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How to Learn Any Subject?

Learning is such a critical aspect of one’s life. In essence life is a major school. At every stage of life, from birth to adulthood, learning takes place in various modalities. There is a difference though between structured or formal learning and what I call “fun learning” or passive learning. For example, the type of learning that takes place when one is reading an enjoyable text or watching a favorite movie or documentary. This is not to mitigate the value of this type of learning but to call attention to the phenomenon that usually the learning extracted is not preplanned or based on specific outcomes. Consequently, the learning opportunity may be more expendable. The keys to learning effectively are purpose, self-awareness, and organization. The precursors to this triad include the skills and background knowledge necessary to create the path for effective learning.

For our purpose here, we’ll be discussing structured learning as it the most reliable and standardized. By the time a child enters kindergarten, he has already been exposed to some structured learning environment albeit without his conscious knowledge. He/she may already be using the word “school” nonchalantly. Kindergarten may even be more structured and may be categorized as “real” learning, perhaps because this is the place for the foundation of literacy skills. Most people tend to have fond memories about their experiences as a kindergartener. Thus, it qualifies the purpose aspect of effective learning. This may be a residue of the type of learning inherent in wanting to walk as a child, feed oneself, figuring out how to reach the high shelf, or tie one’s shoe laces.

Purpose is synonymous with motivation in this context. The greater one’s desires or goals towards achieving a certain outcome are, the greater the purpose. Purpose is the reason one is engaged in studying something in particular. Identifying the purpose may be easier if the endeavor is self-induced or voluntary. In the case of an involuntary situation, it is even more important to identify a purpose. It is effective pedagogical practice to guide young learners in a conversation about the objectives for learning about a particular topic and connect those to their previous knowledge.

First things first, knowing the purpose for doing anything is essential. This must be deliberate and intentional. We always have choices even when it seems like we don’t. They may be difficult choices with pleasant or unpleasant consequences. When a learner finds himself with a prescribed course which he feels is “useless”, “irrelevant ” or “boring”, he has the option of not taking the course or create an objective or purpose that is personally authentic and relevant to himself at the onset of the course. For example:” I don’t like French. I am not good at foreign languages, but I like history.” So a possible question to ask to formulate your purpose is: What is the role of France, its people and the language in the history of _____? You fill in the blank. Another point of focus could be the French language of today vs. yesterday.

Authenticity and interests are quintessential here. The learner has to take responsibility to define his own purpose for studying something based on his interests, academic and or social strengths, or just a pure desire or goal to do well. The point here is that the learner has to establish a reason for studying something, which could be as specific or as generic as he wants it. However, it must resonate with a core aspect of personality or value or both.

This brings us to the next requirement- self-awareness. The learner can use these questions as a guide: Who are you as a personality? What matters to you? What do you value? How did you learn what you learned before? What techniques did you use? Knowing “thyself” is one of the best given advices. This is a lifetime quest but we start by paying attention to ourselves and reflecting consistently. Tools such as multiple intelligence, IQ, and emotional intelligence tests can provide some insights and directions. Take responsibility for your own learning. Some environments and teaching methodologies are more optimized for learning. However, the greatest responsibility still lies with you. After the learner has satisfactorily answered the questions he has to apply the findings. For example, an extrovert needs to ask questions and engage in discussions and find alternate, lively tools to engage with the materials if the instructor doesn’t provide them. An introvert may need to take copious notes and engage in discussions in small groups. This brings us to the third component of effective learning- organization.

It is the “how to” aspect of learning. There is basic organization which involves common sensible tasks such as being prepared with tools for learning, consistency of attendance, and active participation through deep listening and wholesome presence. If you are in class, just be in class. There is also a deeper level of organization required to reach the summit of Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory. Effective learning is about understanding, applying, and creating with your new found knowledge. This is lowest to highest. Your knowledge of self-awareness applies in developing a personal learning plan. Only the learner can answer the questions of how he learns best. The basic premise of learning of how to complete a task eventually turns to forming automatic habits.

Mastering a skill though takes deliberate focus and intention. The rapper and producer, Maurice Young states: “To become a master at any skill, it takes the total effort of your heart, mind, and soul working together in tandem. Thus, collaboration and synergism are important. Aligning your purpose for learning plus your knowledge of self-awareness equals your method of organizing your learning plan. The learner may need a more aggressive plan for the subject in which he feels weak. A visual, auditory and a tactile learner may need different plans that are customized and personalized. This is not so much about learning in general. It is how effectively we are learning for the long-term.

As learners, we have developed habits and practices of studying that may be more or less effective, appropriate or inappropriate for certain tasks. Sometimes, they become so deeply ingrained that they have become automatic. However, how effective are they? How do they fare with your short and long term goals for studying the subject or course? Short-term goals correspond more with listening, note-taking, time management, being well versed in the requirements of the course, knowing your instructor’s style of teaching and expectations. Short-term goals also have short-term gratifications. Long-term goals however are more futuristic and valuable as the actualized learning and skills acquired are beneficial to society. This is where marrying your mind as in your purpose for studying, your heart as in your core values and or your personality and your soul as in having a vision of sharing this knowledge with others can have the greatest impact on your education.

The purpose of learning is to become educated. Education is for us and others. It is a tool for the betterment of us as a society. Effective learning is learning for today and tomorrow. Companies and organizations are best led by people with diverse talents and skills such as collaboration, technical, analytical, organizational, and critical thinking. These skills can be developed with a deliberate plan to aim at the highest levels of intelligence of Bloom’s taxonomy. In a nutshell, cultivating a sense of observance of self and others, having a vision and an action plan are the keys for an effective learning recipe. Two major ingredients that are required are motivation and commitment. This materializes by defining a personal authentic goal, raison d’être for studying and prioritizing goals, then breaking them down into specific tasks for maximizing time in and outside of class.

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