All the way through my early years of education and college, I took to learning the material in my classes through repetition and rote memorization. After about a year and a half into my master’s degree, I realized I was never learning to understand but simply just memorizing the material. This was a huge detriment to my knowledge base because I basically memorized for an exam and subsequently forgot everything. Now that I am having to use some of the material from my undergraduate classes for my research, I am having to go back and re-learn “the right way”. I really began to see the difference in learning methods when I came to VT for my Ph.D. I had to take a few deficiency courses to graduate with an Engineering degree, which was mostly math courses. In undergrad, these courses were very hard for me and I just thought I wasn’t very good at math. But now that I had to go back and take additional courses, I tried actually learning the material by understanding. I was listening in class and actually taking the time to understand why something was a certain way The ridiculous part is that I was studying for significantly less time and doing really well in the class. There were times that I didn’t study at all and got a top score. It was amazing to me. After employing this new found method (to me, anyway) it was like a light bulb went off in my head.
Ellen Langer in “Mindful Learning” suggests that this phase I was in and broke out of may be rooted in the way we teach and are taught from a really young age. She states that being taught to repeat information to learn at a young age may instill in people that this is THE way to learn. I can attest that this was how I was taught to learn by both my teachers and parents. Probably the worst example of this comes from my high school biology class. The professor would give us a set of 150 multiple choice questions to study from and he would choose 50 to be on the exam. I was so good at recognizing patterns, I didn’t even read the problem on exam day and just circled the answer based on the answer choices and usually the first couple words of the question. I always finished first, usually in about 5 minutes, and always got the top score. But I didn’t learn anything, at least not for the long term.
How many people go through this and what does it say about our education system? To me, it seems that how we learn to learn is instilled in us at a very young age. If someone learns to learn by memorizing and are simply tested on knowing the material, that person may never break that habit. I was only able to break that habit by staying in school past undergrad. We need to make students think by challenging their knowledge base. Using exams to test their knowledge only enforces rote memorization. Adding more and more exams further enforces that because they have so much to know for the next exam, they simply memorize to get through it and then forget.