Thursday, August 25, 2011

Preface questions

I facilitated today a very pleasant and interesting (at least for me) Preface session. The incoming first-year students had read five articles – the first installment of Errol Morris's Anosognosic's Dilemma, Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article on quarterback and educator recruitment, Howard Gardner's 2008 presentation of his Five Minds argument, and a debate between Debra Satz and Eamonn Callan on the reasons for funding education. At the end of the meeting, I asked students to write whatever questions they had about James Madison University, college life, college classes, etc. on a notecard. While I was able to address some of the questions during the meeting, I promised to address the rest electronically.

It will take me several posts to answer all questions. In this post, I address a couple of important questions that I found difficult to answer: None of these questions has an answer that will be right for everybody. My answers are simply pointers that may help you find answers that work for you. Here I go:

  1. Questions: "What is the best way to focus and study in college?" and "How can I avoid being overwhelmed by my schoolwork?"

    Answer: This depends in part on you – different study strategies and habits work for some people but not others. The same goes for strategies to plan your days and to make sure you're not overwhelmed. (But keep in mind that being overwhelmed may not be your main problem: consider this.) Here are some suggestions that I think work for most:
    • Study in small chunks, repeatedly. Do not just cram what you need to know right before an exam, but go over the class material shortly after class, then again a few days later, then again a week later, and so on.
    • Do not focus too much on isolated facts, but think about connections between the facts (what academics like to call the conceptual structure of knowledge). Also focus on what facts and concepts are good for: How can they help solve important problems? How can they help answer important questions? In what contexts, and for what groups of people, are they important?
    • Choose classes that you have a personal interest in. Develop a personal interest in what your classes are about.
    • Make sure you get time for fun and relaxation, but of the right kind. Binge drinking is a great way to lose focus (and get kicked off university...). (Plus, it's not really relaxing, in the long run. And not in the short run either, particularly if you spend a night in the tank.)
    • Make a schedule for the semester, and for each week, so that you keep track of what you have to get done until when. I find that Google calendar is very helpful to keep track of what I have to do (I'll have it send me reminders), and I'm sure that Outlook and similar calendar tools work as well.
    Here are some links with suggestions for how to study more effectively; if you find more good ones, post them in the comments:
    Lifehacker: Take study-worthy lecture notes
    How to Read in College
    Jakub Petrikowski: Tools for note-taking
    How to read a (good) book in one hour
    Dartmouth College Academic Skills Center: Improving Concentration, Memory, and Motivation
    Ohio University AAC Study Tips Lifehack: How to Study
  2. Question: "What is the best way to cope with the transition from high school to college?"

    Answer: As in the previous point, the answer depends on what works for you, and some of the suggestions above may help. In addition, I think that you have to keep in mind that college professors expect you to take much more responsibility for your learning. You have to be more independent in your learning: find out where the gaps are in your understanding and your performance, find the resources that help you fill those gaps (that includes talking to your professors regularly as well as doing research on what you need to know). We want you to be able to learn on your own once you have your degree! What helps you cope with this transition? Talk to people - your professors, more senior fellow students, staff in the student support services, and so on.

  3. Question: "Do you think the more knowledge a person has, the more problems they have compared to an uneducated person?"

    Answer: No. I think you may notice more of the problems that you have, or you may anticipate them before they happen, but I don't think you have more problems. But this would be an interesting question to study empirically. Maybe some psychologists or sociologists have worked on this. You may want to do a search in one of JMU's library databases and see if you can find resources on this question.

  4. Question: "How important is it to search for knowledge that doesn't directly affect your life"

    Answer: I believe that it is important, for two reasons: First, there are many areas that are not important for you at this point in time, but they are likely to become important in the future. Math is the notorious example – you'll have to learn lots of stuff that does not seem to be relevant to anything besides math, but at some point in your life you may realize that all this basic math comes in handy when you have to learn statistics to get a job that requires stats skills. Second, knowledge that does not seem relevant for anything may shape your mind in important ways - it broadens your understanding of the world, exercises your mental faculties, makes it easier to understand things that are relevant for you. Example: In high school, my second foreign language was Latin. Not relevant at all for my life, and I've forgotten almost all of it. But studying Latin has helped me understand the structure of other European languages, and as a result I find it fairly easy to learn and understand their grammar.

  5. Question: "Is it possible that through meditation, contemplation, and other methods of enlightenment, we could truly know everything?"

    Answer: It depends on how you define knowledge. If you define knowledge as scientific knowledge that is empirically testable, then the answer is "no". But if you define knowledge in a more spiritual sense as feeling one with everything, experiencing enlightenment, or receiving a religious revelation, then it may be possible – depending on your religion – to know everything. (But be careful – what if your spiritual inspiration tells you that you can become invisible by spreading lemon juice on your face?)

To be continued.