after a night of cramming, do we want to live like this?

How many of us have answered a question incorrectly despite knowing the answer because we were panicking at the time and could not think clearly? When we stress and lack sleep, we lose focus and mental clarity.

Even so, sometimes we feel that we must memorize due to the exam style: some professors ask for minor details and definitions that we will likely get wrong if we have not memorized them.

While we may not do as well on these tests if we do not memorize everything, is our happiness and peace of mind an acceptable price? We do not need a perfect score to get an A.

Unfortunately, many of us primarily memorize because we were trained to do so in grade school, and the habit followed us to the university. To break the habit, we must change our way of thinking about studying.

A good approach, which may be helpful, is to mentally organize what you know and then try to fill in the conceptual space between the facts.

For example, plants need nitrogen, but cannot use nitrogen gas, and bacteria can fix gaseous nitrogen into forms plants can use. But how does the nitrogen get from the bacteria into the plants? Never ignore blank spaces by saying that it just happens, try to figure it out!

We already know the information that fills these blank spaces a great deal of the time; we only need to put the pieces together. If we realize that we really do not know, we should ask the professor.

When we assemble separate facts into a coherent whole, we have a greater understanding of those facts. If we synthesize the material this way, even if we forget a detail the test asks for, we have a good chance of figuring it out from related concepts we do remember.

To see if we know the material, we should take practice tests. However, we should not take practice tests to learn the material by looking at the answers.

Think of the material as filling a circle and the practice test questions as randomly distributed points within that circle. If we can answer all of the questions without looking at our notes, we probably understand the entire circle or close to it.

However, if we cannot answer many questions and thus look up the answers, we are learning only a few tiny points in the circle, which may not be the same small points on the test.

Instead of looking up specific answers to questions we do not know, we should realize that we do not yet understand and need to study more. If we notice that we cannot answer many nearby points, we likely do not know anything about that area and should focus on it.

To share your study habits, contact WILLIAM CONNER at wrconner@ucdavis.edu.

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