Becoming a pro student (part 2)

Becoming a pro student (part 2)
Image credit: Jason

Let’s continue our journey to become a pro student. In the last part, we discussed a couple of study techniques called spacing and active learning. In this part, we will not discuss any particular study techniques. Instead, we will try to resolve some major pain points faced by a lot of college and university students. That is motivation and will power. Nothing else really matters if we don’t like your subjects or if we are not able to follow a good study plan throughout the term.

Let’s first talk a little about motivation. A lot of times we don’t find the courses interesting enough. Of course, the teacher takes a big portion of the blame for not presenting it the right way. But even sometimes when that is not the case, we can’t figure out how that course would help us in the long term. For example, why spend time learning biology when I am a computer science student? The university administrators justify putting such courses in our curriculum by saying something like “You never know where you might need it.” That’s usually not good enough to motivate me. There is too much uncertainty in it. In fact, there is a probability that I might never need to use a lot of courses that I take. And even in case I need to use them later on for some task, I might not remember what I learned during the course anyway. That’s mainly because I won’t be actively using the concepts of each course that I take in my regular work or studies.

My workaround for that was simple. I would always focus on a different objective. My goal for taking a course (sometimes not by choice) is not just to learn the content well, but also to train parts of my brain to think differently. The second goal is always met as long as I work hard enough for the course. And that second goal provides benefits with certainty. That thinking capabilities are never completely lost. Even if the content I learned is no longer accessible by my brain neurons. For example, studying reinforcement learning has completely changed the way I think about a lot of things which are not even related to computer science or mathematics. The abstract key idea and the specific techniques I learned in that course are easy to generalize to other domains. The same is true with learning biology. I may not end up using those concepts directly in that domain, but it has certainly changed my perspective a lot. The key is to shift the focus to the higher level learning objectives.

If that doesn’t work, another trick is to fake the interest. Our brains are very mysterious organs. They crave consistency. Just go to the class and sit on the front row. Sit straight and pay attention for the first 15 minutes and pretend to be interested. Ask at least one question during a lecture (doesn’t matter how stupid it is). If you can’t think of anything, just ask the professor to repeat something. The brain finds it hard to distinguish between fake and actual interest. Because you spent effort initially, you are more likely to continue spending efforts on that. You can probably relate to it. I am sure, we all have something we are interested in but can’t justify why we are still interested in it. Just use that weakness (or strange power) of your brain to your advantage.

This mostly works but not always. I am not a motivational speaker, after all. There were courses I had to take during my undergraduate studies and even during my PhD that I completely hated. Mostly such courses are forced. You have to take them, even if you don’t want to. Well, I managed to get to the average performance or even better than that. Not bad right? How to do that? Basic hint, you don’t need to study and master the entire course to reach the average performance. Use the 80-20 principle I cited in my previous posts. Just don’t give up completely on that course.

Okay, let’s say you are motivated for a course. This is usually the case at the beginning of the semester. You make a plan for the semester to study hard. To attend every single class and tutorials. Trust me, I have heard that plan a lot. But withing a few weeks, that plan is shattered to death. Lack of discipline? Willpower? You can call it whatever you want. But, this is something that hinders our objective. This becomes a bigger issue as we grow. In schools, I remember I never had to make a lot of effort to wake up at 6 AM and go to school. Entering college changed that. In fact, even within the college, I see that senior students struggle more than the first year students.

Some good news: The willpower can be trained. A lot of people compare willpower to a muscle. I am not entirely sure how true that is. But, developing willpower and discipline is possible. I did it. In fact, to a large extent, I believe that my good results from the university has less to do with my intelligence than my consistency in executing study plans. And if I can do it, everyone can. I wasn’t born with any special superpowers.

The idea is to use the power of small wins. “Attending 100% of the classes and tutorials in all semesters as an undergraduate student” is an Olympic level stunt in my opinion. Don’t try unless you are trained for it. Instead, slightly lower the goal. Target 80%. Let the brain enjoy a small win. Attending 80% of the classes means you can skip classes for a day each week. Do you have to skip? No. Let’s see how it works. In the first week, you are anyway motivated and manage to attend all the classes. Good. With 100% attendance goal, you are on target. But with 80% attendance goal, you have overachieved. This will cause more motivation. In case, for some reason, you miss a class in future, you have a spare count to stay on the target. Also, that small win will spill over. Your brain will have tasted the success, and that will cause you to do well in all your other goals. Just like the main benefit of exercise is to keep our body fit, but it spills over in other areas. This idea of small win is the key behind the famous suggestion of “making your bed after getting up”. Oh, and a small tip. Learn from my mistakes. If you manage to attend 100% of the classes, DO NOT post it on Facebook. Your friends will eat you alive.

Let’s see some more tips that I learned from one of my favourite YouTube creator, Ali Abdaal. He shares a lot of productivity tips. One of them is to use the concept of daily highlight. Each morning, he makes a to-do list and selects one of the tasks in that list as a daily highlight. He then fixes a specific time in his calendar for that task. That task is the least he wants to finish. Every other task can fail, but not the daily highlight. This works. Why? Small win. The brain is again tricked into thinking that the day was not completely wasted. I have been using it for the last few weeks, and I am quite happy with the results. Of course, the goal is to get everything on the to-do list checked. But, on a bad day, if you can’t, then the motivation doesn’t completely collapse.

Keep in mind that because we know a lot about ourselves, we are often our biggest critique. Be gentle on yourself. Having slightly low targets in the beginning is not bad. You can always increase them as you feel more confident with your abilities. No need to target all ‘A’s in each semester. Get yourself a small win first and then improve on it. There is not a huge difference in terms of results between attending 100% of the classes and 80-90% of the classes. Same for the CGPA (cumulative grade point average). But, surely, your confidence and motivation has higher impact on how successful you will be. So focus on them more.

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