Learning about Learning: The Mindset

I have waited more than 4 years to write this post.

Ever since I decided to go back to school to change my career and also prove to myself that I am able to achieve excellence in my academic pursuits.

I didn’t feel like I could be in a place of both credibility and validity if I didn’t prove my ideas and thoughts on what it takes to learn until I tested it and proved it to myself.

Today: I am extremely happy to say that I have been able put my private contemplations on what it means to learn and how to learn; to the test, and after 4 years, they have been proven successful.  What follows is some context unto which I feel I would be in a good position to express what it takes to learn something new and some points to keep in mind as a student and an educator:

The Story (Context)

In 2004, as most students do, I endeavoured on furthering my education after high school.  I went to York University to pursue and complete a Bachelor of Administrative Studies degree.  No honours, no specialization.  I just wanted to get my degree and get the hell out of the there.  I involved myself thoroughly in extra-curricular activities: I was a Public Relations Director for a controversial and well-funded student political group (that experience requires a whole other post of life lessons), and since my classes were in the evening, I was able to attain a full-time job by my third year of university.  Of course, I took 5 years to complete my degree instead of 4 but it didn’t really matter to me.  By the time I had completed my degree, I already had about 3 years of workplace experience under my belt.  The 3 years was long enough for me to come to the following thoughts:

  1. I like this stable paycheck and benefits thing
  2. I like to have money in my savings account
  3. I hate 9-5 work
  4. I’m not too sure about this business admin stuff

You see, the thing is that, I was a closet nerd.  I really REALLY liked science and math but always had the WORSE experience with the subject matter.  My grades couldn’t be any lower in these classes.  I went to school during the time where it was thought that intelligence and academic success was genetic: the ability to successfully understand mathematical and scientific concepts were in your blood: you either had it or you didn’t.  And I was one of the one’s who didn’t.

So I didn’t.  I didn’t pursue science.  I didn’t pursue math.  I pursued what got me good grades: that was English class, that was Business.  I graduated in 2009.  I continued working full time.  I did the everyday, regular thing.  I made good money.  But I was REALLY bored.  And my interest in science, particularly about the human brain didn’t seem to be going away.

I was really scared because I thought to myself:

I can’t do this administrative thing all my life.  And I’m not good at science or math.  But I really like learning about the human brain.  What am I going to do?

Luckily, while doing my own learning and researching about the brain, I also go to understand that intelligence isn’t genetic.  Being able to understand something doesn’t depend on what it says in your DNA.  I also, at the time, read a really important book on epigenetics: The Biology of Belief.  In it, it explained how critical a role the environment plays on your everyday life and how what is around you is essentially what makes you; you.  It was a critical learning.  After some time (about a year or so), I let all of this research seep in.  I took the time to really understand, to really determine how true statements like:

You can learn anything!

The brain is plastic!

Understanding mathematics and science is possible for EVERYONE

; were.  In the meantime, in 2012, I had applied to the Cognitive Science program at York University and was taking evening classes while still working full-time.  I started off pretty strong, getting A’s in my classes, and with that, I started to gain more confidence in myself, and in the new way I was learning about learning.  With the combination of all these events, I decided to take the leap, quit my full time job, and go back to school full-time to complete my Cog Sci degree.

What is important to highlight here, and this is the core to what I’ve learned about what it takes to learn something, is this:

  1. Intelligence is NOT genetic
  2. That the brain is plastic (and this allows for us to learn new things if we are persistent in the practice)
  3. and that picking a subject matter that is of deep interest is of utmost importance

I set a strong intention to excel academically before I even initially applied to my second undergraduate degree (Cog Sci).  And the below is the result:

Business Degree

Bachelor of Administrative Studies: 2004-2009

As you can see, I barely passed my degree in business administration.  My cumulative GPA (CGPA) was right at the minimum requirement in order for me to graduate.  My biggest struggle in this degree were Quantitative Methods 1 and 2 as well as Finance, Financial Accounting and Management Accounting.  My mindset during this degree was:

  1. I just wanted to get this done with
  2. I had no real passion or interest on the subject (except for a few topics here and there)
  3. I didn’t think I had the capacity to do well because I didn’t think I had enough brain chops for it
Cognitive Science

Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science: 2012-2016

My second undergrad degree in Cog Sci tells people a completely different story, and this is the degree that I had with the mindset expressed previously (

  1. Intelligence is NOT genetic
  2. That the brain is plastic (and this allows for us to learn new things if we are persistent in the practice)
  3. and that picking a subject matter that is of deep interest is of utmost importance

)

Though my record is sprinkled with some B’s and B+’s, majority of my grade report is filled with A’s or A+’s.  What was particularly exciting for me was the Introduction to Research Methods class which was another version of my Quantitative Methods 1 in my Admin degree.  Where I got a D in my Admin degree, I ended up with an A in Cog Sci.  Another thing to note is my B grade in Introduction to Calculus with Vectors.  Now a B might not be a big deal for you,but it’s a HUGE deal from me.  Especially someone who was used to BARELY passing anything math related, getting that B was a huge accomplishment.

How to learn: For Students

But this post isn’t necessarily about my story, that could be a separate post.  What I want to impart are the lessons I learned and things I know to be true in matters related to learning.  I wanted to provide the above details so you know that I’m not just talking out of my ass.

But without further ado, below are the things I learned about learning as a student:

  1. Knowledge of Scientific and Mathematical Concepts IS NOT GENETIC

    • I’m hoping that we are well past this concept but just in case we’re not, I feel it necessary to point this out.  YOU CAN LEARN ANYTHING.  TRULY ANYTHING. The tools you NEED to learn anything is a different story: and this is what makes learning challenging.  Those tools are TIME and FOCUS.  It’s so difficult for us to find time in such busy lifestyles.  And it’s equally challenging to focus when there are so many distracting things around us.  You have to be internally motivated.  Then it will make turning off your phone, or setting aside the time that you need; a little easier.
  2. Really think about why you’re studying what you’re studying

    • We make decisions on what academic pursuits will essentially give us more money, more influence, more power.  Hell, I fell victim to this.  But what you will end up finding if you make your choices this way is a whole lot of bitterness, emptiness and void of feeling challenged in any significant way.  I am of the strong opinion that as humans, we are not built to make decisions based on money, or influence, or power.  Rather, we are meant to build a life that is meaningful, and purposeful, and above all: helpful.  It NEEDS to be something that is of deep interest to you.  Then it won’t matter in what circumstance you’re learning what you need to be learning, or training what you need to train for; be it personal, financial, or professional challenges.  If what you’re pursuing is something that is TRULY internally motivated; you’ll find a way to get through it.  And this is also something I would like offer parents, guidance counsellors, and any other individual who often provides advice to youth or people to keep in mind
  3. Be real with yourself

    • Are you failing a class/not understanding what’s happening because you are really not getting it or because you’re not putting in the time? Because let me tell you: in retrospect, since I didn’t give a shit about how I did in my business degree, I can’t really say, honestly, that I gave challenging classes a solid shot, even though I said I did.  Sure, I did all the practice problems, but I would also turn to the answer at the back of the book.  Sure I went to all the classes, but I never came to class prepared nor did I review my notes after class.  Sure I got a tutor, but I relied on them to give me the answers.  All of these things show me that I wasn’t working hard enough.  I wasn’t taking the time to understand concepts and ideas.  And yes, sometimes, I remember being tested on things that were not covered in class and were probably not really fair, but I didn’t have control over that.  And how was it that despite having subject matter that wasn’t covered in class, some students did OK whereas I did horribly? It wasn’t because they were better than me.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t giving myself a good solid chance at learning it.  Maybe it was because I was still stuck in the mindset that I didn’t have what it took to learn it.  So when you’re struggling with something, really ask yourself whether it’s circumstances that are out of your control, or things YOU can do to improve and step up your game.
  4. Be broke and Hustle

    • I was really comfortable while studying my first undergrad degree.  I had a full time job, I was pretty well known around campus in my respective department; life was really comfortable for me.  I didn’t give a shit about my grades because I had no intention of pursuing anything beyond my undergrad degree, and, also, I wasn’t interested in the subject matter anyway.  I had no real reason to push myself.  My Cog Sci degree was a whole other story.  I wasn’t able to work full-time and I realized that I can’t get anywhere in Neuroscience with an undergrad degree which meant grad programs, which meant: my grades needed to be excellent.  I was broke, but God Damn I hustled to get those grades.  By my final semester, I was exhausted.  But I’ve also gotten valuable life lessons:
      1. A new found confidence
      2. An understanding and proof that I can learn anything I set my mind to
      3. I belong in any world that I want to be in
      4. I’m just as competent as anyone else
      5. I don’t like being broke
  5. Congratulate yourself on your OWN wins

    • Every body’s goals are different. Everyone’s accomplishments and definition of success is different.  Don’t let someone else’s expectations of themselves make you feel any less about what you’ve accomplished.  Take again the example I provided above regarding the B in my math class.  I’m not blind to the world, I understand a B isn’t a big deal.  But it was a HUGE deal for me considering my history related to the topic.
  6. Take your time

    • I know.  You’re in a rush to get shit done.  But I cannot tell you how important it is for you to take your time.  Take a year break between high school and university.  Or if you can, take a break in the middle of pursuing your undergraduate degree.  Go travel somewhere.  Better yet, go get a job for a year.  Make sure that whatever you’re studying or wanting to come back to REALLY is something you wish to be trained in.  Sure, there are benefits of going to school at the same age as everyone else.  But as someone who completed her second undergraduate degree at the age of 31 and was working alongside 20 somethings: I have to say, there were many more benefits being slightly more mature while studying than not.

My list for learning about learning for educators:

  1. We don’t need to get fancy about things

    • Everyone is concerned about how to make a subject more interesting and how to engage students.  Well here’s the thing: we don’t necessarily need to do anything, really.  What is important to understand here, is that, if we give students; if we give people the space to pursue what they want to pursue, then we don’t really need to be concerned about how to engage them.  The engagement comes automatically, and it comes WITH the student.  And what’s better with keeping this mind, is that the interest and motivation to continue and strive for excellence is internally generated which is much more powerful than any external bells and whistles can provide.  In fact, I found that the fancier professors got with their teaching styles, the more distracted I became.  What we need to do is nurture people’s interests and show them pathways they can take to learn and train more on whatever  it is they wish to pursue.  Not what technological platform to use to keep the attention of students.
  2. We underestimate the power and influence of internal motivation

    • This plays off of my first point but I feel needs to be isolated and acknowledged in its own right.  When students are internally motivated, there’s no need to have to think about how you’re going to get students in your class, or how to get them to participate and really engage in the material.  In fact, efforts to do this, to a student that actually does care, is almost insulting and really de-motivating.  Genuine, internally motivated students will get the work done, regardless, because they have defined and clarified why they are there in the first place
  3. How you organize and present your material is so important

    • Using tactics to try to increase attendance to your class won’t matter one bit if how you’re presenting your subject matter is un-interesting.  I would have to say that it is the biggest shame when a subject is intrinsically interesting but the way that it is taught is utterly horrendous.  Students will participate and show up to your class if you’ve taken the time to organize and present your content in an interesting and unique light.  And you won’t need to feel like you have to use fancy technology because we will be engaged regardless
  4. Encouraging students to take their time with their education

    • I think this is one of the most important insights I have gained.  We’re all in such a rush to get trained and get back in the workplace that people are unable to really think about the benefits of taking breaks in between your training and/or educational pursuits.  Going to school as a more mature being gives you the fundamental benefit of being really clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing.  Being older while attending school also gives students the benefit of having more “real-world” experience that they can use and apply while studying.  So encourage students to take a break from school every now and then!

In the end, if I had to give students three points on how to learn anything, it would be:

  1. Learn what you’re interested in learning and know that your brain is plastic
  2. Hustle and be real with yourself
  3. Give yourself the time to learn what you need to learn

Cheers and Happy Learning!

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2 thoughts on “Learning about Learning: The Mindset

  1. Hi – I stumbled on your site via instagram yesterday. Sad that some of the older posts have disappeared. I’m glad though that I could read this one. I’m 32 and also thinking of going back to school for a more focused degree in science. I’ve been a huge nerd all my life but ended up in an office for the last 5 years and know that for the remainder of my life, it’s not for me.

    Anyway – this post made me happy and gave me more faith that its never a bad time to change directions in life to do something that brings more meaning and purpose to your efforts.

    Thanks for writing and sharing your experience – pls keep it up!

    • Hello Kavita,

      Thank you for your kind words. Im so happy that my story is helping you.

      Im actually just cleaning my blog up-will be improving some of the posts and adding new content.

      Do keep in touch!

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