Have you learned how you learn?
I know you have learned how to learn. You were accepted into a highly selective college. But have you learned how you learn? Sure, you may have been a straight-A student whistling through high school, but that academic achievement may say less about your ability to apply self-knowledge than to comply with a standardized system of SATs, APs, and other acronymned gatekeepers.
Sometimes we need to sacrifice some individuality to get through institutions, but we should still claim the academic space that we can. Whether you are a first-year slacking in FroSci, a senior studying for the GRE, or a senior citizen struggling to tell CPU from RAM, it is important to know your learning style.
Online quizzes are a good way to start, even though they are about as sophisticated as Buzzfeed’s “How Shit Is Your Taste In Chicken?” algorithm. One says my learning style is 60 percent auditory, 20 percent visual, and 20 percent tactile. Another says my multiple intelligences lean toward the musical, intrapersonal, and linguistic but are light on the bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, and naturalistic.
Though these diagnoses are useful, they still shortchange the truth. Deeper self-knowledge can only be achieved through practice and reflection. Does it feel most helpful to color-code my notes, rephrase them to a roommate, or use my hands to turn key points into gestures? These strategies are not mutually exclusive—one could always, for example, perform a shadow puppet reenactment of King Lear to the tune of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” to prepare for a Shakespeare final.
Even for those who say, “Just give me a pen and some paper,” the issue of study habits still exists. Some social scientists say that monotasking is the new multitasking, and the optimal work-time-to-break-time ratio is 52 minutes to 17 minutes, but that is just an average. Do you do 30-minute sprints or three-hour marathons? Have you tried both?
Usually I view these “life hacks” as capitalist ploys to boost productivity in every waking moment—and now the sleeping ones too. But as a part-time student, full-time teacher, and creative procrastinator, knowing how I best memorize information and practice skills is vital self-knowledge. We often assume that only those with dyslexia and other learning differences need to search for their identity as a learner, but this is not the case.
Identifying your learning style can smooth out other bumps in the road to enlightenment—or at least graduation—even if they cannot pave them over for the next passersby.
Busy schedules deprive us of much-needed sleep and thus memory consolidation, while a more personalized review session can get you out of the library and into pajamas much more quickly. Sleep is what allows us to not only be alert and productive come 8 a.m., but also to remember yesterday at all. What good is pulling an all-nighter if next week you will not recall all those chapters you “learned”?
Classes catered to only the professor’s learning style present another challenge. For various reasons, some professors do not teach. They just recite information. If the lecturer seems open to suggestions, ask to mix it up during class—visuals, audio, movement, group reading, peer teaching, one-on-one discussion, individual writing, mastery quizzes, role play, games, whatever nudges your noggin to think for itself.
A few of my professors use all of the above, and I would enroll in their next course without reading the description first because I know they engage me more than any one-note lecture with an intriguing title.
It has become a platitude to say that a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not serve students well, but many classrooms in both K-12 and higher education are still centered on the written word.
This dismissal of less scholastic forms of expression is the result of not training educators—who tend to be former star pupils representing the dominant culture—in differentiated instruction and multicultural pedagogy. In this way, advocating for your learning style is advocating for responsiveness to diversity.
Though more college professors should recognize their responsibility to respond to diverse learners, we students need to advocate for ourselves. Only in elementary and secondary school are educators charged with determining kids’ learning needs.
How do you teach yourself? What is your personal pedagogy? Should you have to leave it at home? Is there space for it in class?
No one can answer these questions but you.
Daniel Bergerson is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and urban teaching. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson and read more at The Dandruff Report. The Red Pen runs alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.