Why Learn

Well, I’ve officially had the first hiccup of my challenge from forgetting to blog last night. Probably for the best though so I didn’t procrastinate studying physics any more than I already had by this point last night.

Though now that my final test before finals is over, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “study.”

Sometimes we use this word synonymously with “learn” but the more I think about it, I believe there is a difference.

Most frequently, studying refers to preparing for an assessment of some kind, but this can be done in a number of ways, not all of which require actual learning. To most students, more often than not, studying just means committing facts and equations to short-term memory in order to do well on a test. I myself am guilty of this.

Learning takes time that we don’t always have before an assessment. In theory, you learn along the way so by the time an assessment comes around, you already have learned what you need to know. But what if you didn’t learn what was necessary? After all, not everyone learns at the same pace, so if we’re expected to have learned certain things before an assessment, then why are we expected to take assessments at the same times?

The fact that we teach “study skills” is kind of funny in this regard, because part of this notion is implying that you don’t fully know the material you are going to be assessed on so you have to strategically study to make sure you know enough to pass. It seems reasonable that we shouldn’t be expected to fully know everything, but that begs the question of what qualifies as “enough”? Who determines what “enough” is? Should “enough” be the same metric for everyone?

Logically the next thing to talk about would be the notion of grades, but I feel like I’ve made my opinion on grades fairly clear in the past and don’t want to dwell on their problematic structure. However, I do wonder, if before going into surgery we saw our doctors report card, how would we perceive him/her?

Anyway, back on the notion of “learning,” I’ve realized that I often consider myself to have truly learned something if I’m able to teach it to someone else. And to be honest, I feel like if I take all of my education thus far, I don’t know how many things would fall into this category. I’ve done well in school, but I’m not sure if I was always learning. And this includes classes I considered to enjoy based on the subject or teacher.

And I’ve noted that in the education world, we like to talk about “teaching kids how to learn,” but pondering this today I wonder if really we should be trying to teach kids why to learn. I think most kids have a general understanding, even at a young age, that learning takes time and practice. Most of the time when we don’t learn, it’s because we don’t want to. We haven’t been convinced why it should be worth learning something.

The reasons why we learn really don’t need to be obvious or even relevant out of context. For example, as a bit of a tangent story, I believe, and if you ask 75% of my graduating class they’d agree, I learned my 7th-grade vocab words. I was motivated in this case by competition.

We played a game in English class called “Vocab Basketball” where at the end of each week our class would split into teams and be asked vocab questions if we got it right then we got a point for our team and the chance to try making a basket to gain a second point. However, there was more to this game. Each week if you used, read, or heard a vocab word used in a sentence then you could write down the word, how it was used, and what it means and put it in your class bucket. At the end of the week, whichever student in each individual class had the most words got a homework pass, and at the end of the year, whichever class had the most words got a party. First semester only one kid in my class really tried, so he got all of the homework passes. I didn’t really care about the homework passes, but it seemed silly to me that he should get all of them for barely trying at all, so I started trying. Sure enough, we ended up in steep competition, but it was also benefiting our class, so then kids from other classes started trying more in order to attempt to keep up with our class total. We may have been motivated to want to learn due to competition, but we definitely learned. The reason I have no doubts about having learned those words and their meanings is because to this day we will occasionally still point out and use words we recall being on one of our 7th-grade vocab lists. I can’t say the same about vocab words from other years.

Anyway, I got lost in my train of thought on that tangent, but I do wonder still, for the amount I’ve studied this year, how much have I really learned? How much do we learn any year for that matter? How do we choose what we learn? What motivates us to learn? How can we spend more time exploring why we learn certain things and not just how we learn them?

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