At the time of
writing this article Doug had just finished the first year of his
engineering degree course, and was working with NRICH over the
summer. Here he gives some sound advice on attitudes towards
learning to those about to begin their degrees. Forewarned is
Understand the course you are
When studying for A-levels, I was surprised how many people did not
know what module they were studying, or how many modules there
were, or how many marks were allocated to each module, exam, and
piece of coursework. Understanding these things is the first step
to breaking down the problem into manageable chunks, especially
during a degree where things are more complicated and where
information arrives more rapidly. Once you start categorising the
information in a structured way, learning begins to fall into
place, as a job that you just do. The difference in inate ability
between people is highly overrated, and attitude is the real
Above all, learning is not about being able to recite the textbook
that goes with the course. I don't know if it ever was, but it
certainly isn't now. There are certain things to learn, and then
next year there will be more. Identifying what the things are that
you need to learn is the first step in learning them.
You get better at learning as you
You should expect that as you learn, your memory and abilities to
learn will improve. Your abilities are not fixed. That is a
surprise to most people.
What is flux? (or understanding
what you don't need to know)
We deal with a lot of abstract concepts in science, and sometimes
they are a stumbling block for people. The concept of "magnetic
flux", for example, is introduced in A-level in a very hand-wavy
way. You are told it is something that can be cut, and it is even
given the unit "Weber". And then at degree level you learn that
there is a flux for an electric field too. And still most 1st years
don't know what flux is.
But the point here is not flux, I am simply saying how much stuff
there is that we meet "in passing". The point is that to progress
well, you sometimes need to identify what you _don't_ need to know.
Sometimes teachers aren't great at pointing these things out, and
often feel obligated to teach these unexamined things. If you can
develop an awareness that some of the material you are presented
with is background; that is, it needs to be there, and you might
need to know of its existence, but you don't necessarily need to
have your mind wrapped around it. But make sure you understand
those things you are supposed to understand! If you don't know
which is which, ask someone.
People who ask questions do better than people who don't. The
reason people don't ask questions is because they think that maybe
everyone already knows the answer and that maybe they are the only
one who doesn't get it. 99% of the time this is not the case: at
least 4/5 of the people in the room probably feel as you do. And in
the 1% of the time that is not the case, it doesn't matter, so ask
Keep a constant work
Often you might start a course of study, and have a zeal of good
intentions; your handwriting is super-neat, and you probably even
sit up a little straighter. Unfortunately for many people, they
cannot maintain this, and their attitude degrades. By the end of
the year (when it is most important) they are skipping homework and
missing lectures. Try and find some kind of middle ground that you
can maintain throughout the study year. Study years are generally
October to June, so you always have a long break to look forward to
in which you can do whatever you want. Put this juicy treat on the
end of a stick and hold it in front of yourself, safe in the
knowledge that you will get to have it!
Make doubly sure, though, that exams don't sneak up on you. Exams
are a little odd, in that a year's work is tested in a few hours. I
tend to have a heightened exam awareness from the January, as 20
weeks quickly becomes 10, quickly becomes 4...
When is this work going to be
Do work in a way that helps you. If you write up lecture notes, and
do any associated work, the day of the lecture, it is going to be
fresh in your mind, and save you time in the long run.
I couldn't write a study skills article without mentioning Past
Exam Papers. The point is though, use whatever resources are best.
Ebay, beg, or borrow as many as you can, especially for A-levels.
And then make sure that by the end you can _do_, without notes, as
many of the past examples as possible.
There are a lot of resources available which people might guide you
to, but remember that it is you who benefits from learning; it is
your business to find and use the best resources. Once you take
responsibility for your own learning, and think of teachers and
lecturers as simply good resources for you to draw apon, then
things will really take off for you.