It's not easy being a student. By the time we get to college, many of us have done little else but be students—we've been in school-mode so long that there is no other mode, no way to look at oneself objectively or to separate one's student self from one's self self. Because of this, we tend to fall into patterns of thinking and behavior that aren't always the most productive or healthy.
And even if you have had time off from being a student, maybe the reason you took that time off was because of some not-great habits you'd developed.° You might've thought this time would be different, that you're different now, but—if you're anything like me—stepping onto a college campus again after a long break (or logging into an online class) brought back both those old feelings of inadequacy and the patterns that reinforce them.
So what do we do about those patterns and feelings? How do we move past them to become the kinds of students we've always hoped to be? Here are some ideas I've gained in my time as a student and an observer of students.
When I was a student, I always felt a low-level anxiety because I knew that even on my best day I wasn’t doing school right. My good grades were flukes—more the result of my skill for BS or plain dumb luck than an actual aptitude for the material—and my bad grades were my just desserts. Even in areas where I was talented, I didn’t feel like I deserved my success because I didn’t have to work for it.
You see, in my mind, there was a right way to be a student. I’m not sure if I can tell you exactly what that right way was—something to do with three-ring binders that never got disorganized, backpack pockets that never got cluttered. The right way involved getting up early (blech), eating some kind of hot cereal (gross), paying attention throughout each class (fat chance), writing all my notes in neat cursive (who takes notes?), raising my hand exactly up straight to ask intelligent questions (oof!), getting an early start on my homework (um, Ducktales is on?), and completing all the readings—every word (never-have-I-ever).
These were the things that ensured, and deserved, an A. These were the things all the other students seem to do so well.
I had a tradition. The night before the first day of school, I would pick out my first-day outfit and lay it out on the floor next to my bed, a totem of who I was to become the next morning. I would get every detail right—my underwear inside my jeans, my crew socks tucked into my shoes and up into the pants legs. My watch would sit on the floor right where my wrist would be if I were laying there. Nearby would be my backpack, packed just so, the three-ring binders filled with crisp paper, as yet unblemished by my non-cursive scrawl.
I would fall asleep with the excitement of a new year, a new beginning, running through my head. Tomorrow I would meet a new group of teachers, none of whom knew anything about me. If I could pretend to be the best version of me—the one lying on the floor next to my bed—and keep up the charade all semester, those teachers would never know that I hadn’t always been a perfect student. They would only know me as a student who did things the right way.
Of course, I could never keep the act going after the first week. Though I was so sure that this year I’d be able to read every word of every homework assignment, in truth I was still the same me I’d always been: medium attention span, middling interest in the classroom topics, mediocre note-taking skills, moderately successful. To my credit, my grades were good—B minus, on average, without too much effort in most classes—but I didn’t deserve them because I hadn’t done things the right way.
Fast forward a few years. I’m in my first semester of college, right after high school ends. I’m still living at home, waiting tables for cash, commuting across town to school five days a week for a couple classes each day.
College isn’t really what I expected. Since I opted to stay close to home, there’s no dorm life for me, no excitement of being on my own. In the dorms, I might have laid out my new clothes the night before the first day and kept up the charade—something about being away from home and family and friends and all things familiar seems to make such changes possible.
But no, I’m still me, still in the same bedroom. Still hanging around with the same friends, who know very well that I don’t take notes in cursive—that I don’t really take notes at all.
One day on campus, I realize something. Not only has college failed to make me the student I always wanted to be, it’s costing me money. It’s costing me money, and it’s optional. I don’t have to go to college. I don’t have to spend this money.
That was my first last semester. I finished it with B minus average, maybe a C plus, and dropped out.
The Myth of the One Right Way
I didn’t go back to college for three and a half years, but when I finally did, something had changed about me. No, I wasn’t finally the perfect student I’d always wanted to be. But I was hungry. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I actually wanted to learn—not because it was required by the law or expected by my family, but because I’d been out of school long enough to forget the grinding for grades and gamesmanship of it all and just remember the pure, delicious joy of learning something.
See, I’d spent a few years living in South Korea, where I had taught myself how to speak Korean. I didn’t take a class to learn it (well, I had a crash course before leaving, got the very basic basics down). I taught myself.
I bought grammar books from a Korean bookstore, and I read them. I took notes in a notebook I’d bought to take notes in—no three-ring binder for me, no expectations about cursive. I wrote down on a tiny notepad words I saw and heard each day so that I could remember them and try to use them in conversations. When I succeeded, the reward wasn’t a good grade; it was understanding someone, or having someone understand me. The most thrilling moments of all were when on the telephone with a stranger, someone would stop and say, “잠깐, 한국사람이에요?”° and I would admit that, though I’d had them fooled for a few minutes, I was in fact a foreigner.
It was learning for its own sake, and I certainly wasn’t doing it the right way—there was no right way, because there was no class, no teacher. There was only success and failure. I succeeded when my actions led to comprehension, and I failed when they did not.
When I began college again, it was with this mindset: I wanted to learn, and I wasn’t going to let grades and peer pressure and all that get in the way. I was going to do it any way I had to to be successful.
Strategy, Not Sin
Think of it this way: I had imagined the school had a single goal, like the peak of a mountain. And there are many paths up the mountain, but in my mind, only one of those paths was the right one. As a kid, I’d felt guilty when I made progress by using an unauthorized trail, but as an adult, I realized that that is ridiculous.
First of all, any path that gets you closer to the top of the mountain is a good thing.° The presence of teachers and schools, who are the guides that help you up sections of trail, may imply that one particular trail or one particular guide’s advice is the right one, but in truth, there are as many teachers as there are trails, all of them different. Second, not every hiker has the same skills and talents. One might be good at scaling rocky slopes, but another may be expert at spotting birds and other wildlife just off the trail. The birdwatcher isn’t inherently less worthy because he or she isn’t good at bouldering; and the rock climber isn’t inherently better.
But do you know what does matter? Choosing the right trail for you. If the birdwatcher, convinced that the steep, rocky trail was the right one, ignored her strengths and weaknesses and chose that trail anyway, that would be bad strategy. She might get frustrated, might make less progress than she hoped, might even quit. Those are the real consequences of her decision. But she might go further: she might conclude that because the trail wasn’t the right one for her, there is something wrong with her.
I mean, we know that’s ridiculous. If you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors: it’s not a sin not to fit into a size 8 shoe. But the stakes are high in education, and we tend to draw false conclusions. When I struggled to take notes in class as a kid, I always assumed there was something wrong with me; it never occurred to me that I was just fine but that my strategy was a poor choice.
So back to our mountain metaphor. There aren’t right paths and wrong people. There are
- people of all different types, each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses, proclivities and aptitudes, skills and abilities;
- trails of all different types, each with its own challenges, pitfalls, and potential; and
- good and bad strategies
A good strategy is one that matches the person with the trail that best suits them. A bad strategy is one that fails to do so. Right and wrong, sin and righteousness: these don’t enter into it.
Two Examples; Two Lessons
Okay, a couple of examples to make this all clear.
Lesson #1: Don’t give in to peer pressure.
So, for me, one of my longtime hang-ups has always been taking notes during class. Way back in, what, sixth grade? teachers tried to convince me there was a right way to do it and what that right way was. Only their way never worked well for me, and I always felt bad as a result.
When I got back to college, now free from the tyranny of the right, I decided to be strategic about classroom notetaking, to find the way that worked best for me. And you know what I discovered? It was no notetaking. It turns out that when I don’t take notes but instead just listen in class (maybe doodle a bit to keep my hands busy), I remember the lesson material quite well, I actively participate, and I make deeper, more lasting connections between the current lesson and the readings and lessons that came before. When I do take notes, I tend to be so distracted trying to figure out what is noteworthy that I don’t learn very much, don’t remember anything, and don’t raise my hand.
You would think that, having discovered the best strategy for me, it would be a simple matter of using it. But no. All the way into my thirties, in graduate school, I would look around at all the other students so diligently taking notes, and I would feel peer pressure. I would think, “All these good students are looking at me not taking notes and are thinking that I’m a total slacker. I’d better take notes so that no one gets the wrong idea.”
And then I would take notes, and I would learn less, and I would regret my having given into peer pressure instead of being strategic.
Lesson #2: Be Honest with Yourself
Another mistake I made for way too long was listening to music while I studied. There was no peer pressure involved; after all, I was generally alone when I did my homework. It’s just that I wantedto be the type of person who could put on some music—any music—while I studied. I like music! I played in bands in high school and college! I had lots and lots of cool CDs! (This was back when CDs was a thing.)
But all the evidence pointed to this being a bad strategy.
First I tried listening to my favorite stuff—music with lyrics from the radio, pop and rock and all that. But I found myself singing along, thinking about the words. I never remembered anything I studied, only the songs.
Then I tried listening to music with lyrics in a language I don’t understand, but I still got distracted, imagining what I thought the words might be saying based on the general vibe. Minutes would go by without me typing a letter or scrolling the mouse or anything, and it took way too long to get my homework done.
Lastly I tried listening to wordless music—classical stuff, ambient things. But I still didn’t work. I just phased out into the cloudy soundscapes and radical arpeggios, the hours ticking by.
Eventually I had to be honest with myself: as much as I love music, it isn’t a good strategy for me.
Just to be clear, here is the bottom line. There’s no one right way to be a good student—a good strategy for you may not be a good strategy for someone else.
I’m sure you’re much smarter than me, that you figured all this out years ago. It took me much too long.