Know How You Learn

One of the most important ways you can benefit yourself in your life is to understand how you, as an individual, learn.

It can seem pretty simple right? Just go through some facts or lessons and you’ll eventually pick it up. Isn’t that all there is to it?

Perhaps.

For what is likely the majority of people, this may be true. Standardised classes or methods are exactly the best way for them to learn.

However this isn’t true for everyone, and if you’re anything like me you know exactly what I mean.

My Academic Experiences

At the time of writing, it was not too long ago that I remember sitting in some lessons during College and University just about struggling to keep up the pace as the Lecturer progressed with new topics and principles. I wasn’t completely oblivious but I knew I couldn’t absorb it with the same efficiency as my equally eager classmates.

I admit there were times that I questioned my own capability and even my own intelligence. Why wasn’t I able to keep up with my classmates and friends at the pace they understood things? Naturally I felt disheartened and even began to accept that I was somehow mentally deficient in comparison to some of those around me. I began to feel what is known as Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor syndrome … is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

I found myself at times doing my best to keep up and maintain face so that I wouldn’t be seen as less of a student than the rest of my friends and classmates. That somehow I had gotten my way onto a course and was at risk of being intellectually drowned by the waves. At the same time I observed my fellow students to see if there was something obvious I was missing. I didn’t see anything outright but I did notice that the top performers were always the most organised and aware of the syllabus.

At face value, this seems quite obvious. Who isn’t organised and aware of what they are doing when they sign up for a course? But this was different. These same top performers were disproportionately mature students.

Eventually I put this down to people who were older in age and more ‘serious’ about their studies than the rest of us. For a long time, I marked this inferiority I had in my mind as solved and proceeded to live through more time in my life.

Fast forward a few years and I now feel confident in absolutely everything I am required to learn or study, be it in my personal or professional life.

How did I get here? Let me explain.

Post Academic ‘Enlightenment’?

During my College and University years, I had to understand principles and be able to use them in a way that satisfied an examiner within a certain time limit, for multiple different disciplines. Make no mistake, I did do this, and I did it successfully; but I knew deep down I did not achieve the results that reflected my own personal capabilities. I always knew that I could have done better.

In my second year of University, one of the final end of year exams I took had to be retaken during the summer holidays due to me not passing it in the first sitting. While I was disappointed in myself, I now look back with gratefulness.

I spent that Summer pouring over the subject material just as I had in time time preceding my first attempt, but the difference now? I had more time.

No longer was I rushed into cramming equations, principles and factoids in before an exam, I had the time to think, to understand to make connections between pieces of information, to understand what the scientific definition of words really meant in layman’s terms. Concepts truly began to make sense in a ‘real’ way rather than just an academic one.

I grouped questions into topics and topics into underlying principles. When the exam came I felt for the first time in my academic career since Secondary School, 100% capable. I regained the confidence in myself and did away with all notions of the aforementioned ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I was able to learn, and I was capable.

Fast forward a few years and I now find myself down a career path where I must take further exams in order to progress.

The major difference between these exams and the exams I took as part of my formal education is that there is no time limit. These exams exist without you. One has to choose to study for it and pass it at a time of their choosing. The study is completely in your hands. It could take you 3 months or it could take you 3 years. The choice is yours.

This newfound freedom is legitimately refreshing.

Through doing multiple types of these exams, I believe I have refined my method and found the way I learn best.

How I Learn

Here are some tips I have found useful in my journey.

Break it Down

Quite often before an exam I used to feel overwhelmed at the topics to learn. Now I am able to study the syllabus and understand exactly what I am up against.  I am able to digest it in its entirety by chewing one piece at a time. I feel as though I truly understand the saying by the famous Henry Ford:

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs”

No matter how daunting a task may be, break it down into its subsidiary tasks and your job wont seem so difficult. You will also understand the prerequisite steps required in order to achieve your task much more clearly.

Don’t Let it Slide

Also, you know how a tiger/lion/dog selfishly holds on to a piece of meat even if you try to drag it away from them? Be like this with topics you don’t understand.

So many times in my career I have refused to let a teacher/mentor/colleague proceed with a point until I have understood it to a reasonable extent (providing this is not disruptive to anyone else of course). I have long since come to realise that simply becoming a sort of ‘yes-man’ when asked if I understand something doesnt help in the long run.

Numerous times in different jobs I have kept quiet and listened to someone explain something, feeling that it was inappropriate to interrupt because of the time constraints and awareness of my other colleagues, only for me to ask said colleagues if they truly understood the points being made. “No, did you?” was the response. Bare in mind that this was after them emphasising that they understood when asked by our superiors.

What is the purpose of pretending to understand something?

Until you realise that your personal progression and fulfilment is an individual pursuit independent of you as an employee/student of an institution, only then will you not feel shame in explaining to your teachers or colleagues that you don’t understand something. Your progression in life is primarily as a rational human being rather than as a student in a school or an employee. Re-frame your thinking.

Be greedy, be selfish in your pursuit of knowledge and learning. Not at the expense of others by any means, but in the cause of yourself. Understand that truthfully speaking up to a teacher and admitting you don’t fully understand something is not a weakness. It is a resolute strength so lacking in today’s world. Don’t let a topic go until you have an understanding of it. Your thirst for knowledge must be more severe than your hunger for pride.

Over time, you may come to understand that this will be a strength, rather than a weakness. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken up in a group to clarify a point or to ask for further explanation on an issue by which others chime in and agree they that too, did not understand.

We all benefit from this.

“To Teach is To Learn Twice”

Let me be clear, that paragraph title is not mine. It is actually a popular quote from a man named Joseph Joubert.

I have, however, come to appreciate and understand these words as I grow older in life. If you want true mastery on a topic, try teaching it.

It is only when you subject yourself to the lens of scrutiny from someone who will be learning something from you, will you then realise the cracks and gaps in your own knowledge. All of a sudden the certainty of your knowledge doesn’t seem so strong.

People will ask you questions and stretch principles with new concepts to which you must defend your subject of choice. Can you imagine a student asking a teacher a question about a topic to which the teacher is dumbfounded? It feels great from the student’s side, but isn’t so impressive from the other end.

Teaching a topic also forces you to dig deep into every nook and cranny to truly understand it. You may try to structure your explanation before realising that you have a piece of the chain missing. You then stop everything and put all effort into finding out how it works. Once you have ironed out all of the creases, you have a solid position to teach from.

Before you teach anyone however, you realise that you have taught yourself. Thoroughly.

Conclusion and Thoughts

I write this knowing that while I feel I am comfortable in my confidence to learn, I have a lot more in life to live and experience (God Willing).

Whether my new understanding of learning is a testament to my progression as an adult or my ignorance during my academic life is subject to the reader’s opinion. What I am sure of is that everyone learns at different paces in different ways.

It can be easy to mistake this fact with feeling unintelligent or inadequate, but this is not the case. Do I blame educational systems for catering to only a specific type of learner? Surely it seems logical for me to do so? I don’t.

I don’t because I realise the realities on the ground. Schools have limited time and limited resources. We can’t expect them to be able to cater to every individual and tailor courses to ways that use the full capabilities of each individual. While ideal, this is near impossible.

This is why I don’t necessarily think about blame when I think about the lessons I have learnt. Rather I feel it was something I had to realise sooner or later, and I’m grateful I learnt it when I still have time for it to impact my life.

By far the most liberating lesson that this has taught me is this:

Once you understand how you learn, once you know how to fine-tune your mind to learning new skills and how to effectively and uniquely process, retain and understand that information, any topic in the entire world is attainable and understandable for you.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

Whether it be Geology, Economics, CyberSecurity, Sociology, Anthropology, Articial Intelligence, History, Astrophysics, Machine Learning, Mathematics, Biology, Physiology or Psychology, you have the tools within you to understand it all.

Literally anything is achievable. No exaggeration.

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