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Lies About Learning

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“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” —  Paulo Coelho

In “The Worst Lies I Love to Tell Myself,” Gustavo Razzetti writes that we make decisions based not only on logic, we are also heavily influenced by emotion. It is this emotion that causes us to lie to ourselves, because we naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance and rationalize in order to avoid tension.

When it comes to higher education, choosing the path of least resistance seems at odds with why we assume students choose to attend college. Yet, it is a human response to challenges we face, even with those we seek for ourselves like obtaining a college degree.

Razzetti claims that the main reason we lie to ourselves is because we cannot resolve the tension from our cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort created when our behavior does not match what we say we believe. Because we cannot sit with that discomfort, we create a lie that makes having both of these exist a bit more comfortable. When it comes to learning, students might experience cognitive dissonance if they say they believe good sleep is key to academic performance, but they stay up all night playing video games or cramming for a test. Another example is skipping class throughout the semester while simultaneously believing that attending class is important.

An occasional skipped class or all-nighter isn’t going to make or break a student. However, as Coelho says, if the goal is success, it is important that students do not lie to themselves as a way of excusing their lack of meeting academic demands and maximizing their program’s opportunities.

Lies about learning can prevent a student from building study techniques and resources that enable them to not only be successful in class, but to develop the critical thinking skills needed in today’s workplace. Students who believe lies about learning may be using and repeating study strategies with no proof that they work or any idea where they learned them from in the first place.

What are the main lies about learning students tell themselves? What is the truth students can empower themselves with instead? We have three to explore.

“I’ll re-read the chapters before the test and be fine.”

The common saying may be “less is more” but ask most students before an exam, and they may disagree. This can be a time of excess: Excess coffee, highlighters, late nights, and reading, all close to the exam date. This lie about learning is built on two other lies. First, that learning happens by osmosis— simply reading the information will cause it be absorbed into one’s brain in a way that is understandable, accessible, and functional. Second, that trying to re-stuff this knowledge into your brain closer to the test is an effective way to ensure you remember it.

Relying on this “one more time” approach to be the linchpin of acing an exam is a gamble. What’s the smarter study technique that’s scientifically proven? Spaced repetition, a strategic system of learning material in chunks of time strategically spaced for optimal recall. Not only is spaced repetition more effective, it is also more efficient. It is a student’s dream: spending less time studying and getting better grades. Or, as medical student James Gupta explains in The Guardian, spaced repetition is the ultimate brain hack. It’s how to work smarter, not harder. This is critical since the brain can only remember five to seven pieces of new information at a time.

“I don’t have to take notes because I pay attention in class.”

While the the previous lie can be disastrous leading up to an exam, this lie creates a high-risk situation from the first day of class. The mistake here is assuming that, even if a student is 100% focused and attentive for an entire class period, a professor is wonderfully engaging, and lecture notes are regularly available to the class, the mind will be able to recall a semester’s worth of information as if they are stored files on a computer.

While some students may be auditory learners, the learning process itself still demands engagement to result in retention and understanding. Take, for example, this video from Edutopia that explains how drawing can help students remember what they learn. They reference a study that showed that students who drew information remembered it twice as much as students who wrote it. Their corresponding article about the science of memory and drawing illuminates that being an active learner is key to being a successful student.  

Of course, there is no magic in simply taking notes during class. Taking notes while reading the textbook and also during class, then consolidating these to build your own reference material can, instead, be a more engaging process. Note-taking tips and strategies are important for students to learn and are usually included in academic coaching (more on that below). What is ideal about this for Generation Z, who prefers personalized experiences, is that students can choose a style that works for them or compare strategies to find their best fit. For example, Oxford Learning covers five effective note-taking methods students can choose from, including the Cornell, mapping, and charting methods.

“I don’t need help. I just need to study more.”

A final lie about learning is that success comes only by individual achievement. This is not so much about whether a student prefers to study alone or in groups, but the overall belief about the learning process. Rather than a transactional experience where an instructor imparts information to a student who then applies it to a test, an alternative view is that learning can be more successful as a community process, one where learning transpires in a more meaningful way by interaction with peers and faculty, both formally and informally, through conversations and experiences.

It is not only the engagement of this community process that supports better learning but also being open to others and receiving (or asking for) help. This illustrates again that it is not just about spending more time “studying” but how that time is used to activate the brain into engaging with the material in effective ways. Asking for help does not have to be in response to academic stress when one is struggling, but to minimize academic stress and ensure a clear path to success.

Academic coaching and tutoring are two ways students can create a team of support who offer strategies that work. Academic coaching can increase a student’s preparedness for academic success, whereas tutoring can bolster a student’s academic confidence and understanding in a particular subject matter. Academic coaching at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, for example, helps students set goals, take action, stay accountable, and balance life. None of this is a student “studying more,” but all of it is critical to knowing how to study in order to find success. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville outlines “why” and “when” a student should meet with an academic coach and notes their data shows students who utilize this coaching regularly achieve higher academic success.

Lies about learning can misguide students and keep them from true success. How can your institution play a role in combating these lies about learning and provide access to proven resources that better equip students for their academic programs?