Five Tips to Take Your Learning Off Autopilot

I think the most important lesson any teacher can teach their students is that education is not a passive experience. This idea hit me the other day as I was walking through the library looking at all the books I wanted to read. It got me thinking about what I was like in high school and most of college and how I hadn't really learned how to learn until recently.

In high school, I was a pretty excellent student. AP classes, all A's, top 5 in my class -- the usual accolades for a high school all-star. Despite (or maybe because of) all this, I don't think I really learned all that much. I was good at giving my teachers what they expected and absorbing the information they presented. I did little to no outside investigation of the topics we were learning in class and I didn't ask many questions either. I saw my job as being a passive sponge to acquire as much "knowledge" as possible.

Once I entered college, not much changed. I still got good grades because I could write well and recite information. I also began to do a better job synthesizing multiple viewpoints into my own, unique point of view. However, I was mostly just High-School-Sam +1. It wasn't until my last couple semesters of college that I began to take an active role in my education. I'm not sure what finally flipped the switch in my mind, but I began to realize that there was so much more I should be learning about than what was covered in the few classes I was taking.

Ever since that time, I've tried to be as active as possible in my self-education. Reading one book will raise a list of questions and topics that I want to know more about. I take time to actually sit down and learn about something new on a daily basis. I'm grateful that I finally started to figure it out, but I can't help but wonder what I would be like if I had figured this out in high school.

I want to give anybody who has recently graduated high school a couple words of advice about not being passive. This is coming from a guy who wishes he could go back and do it again even though I was "successful" by most standards.

  1. Explore everything: You don't want to pigeonhole yourself too early. There is so much more out there than what you are exposed to in school. I hadn't even heard of positive psychology until my Intro to Pysch class in college, and even then it was only in passing. Once I started reading more about it I realized that this was something I found insanely interesting. I didn't even think about it in high school because psychology wasn't a class that I took. Don't let your classes restrict your mind.
  2. Read things you don't understand: You read things in high school that are specifically selected for your "level". College gets away from that a little bit, but you still won't be exposed to the true breadth of reading material that is available. Don't be intimidated by something that is supposedly "hard" to read. Worst case scenario, you don't understand everything but you've stretched your mind by trying.
  3. Read things you don't agree with: One of the best ways to figure out what you truly believe, and why, is to read things you know you don't agree with. It's helpful to see the thought process and reasoning behind the "other side". Don't get caught up in choosing sides over controversial topics. Read about every aspect and you'll be able to make a much better decision for yourself.
  4. Ask for help: I wish I had talked to my teachers more in college. Up until my senior year, my contact with professors was extremely limited. During my last year, however, I made it a habit to stop by their office hours and talk to them as much as possible out of class. You'll quickly discover that this will put you in the minority of your classmates and that your professors love talking about their area of expertise. At no time in your life will you have such unfettered access to legitimate experts. Don't waste it!
  5. Write about the process: Writing helps you articulate your thoughts in a way that nothing else can. Reflecting on what you're learning, questions you still have, and thoughts about your education is such a powerful tool.

Most of us have already spent our time in the school system and no longer have "mandated learning." Not being passive in our self-education is probably even more important than not being passive in our formal education. This is a topic for another day, but it is one that I am becoming more and more passionate about.

How do you take charge when it comes to self-education? How active were you during your formal education?