4 Steps to (REALLY) Remember What You Learn

“You don’t really know something until you teach it to someone else.”

As a teacher, I know this to be true. Whenever I thought I knew something and I had to teach it to someone, realized how little I actually knew. Don’t believe me? Try it.

If you can make a cheesecake or skateboard or solve complex math equations or whatever and you have been able to do it as long as you can remember, good for you. You’re a natural.  Trouble is that other people can’t do the thing you can do, but many of them want to. Try teaching them how to do that thing. What happens?

You have to think through the process. You have to think through how and why what you do and then systematically explain it to another person who doesn’t understand how to do it and may lack the physical or mental qualities you have. If you’ve tried this, then you probably have felt some frustration when they just didn’t seem to get it.

The Curse of Knowledge

Professors feel the same way when they teach college students. They know their subjects. They almost cannot remember a time when they didn’t know the concept or have the skill. When you are struggling, they sometimes seem unsympathetic. What is happening is that they have the “Curse of Knowledge.” As terrible as that sounds and as frustrating as it can be, someday it will happen to you too.

For now you have to to chemistry or macro-economics with a person who (hopefully) knows his/her stuff and they are trying to help you understand. They don’t know what your background is in the subject and they keep using vocabulary or equations that you don’t know, other people in the room seem to get and you are expected to keep up. So what do you do?

1) Find a partner outside of the class. Tell that person that you need help studying. If they know as much or less than you do, it’s perfect. The best helpers are people who are curious and can ask a lot of questions, an elementary school kid or a grandparent who is spry would be terrific. As them if you can meet with them once or twice per week to “teach” them what you are learning in your class.  If they agree, make a standing time every week through the semester.

2) Go to class and take notes on everything. Keep in mind that you are going to use those notes to teach them what you are learning. If part of the learning comes from what you have read in a textbook or watched in a presentation or video, take notes on them too. Think about the questions your helper is likely to ask you and make sure you prepare. If you need to use part of a PowerPoint® or online video, make sure you have it available.

3) Teach your partner as much as you know. Try to teach your helper as best as you can. Use any materials you can, even if you had to go beyond the textbook or what your instructor said to explain it. Make sure they can answer questions about the chapter, subject, skill or concept. Encourage them to ask you many questions. If you cannot answer a question, go back to your instructor or the textbook or research to get the answers you need. Get them excited or interested in the thing you are learning.

4) Every two or three sessions, quiz them with questions you have generated. You can start with some of the chapter questions that are in most books, but use the questions they have asked you to see if they were really paying close attention to your answers. Make up your own questions. Quiz them until they seem to know the topic well. If you have a test coming up, make sure you quiz them with questions or study guides that you have.

If you follow these steps, a number of things are likely to happen:

  • You will learn the material better than you ever have before
  • You will likely, do well in the class
  • You will know what you grasp and what you still don’t understand before you are tested on it
  • You will ask better questions in class
  • You will take the best notes of your life
  • You will, likely, cultivate a meaningful relationship with your partner

Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you.


How to Fail a College Class– 4 Surefire Ways to Self Destruct THIS Semester!


“Anyone who works hard enough at failure won’t be denied”  –Gene Kremin

So you’ve decided to take a college class and you want to fail, but your not really sure how. Take a few moments to read and I will share the secrets with you. I have been teaching for a long time and my current job is that of college professor, but I have taught high school, junior high and adult education. So if you are thinking about failure, this post should provide you with everything you need to know.

1) Don’t show up for class.

I know this one seems like a “no-brainer” here, but I have seen this perfected to an art form. If you are taking classes and you show up for even one (especially during add/drop) your professor will probably note your attendance.  If you are in a large school with large lectures, they still will be checking to see if the students on the roster are the sorry souls they have in the room. It has something to do with financial aid, but don’t worry about it.

Showing up for class and being prepared (we’ll get to that one in a minute) communicate interest and the possibility that you want to learn something. If you are grooming the perfect distain for your professor, your parents, your classmates or if you just want to wear distain like the lovely fashion accessory it is, DO NOT ATTEND CLASS.  It is nice to mingle your “not-showing-up” with a few cameo appearances where you ignore what is being said, text your friends about how lame this class/professor/group of students/the college happens to be. Be sure to display what an absolute waste of time the class is by failing to read materials, asking inappropriate questions and flout any due dates you see in the syllabus.

For extra style points, confuse the instructor by getting your name on roster and then not show up until after add/drop. Then complain to the registrar that you have been dropped from the class and go to the professor and tell him/her how incensed you are that you were dropped.

If you are taking an online class, it is especially important for you to not attend, but it requires a degree of technical sophistication. Make sure you log into you Learning Management System (LMS) so that you are recorded as attending the class.  Open assignments and quizzes. Skip around so that your professor knows you were there, but don’t complete anything and don’t communicate with the professor.  If you want to make things interesting, call tech support and get them involved.

2) Don’t prepare.

This tip is for those of you who cannot successfully complete strategy one.  Many of you working at failure need to offer someone the illusion that you care about the education and you need to keep up the appearances.  Your parents/financial aid officers/recruiters/coaches/probation officers/employers need to believe something about you being a student and learning stuff or earning a degree. If that isn’t true you should just tell yourself that their expectations aren’t really your problem.

The good news here is that if you are coming straight from high school into college, this will be a relatively easy feat for you. You probably have had at least a decade to practice coming to most classes with very little expected of you. Most classes since about sixth grade have been review anyhow and you have known that high school is about collecting correct answers and you knew that whatever you needed to know, the teacher was going to review anyway.  So DON’T READ the materials for class.

For extra style points, don’t buy the textbooks required for your classes. Come to class with a new reason why you haven’t bought the text and leave it vague and open-ended whether you would buy the text. Explain why you think it is stupid anyhow that you have to spend all this stupid money on all these books that you will never use anyway. I mean, they didn’t make you buy them in high school right? Why should this be different?

3) Don’t communicate when you are having trouble.

If you are having trouble completing strategies one and two, this one will really advance you in your goal.  This strategy really comes in handy when you need to look like you are trying and you need to keep your desire to fail a secret. Your professor has published his/her email, office phone and office hours in the syllabus, so you need to exercise care when avoiding communication because there are so many ways to be tricked into calling or emailing a question that your professor might readily answer and then you’d be responsible for doing something. Failing is much easier when you have someone to take the fall for you.

Most colleges have learning centers to help students with questions in subject areas.  They have tutors and student led review session and open study areas for science, math, literature, writing, research. Do not be lured into such a place. These places will discover some of the strategies you are using and will attempt to help you correct your behavior. They will be perplexed about your true ends, to achieve failure and they shouldn’t be involved.

For extra style points, send your professor cryptic messages either after class or in an email. Your professor needs to know that you are confused, but not in a specific way more in a general way, like you are complaining about the subject matter or their style of teaching or the time of day the class meets or some obligation you have that keeps you from really understanding the material. For a power up, when you email, don’t identify yourself or what class you are in, just dive right into your complaint.  This email will establish your argument later in the Dean’s Office as to why you are failing and who is responsible.  Certainly it won’t be you.

4) Don’t make any friends.

This is critical and it is especially for those of you who are not successful with the first 3 strategies. If you have people in the class with whom you talk and the reason you know each other is that you are in the same class. Again, high school has been a great help in this regard also. You undoubtedly have learned that you are only responsible for yourself, your work and your grades in high school. Subject matter in high school has been divided into discreet and disconnected sections and any discussion of subject matter was important if it was going to be on Friday’s quiz. Also, you are painfully aware, that all discussions about subject matter ceases when the bell rings and classes change.

If you make friends and begin to talk about the topics discussed in class, you might be mistaken for a person who cares and might want to learn something.  Also, any of the other strategies you are employing to achieve failure might be discovered and you would be expected to explain the reasons you intend to fail.  If you are in a conversation with a group of people with to whom you are not related who you care about (a.k.a “friends”) they might try to help you pass or worse, form a study group where you would face social pressure to review materials, work on projects and if you aren’t careful, you might end up enjoying yourself.

Critical point: If you have friends in class then you might be able to get information that you missed, either because you don’t have notes or because you you missed class.  Other members of the class will know about when assignments are due or where to find bits of information that you missed.  You will have a MUCH harder time failing if you get this information from them.

If you follow these simple steps, you will be sure to fail. You might even be able to convince yourself that someone else is the reason you failed, but don’t let anyone take your credit; it will be all you.

5 Bad Habits High School Students Learn that Won’t Help Them in College

“Human beings get better at what they practice.”

I tell my students that at the beginning of my course “Introduction to the College Experience.” They are all taking my class because the school I work for recognizes that many students are coming to college without the skills and behaviors they need to be successful. It’s largely because of what they have been practicing and most of them are coming from the K12 system as their last educational experiences.
Also, having taught high school and junior high school and adult education before becoming a college professor, I know the skills that those institutions value. Even if you have never taught high school, most of us remember what it was like being 17 or 18 years old and still asking permission to use the toilet. Practicing that and other behaviors long enough and it does something to you. So what lies does one learn in high school that will need to be unlearned?
LIE NUMBER ONE: Compliance is a prized character trait.
High schools tend to prize students who are compliant with the rules that create order and efficiency in that system.  Think about it for a second. Can you close your eyes right now and picture the “good students” that you went to school with? Weren’t they the people who either followed all the rules or at least charmed the teachers and administrators into thinking they followed the rules?
Fact is that many high school students think that the rules of school are laid out for their benefit and if they follow them all, we will do well. What actually happens is they lose their “intellectual virginity” when they give up on what they think is important and comply with what is expected of them.
Think of it like this: Do you remember when you started taking multiple choice tests? I recall doing it in about 3rd grade. At some point, we all read a question that had an ABCD answer we were supposed to select, but in our hearts, we felt that none of the answers were correct, but the thought enters our heads, “What do THEY want me to say?” We pick C or whatever because we believe it is the one that will get us points on the test. We comply and learn to value what someone else wants over what we care about. For lots of us, we have to unlearn that throughout our lives.
LIE NUMBER TWO:  Someone else will plan your schedule.
One of the skills I work on in my classes is to teach students how to manage their academic time. This is done in a variety of ways, from planning what classes to take (so they know how long it will actually take to graduate) to planning time to study for tests or get their reading done.
Part of the reason I have a job is because many of these students have not have not learned these skills. It’s not that they’ve never heard of them before, but they’ve never had to practice them before. They have gone to school and picked up their schedules that their guidance counselors have made for them so that their lives from 7:30AM – 2:30PM, five days a week, was planned out for them for 4 years. My students knew that if they followed the rules (See Lie Number One) then they will graduate on time.
When they get to college, there is no guidance counselor who tells you what to do to get into the programs they want. They begin to realize, in my classes at least, that there is no ONE way to get to graduation or that successful career they are looking for. There is a dizzying array of classes and majors and internships and programs and scholarship deadlines. Often they want me or an advisor to tell them what to do. While I am happy to help them plan, and many of them sit in my office to do that, when they express how difficult this planning is, I tell them: “Welcome to the rest of your life.”
LIE NUMBER THREE: Teachers will always care about your success more than you do.
As a former high school teacher and as a younger person, I got into the whole teaching gig because I wanted to help people learn. High school teachers often equate “learning” with “doing well in my classes.” That being the case, high school teachers often will make a way for students to “be successful in classes” that has little to do with learning in their classes.
When a student has done nothing all semester and comes to a teacher during the last week before grades are due and cries “How can I pass this class? My parents are going to kill me if I fail?” Or some version of this (“I’m going to get kicked off the football team” OR “My car insurance rates will go up.” High school teachers often fall for this line of reasoning. They care too much to let the student fail on his/her own. They create extra credit assignments or alternative ways for students to pass without having them put in the time that the other students who did the work and showed up in the class have been doing.
In college, this is not a helpful behavior. Professors are not invested in whether or not you pass the class or even attend the class.  While many professors need to keep a record of who attended classes for financial aid, they have little investment in whether students turn in assignments or pass classes.  High school students who have been practicing behaviors where their teachers want them to pass more than they do are in for a hard lesson.
LIE NUMBER FOUR: Grade grubbing is more important than learning.
Grade grubbing, the practice of scrounging for points to pass the class. is a time-honored tradition in education. While I cannot say that it doesn’t go on in higher education, it does seem to be a learned behavior that starts in junior high and high school. Let me be a little philosophical for a moment on this.
American education is steeped in the behaviorist tradition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behaviorism). Students learn early that if they listen to the teacher, follow instructions and complete activities without disruption, they will be rewarded. Conversely, if they do not, they will be punished (this is the internal logic embedded in LIE NUMBER ONE). Behaviorist believe in a system of “target behaviors” (i.e. “learning the stuff”) and set about coercing students into those behaviors by a system of “reinforcements” (i.e. good work=rewards from the teacher, bad work/no work=punishment from the teacher).
In his book, Punished by Rewards (http://www.alfiekohn.org/books/pbr.htm), Alfie Kohn, debunks the relationship between target behaviors and reinforcements. It seems that, according to Kohn’s research, the more a student concentrates on this reinforcements/target behaviors system, the more the student shifts his/her focus from the target behavior (learning) to the reinforcement (reward or punishment). So it is easy to see K12 education as a highly refined system where learning is less prized than grades, and high school students refine the techniques they use to get the prizes for the least amount of effort, while ignoring the actual reason they are there.
In college, many classes and programs (especially the really good ones) pose interesting questions and come to understanding materials or acquire skills related to that discipline through tests, but often projects, group work, rubrics and other external evaluations. Work is often taken outside of the confines of the classroom and feedback comes from places beyond the control of the instructor. High school students who practiced in the number of points they can collect from an instructor will not be prepared for the different facets (benefits and pitfalls) inherent in this type of learning, which again is a large part of the really interesting academic and professional activities they could be involved in.
LIE NUMBER FIVE: Doing well on standardized tests is something you will need later in life.
While standard testing seems to be a staple in the experience of K12 educators, most college do not really on standardized testing in their programs. True, that colleges use placement tests (like the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer, COMPASS or PERT) as part of their admission processes, most college recognize most placement test don’t predict how well a student will do beyond one or two semesters.
Many professors either write their own tests or draw test questions from a test bank that comes from their textbook publishers.  They are not standardized for all students in all classes in the state or in that discipline or even in the same class that is taught be different instructors on the same campus at the same school. Professors have academic freedom to teach their courses as they see fit.
Even if they use multiple choice (or other objective) test, they will not be telling you whether or not you know what you need to know about that subject or discipline.  Students will have to make that determination.  Students need to know, as they near their professional aspirations, whether or not what they are learning is in line with what they need to know for their professions.
It is a good habit to know what is the expectation for your profession or discipline rather than relying totally on your professors and simply the tests they use. Let’s face it, we have all had bad teachers. Standardized or objective tests don’t tell you who you are, don’t measure intangibles (like perseverance, engagement or just plain hard work). High school habits where one believes one knows something or can do something simply because he/she passed the knowledge test about it is about defies what most of us actually know. If that were the case, no one would smoke, no one would get HIV/AIDS and no one would be pregnant who didn’t want to be. Simply put, the practice of a thing is different than knowing about a thing,
Be careful what habits you practice.
by Mark Hendrix – a professor at Palm Beach State College (www.palmbeachstate.edu) in Palm Beach County, Florida, who teaches “Introduction to the College Experience,” “Career Development” and “Introduction to Leadership.” He also serves as an editor for Bedford/St. Martins and as a faculty consultant for McGrawHill. He has taught high school, adult education, college and university classes in Minnesota, Kansas and Florida.