How to Become a Better Student

As a teacher, I believe in triage. At the top, there are students who pick up the material with minimal effort. At the bottom, there are no-hopers who cannot seem to learn. In the middle are students where you think that some effort can make a difference.

In college, taking statistics or economics, I was one of the students who picked it up with minimal effort. On the other hand, as a folk dancer, I am a middle student. I am better than the no-hopers who never go beyond beginners’ sessions. But I am not as good as the dancers who can pick up a new dance right away.

Based on my experience with folk dancing, here is my advice to middle students.

1. YouTube is your friend! I encounter many dances that I wish I knew. Before YouTube, I had to muddle through and make mistakes, or give up altogether. Now I have been able to add some of these dances to my repertoire. Similarly, for statistics and economics, just about any concept you would want to learn has a YouTube video.

2. Give yourself more practice than you get from the teacher. Sometimes, a dance session leader will teach a dance for a couple of weeks, then forget about it for a couple months, then put it on again and expect students to remember it. This will leave me totally frustrated if I have been passive. But I can do something about it by practicing the dance on my own, in order to make up for the inadequate practice at the session. As a teacher, after I finish a unit, I often stop giving practice questions on that topic. When I do this, if students want to remember the concepts, they will have to practice on their own.

3. Identify your weak spots and work on them. You can keep doing a dance wrong week after week. Instead, make a mental note of the parts that give you trouble, then later go to YouTube until you have them ironed out. Similarly, if you got a problem wrong, come back to it and do it correctly several times.

4. When you watch someone doing something, articulate what they are doing. If you trying to learn a dance by following, try to say to yourself the steps that the person is doing. Saying “right, left, cha-cha-cha” helps you learn more thoroughly than if you simply follow along. Similarly, if a teacher is doing an exercise in statistics or economics, try to articulate the steps that the teacher is doing. (“Deciding whether this is a shift in demand or a shift in supply” or “using the binomial distribution” or somesuch.)

5. Make the subject seem really important to you. Think of someone you have had a crush on, and pretend that the way to get them to notice you is to become good at the subject.

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4 Responses to How to Become a Better Student

  1. Rich Berger says:

    Ever so slightly off topic, but backs up what you say about YouTube -https://medium.com/backchannel/what-teens-really-think-about-youtube-google-reddit-and-other-social-media-a7263924a506

    I pulled out my XC skis last weekend but before so, I looked to tutorials on YT and found a number of good ones. Looked at the first couple and really helped me out (even though on XC I am like AK with his folk dancing). BTW I believe it would be funny to see some of your efforts.

  2. ColoComment says:

    YouTube, along with Velcro(R) and duct tape and WD40(R), is one of the blessings of this modern world. Whatever you want to know, however esoteric a topic it might be, someone has uploaded instructions to YT.
    My 9 yo grandson taught himself to tie bowlines and various other types of knots, just by watching YT and practicing. (Also, to make iPhone cases & other objects from the Loom rubber band thingy that all the kids have.)

  3. Thiago Ribeiro says:

    When you talk about middle students, you are really talking about each and every student (even undergraduated courses have subjects demanding very different skills e.g. Calculus, Lab Work and Design) born of woman, with two or three exceptions, aren’t you?

    “Think of someone you have had a crush on, and pretend that the way to get them to notice you is to become good at the subject.
    How good is the average “middle” student in deluding (or acting as if he were deluding) himself in a productive way?
    When I was a kid, I”was” an awkward nerd much in love with science fiction and used to pretend that studying the lesson at hand was part of a very important information gathering mission and would let me be noted by very special people. No, I never got around learning why the crew of the USS Enterprise, the most advanced Federation starship of the 2360’s, or a Time Lord would need me to master basic math. Maybe it was the same logic behind Marvel’s villainous super scientist Dr. Victor von Doom deciding he needed to absorb the knowledge of “America’s brightest middle schoolers” ( # 6 in http://www.cracked.com/article/209_6-hilarious-attempts-at-brainwashing-kids-with-comic-books/ ). North Korea’s approach seems more suitable (yes, it is a sentence I never thought I would write) for younger kids (before those nefarious hormones start making trouble) than yours: http://www.cracked.com/article_19329_the-5-craziest-childrens-cartoons-from-north-korea.html .Yes, another Cracked link. Have I mentioned I “used” to be a nerd? Why not a Red Dawn re-remake where a preteen guerrilla repels the Communist invaders using Trigonometry, High School Chemistry and Dodge Ball? By the way, Murray Rothbard’s review of Red Dawn: http://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/red-dawn/

  4. JKB says:

    I think I’ve mentioned this book here before, but a few years ago, I stumbled across ‘How to Study and Teaching How to Study’ by F.M. McMurry (1909). I certainly wish I’d been taught or found this book when I was student. To me, his 8 factors of studying are very useful in having a formula to punch through material that doesn’t come easy.

    The factors of studying:
    1. Provision for Specific Purposes
    2. The Supplementing of Thought
    3. The Organization of Ideas
    4. Judging the Soundness and General Worth of Statements
    5. Memorizing
    6. The Using of Ideas
    7. Provision for a Tentative rather than a Fixed Attitude toward Knowledge
    8. Provision for Individuality

    Basically, it promotes thought about the material over muscular memorizing. I found a book, ‘Freshman Rhetoric’ 1919 (early version than one on Amazon) that really explained notetaking, which has proven valuable in parsing texts/talks as factor 3 above intimates.

    Reading McMurry, it occurred to me that without exposure to “how to study” many, perhaps most, students muscle their way through till they reach their untrained limit when we see them start to drop out. Those who find it easy to pick up continue. Perhaps some are exposed to real study techniques or develop techniques on their own? One thing is for sure, McMurry’s opening paragraphs on the various study techniques of his fellow students when he was a boy could have been written yesterday about high school or even college students today.

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    No doubt every one can recall peculiar methods study that he or some one else has at some time followed. During my attendance at high school, I often studied aloud at home along with several other temporary or permanent members of the family. I remember becoming exasperated at times by one of my girl companions. She not only read her history aloud, but as she read she stopped to repeat each sentence five times with great vigor. Although the din interfered with my own work, I could not help but admire her endurance; for the physical labor of mastering a lesson was certainly equal to of a good farm hand, for the same period of time.

    This way of studying history seemed ridiculous. But the method pursued by myself and several others in beginning algebra at about the time was not greatly superior. Our text-book contained several long sets of problems which were the terror of the class and scarcely one of which we able to solve alone. We had several friends, however, who could solve them and by calling upon them help, we obtained the “statement” for each one. All these statements I memorized, and in that way I was able to “pass off” the subject

    A few years later, when a school principal, I had a fifteen-year-old boy in my school who was intolerably lazy. His ambition was temporarily aroused, however, when he bought a new book and began the study of history. He happened to be the first one called upon in the first recitation and he started off finely. But soon he stopped, in the middle of a sentence and sat down. When I asked him what was the matter, he simply replied that that was as far as he had got. Then, on glancing at the book, I saw that he had been reproducing the text verbatim and the last word that he had uttered was the last word on the first page.

    These few examples suggest the extremes to which young people may go in their methods of study. The first instance might illustrate the muscular method of learning history; the second the memoriter method of reasoning in mathematics. I have never been able to imagine how the boy, in the third case, went about his task; hence, I can suggest no name for his method.

    While these methods of study are ridiculous. I am not at all sure that they are in a high degree exceptional. The most extensive investigation of examples of this subject has been made by Dr Lida B. Earhart, and the facts that she has collected reveal a woeful ignorance of the whole subject of study.
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