- Student Experience in Life Science or Pre-Medical Programs at U of T: Part 1
- Student Experiences in Life Science Programs at U of T: Part 2
- Learning to Learn - A U of T Undergrad's Experience: Part 1
- Learning to Learn: A U of T Undergrad's Experience: Part 2
- Teaching 101: From a Student's Perspective
- My Life is Average
Learning to Learn - A U of T Undergrad's Experience: Part 1
by Erin Macpherson
Studying for an introductory psychology course with my roommate in first year was always an entertaining experience. For every new concept we learned, it seemed that she could think of an anecdote of a ridiculous ex-boyfriend, or a character in the novel she was reading, or a memory from childhood, which exemplified the concept. Relating the material to her life helped her to understand and remember it better, and I found myself starting to use the same technique.
At this point, I was still an unseasoned first-year student overwhelmed by daunting class sizes and seemingly unrealistic academic expectations. As a new university student, I made rookie studying mistake. I studied long hours without taking a break, and copied my notes verbatim from the textbook. Since then, I have learned how to be a better learner. While many of the specifics I learned in past courses have faded away, I still carry with me the learning skills I’ve gained along the way. Being a neuroscience and psychology student has helped with this learning process-- the subject matter itself is full of research-proven strategies for more effective learning.
Cognitive psychology tells us that relating information to personal experience, as my roommate did while studying for her test, does indeed help us remember it better-- this is called the self-reference effect. Skimming a text gives only the “gist” of the content, but deeper processing of the meaning of that text allows for better long-term memory. The spacing effect shows studying is more beneficial if material is studied in small chunks, with frequent breaks in your study session. Neuroscience tells us that cramming the night before the test won’t help you remember for the long term-- repeated practice of material is needed to maintain the structural changes in the brain associated with long-term memory.
The instructors of these courses teach with these insights about learning in mind. The positive learning experiences they created encouraged me to use many of these strategies more. They helped me become a better learner, and to learn their material better. In his introductory human behavioural biology class, Dr. Franco Taverna assigns debates, where students use neuroscience research to argue their stance on an everyday topic. These debates encourage deeper processing of the class material, obliging students to evaluate and synthesize information to decide what is important and how best to prove their argument. Students can choose research articles that interest them to support their argument, which makes the project more interesting and meaningful. Dr.Taverna also assigns a “semi-scientific” book called “The Brain that Changes itself” instead of a textbook. It is a book written for general audiences, full of success stories where neuroscience research has helped people. The book personalizes the subject of neuroscience for students, which is essential, says Dr.Taverna. The book can be used as a platform for further expansion and questioning in class, allowing a deeper type of processing than the superficial processing involved with simply reading and memorizing a text for an exam.
Gillian Rowe teaches an introductory cognitive psychology class and tries to include interesting and memorable features in the class. This includes personal anecdotes, clinical examples from her work, in-class demonstrations and relevant videos. For the term paper, Rowe provides an example of a well done paper as a model for students to follow. She believes that students should copy a well done paper, rather than something found online that may or may not be done correctly. She believes that students should not be expected to produce a paper that they have not been taught to write. Even though it is an introductory course, she believes that making it interesting and enjoyable for students will make it more memorable. Above all, she hopes that creating a positive and enjoyable learning experience will encourage students to continue in her field. Courses that are relevant, doable, interesting, and engaging, really do capture the attention of students, and leave long-lasting memory traces.
Undergraduate education is challenging, and is certainly a learning experience, with respect to both subject matter and developing effective study skills. Through developing my own personal strategies, as well as using the strategies that neuroscience and psychology recommend, I’ve learned how I learn best. What I’ve found most significant for my learning is finding a connection with what I’m studying. The best learning experiences have been when both the instructor, and myself, have made the course material engaging. If the professor makes the class relevant and inspirational, and the student goes further by using deep processing and repeated practice during studying, the best learning results—the material captures our hearts, and minds.