Building the confidence to learn

Throughout my time in academia, I have met many friends that believe they “just can’t understand [insert subject here].”  They then have tremendous difficulty learning physical chemistry, calculus, thermodynamics, active/passive tense or whatever subject they claim to be unable to learn. This seems to build a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve observed these friends zoning out during class, and being unable to describe even the simplest ideas in class. Then one day they actually pay attention in class and feel enlightened…before they zone out in the next class.

From my experience, these people spend so much time assuming they can’t learn certain subjects that they don’t really even try. They’ll attempt to muddle through assignments by guess and check type methods instead of reading up on Wikipedia or something to get a decent understanding of the problem at hand. They then chalk up bad grades to bad teachers or that darned inability to learn the subject. They spend hours trying to “guess” or search for correct answers instead of thinking and learning.

I’ve witnessed one person break this cycle, and break it multiple times because the subjects became relevant to their work. They were forced to learn the topic and as soon as they started to pay attention, most things made sense. Why did they struggle so much before? This friend realized it was because they often don’t take the time to really learn certain things, or that in classes they have zoned out because of boring powerpoint slides, etc.

What I’m trying to get at in a longwinded way is that when people actively try to learn things they do much better. People end up shortchanging themselves because they have the wrong mindset. I think part of higher education should be to build these people up in such a way that they chose to learn when they are struggling, rather than wallow in self-pity. This might be obtainable by making content more accessible, or more engaging. Maybe having smaller classes or connecting everything to relevant topics would help. I would just like to see more people trying harder rather than giving up when they see difficulties.

Do you have any ideas on how to get people to try harder? Or maybe try smarter?

Have you ever talked yourself out of doing well? Have you ever altered your mindset to improve your own learning?

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