There’s a lot of talk recently about how college is a waste of time and money.
And I can’t say that I disagree completely.
But college still has its merits and for many people who don’t want to be entrepreneurs, it’s still necessary.
Although I technically haven’t even used my degree, that doesn’t mean I didn’t gain anything from it.
What you gain from college depends on you. Some people walk away with an expensive piece of paper. Others walk away with a new perspective on life. Unfortunately, too many people walk away brainwashed and confused.
You have to decide what you are going to gain from the experience. You are investing your two most valuable resources, after all – time and money.
However, there is one thing that everyone needs to walk away with. One skill that you will need for the rest of your life. A skill that you can strengthen greatly in college.
In this post I’m going to share three things with you:
- The most important benefit of college
- How that skill carries over to real life
- How to learn that skill without college
Pay attention to those people who condemn college, yet they themselves have a degree. You’ll notice that they ALL posses this skill, whether they gained it from college or not.
The Only Skill You NEED From College
I discovered something as I was nearing graduation. I started reflecting on my overall experience.
Was it worth it? Did it live up to my expectations?
It was worth it, yes, but it didn’t live up to my expectations.
My biggest problem with college is the emphasis on learning theory instead of learning application. And the ridiculous amount of boring and useless classes you have to take to fulfill all of the requirements for a degree.
Because I worked my way through college, I understood that real education comes from experience and doesn’t happen in a classroom.
As I reflected, I concluded that there’s only one valuable skill that I had gained from college – and fortunately, it was the only skill I needed to gain anyways.
Learning How to Learn
Knowing how to learn, specifically how you learn best, is one of the most valuable life skills a person can have.
Have you ever noticed that the school system doesn’t teach this? They only teach this skill to students who they believe have learning disabilities or do poorly in school. Why wouldn’t this be mandatory for all students to learn very early on? Maybe because empowering kids to be independent thinkers was never part of the plan. Just a thought..
I haven’t used my degree yet, but I have used my ability to learn – a lot.
Like many people, I never really needed to study much in high school. There were a few final exams that required maybe 4-5 hours of studying, but that was it. I usually just reviewed some notes the night before.
In college, I was challenged for the first time. I had no study habits built up. I had no idea how much time and effort it really took to study for a difficult exam.
But by the time I graduated, that all changed.
I learned how to learn.
Your time with professors is limited. You can only learn so much in that time. And unless you are very interested in the subject, you absorb very little during that time. Which means you have to rely on yourself. When you study, you are teaching yourself that subject.
And everything I’ve done in the real world has been self-taught. Every business venture, every goal, and every hobby.
Of course, I’ve had help from others. But, again, seeking advice and learning from others is a personal endeavor. No one is going to hunt you down and hand over all of their knowledge.
People have a misconception that you have to be smart to be good at learning. That’s simply not true. (Although, it certainly helps)
You have to work hard to be good at learning. And the better you develop that skill, the smarter you will become.
If you have learned how to learn, there’s no excuse for not knowing how to do something.
You learn how to do it and then you go do it. That’s it.
What other skill can produce a bigger return on investment of your time?
Learn how to learn and you can learn how to do anything.
From College to the Real World
There are two types of things you will learn:
- What you want to learn
- What you have to learn
I take a different approach for each one.
The Magnet Approach
It’s always easier to learn what we want to learn.
In college, I learned the most from subjects/professors that I found interesting.
In these situations I could listen to the professor, without taking detailed notes, and absorb most of the material. I would jot down things that I should look into further, outside of class. I would talk about it with friends or it would at least be in the back of my mind often.
Overall, the approach was more laid-back.
In the real world, I’ve had to learn a lot more than I did in school. But most of it has been enjoyable.
When you are interested in a subject, knowledge is attracted to you.
You become a learning magnet when two things occur:
- You have a genuine interest
- You regularly seek out various sources of information
Reading books/blogs, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and asking for advice from experts – all of these things are so easy to do. And that’s exactly how I’ve done the majority of learning since college.
My knowledge from the oil industry was primarily based on advice from mentors, with some independent research.
It also helps to have a healthy obsession towards learning that subject for a few months or so.
You might be surprised at how quickly you can learn anything you are interested in, if you expose yourself to it daily in some form. That constant exposure will keep it in the back of your mind at all times.
You will notice repeat information. This will allow you to connect the dots and quickly learn what’s most important.
Even better though, you will start to recognize the little golden gems that each resource provides.
This is the easiest and most enjoyable way for me to learn.
But here’s the catch. It really only works when you are already interested in the subject matter. The only exception is for highly technical stuff that, although interesting, still requires more active engagement.
Which brings me to..
The Disciplined Approach
This is the learning style that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
This is the one that I had to manufacture in college to handle the boring classes and the difficult classes.
The Disciplined Approach is much more structured than the Magnet Approach.
It took some trial and error (more error) to figure out my personal system. This is what works best for me, but it might not necessarily work best for you. However, if you give it a try, I think you’ll find it works damn well.
It’s all about figuring out your ideal scenario and then creating it.
This is how I would study in college:
- Setting: Never at home. Ideally, it had to be somewhere that I couldn’t see anyone else. People walking by distracts me when I’m trying to get in the zone studying something boring. My college had this huge library and I knew of a hidden spot on 3 different floors to arrange this scenario. (and 2 of them had comfortable seats, which is nice)
- Accessories: Water is mandatory. Usually I’d bring a couple of Cliff Bars to hold me over. Then I would either have a coffee/energy drink from the basement coffee shop or I’d bring some cognitive enhancers from home. If I used the latter, I also brought a Gatorade. My phone would be on silent, not vibrate, and face down. I’d be dressed comfortably. I kept headphones in, even if I wasn’t listening to music – just to block out the sound of air vents and that kinda stuff. When I listened to music I would either listen to the Pretty Lights catalog or the Inception soundtrack on repeat. (all of Hans Zimmer’s stuff is good for studying)
- Methods: For memorization, flash cards worked well. Most of my challenging exams were my upper division economics classes. For those, simple memorization wouldn’t be enough. We had to solve complex problems that required us to fully understand 10+ different concepts. I wish I had some magic formula to give you, but I just did every practice problem in the text books or that I could find online. Over and over. Until I understood every angle of it.
I could study for hours on end without even thinking of stopping, when I created that scenario.
I’ve been out of school for a few years now. But I still use elements of the Disciplined Approach to learn and work.
When I was first getting started freelancing as a Landman, I was a little overwhelmed at first. I didn’t understand any of the terminology used in the court documents and contracts. Fortunately, I started out working on a crew with other freelancers that were all contracted by a large oil company.
I would pick their brains and write down little notes (Magnet Approach) in my notebook throughout the day. Then in the evenings, when I was back in my hotel room, I go through the documents and literally Google all of those notes and terms I didn’t recognize. There isn’t much online to be found for a lot of it. (That part of the oil industry completely runs on the “ol’ boy system”, aka networking and mentoring.) I used what I could find to connect the dots and I figured out the rest by forcing myself to sit in that room, alone, and practice. Over and over. Until the veterans were asking me for help.
I still prefer to work in private areas, whenever possible.
Much of my work ended up consisting of meetings and conference calls. That’s how everything gets done when you get to the big leagues. But I was a little fish in the big leagues, so I still had to grind out the grunt work myself. That’s when I would use the Disciplined Approach.
I still listen to music when I work. (Follow me on SoundCloud)
Whenever I need to learn something technical, like creating this website, I set out a big chunk of time and create the scenario that I know works for me.
The way I studied is now the way I work. Only now I get paid to work, instead of paying to study.
So that leads me to the conclusion that..
You Don’t Need College to Learn How to Learn
It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyways) that you don’t need college to learn how to learn.
The reason why college does such a good job at helping is because it is a very structured environment. You either figure out a way to learn, or you fail. So it gives you that extra push that tells you to fight through the pain. Otherwise, many people would give up on their own.
But not you.
You found this site because you are ready to take action.
Once you realize that all education is self-education, you no longer need permission to learn something. You can give yourself permission.
Constantly learning new things is a fundamental element of personal development. It will only add value to your life.
But maybe you haven’t figured out how you learn best.
Like I said before, how I learn might not work as well for you.
How to Learn
In 2013 there was a paper published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest that examines ten different learning techniques and their effectiveness.
The effectiveness of each technique was rated as low, moderate, or high.
The paper is lengthy, so I’ll summarize the general conclusions. Keep in mind, that just because something works best for most people, that doesn’t mean it will work best for you. But this will give you a good place to start.
From high to low, here they are.
1. Practice Testing (High Utility)
The studies (cited in the paper) found that practice testing can double free recall.
The key thing they mentioned is that, unlike an actual exam, practice testing is a “low-stakes” format. Meaning you are assessing yourself, for the sake of improvement. Whereas, during an actual exam, you are being assessed by an institution with immediate reward/punishment.
They found that practice tests that required detailed answers were the most effective. (Compared to multiple choice practice) This is exactly what I found to work best for me, as I mentioned earlier.
The best results were found when participants would make up challenging questions and then practice answering them.
Overall, this technique took up much less time than others and was the most effective.
2. Distributed Practice (High Utility)
This one is very interesting to me and it’s something I will take into consideration from here on out.
You have probably heard that breaking up your studying into chunks, instead of cramming the night before, is better for learning. But studies have found an exact distribution pattern to optimize learning over a given period of time.
They’ve found that it’s best to distribute your learning sessions over 10-20% of the time that the information needs to be remembered.
- If you want to remember something for 5 years, you should have a learning session every 6 to 12 months.
- If you want to remember something for 1 year, you should have a learning session every month
- If you want to remember something for a week, you should study every 12 to 24 hours
This is supposed to be the best technique to retain information over a given period of time, and it makes logical sense to me.
3. Elaborative Interrogation (Moderate Utility)
This technique involves asking/answering why questions, rather than what questions, regarding what you learn.
So as you are learning something, you will be presented with the facts. Those are the what. Once you have the answers/facts, you should explain to yourself why they are true.
I’ve always found this to be very helpful. Knowing the root cause, or the why, has always helped me understand something new.
A study found that this technique, accompanied with reading, only added 5 minutes to a 28 minute reading session. By simply jotting down why notes after every few paragraphs or so of reading.
4. Self-Explanation (Moderate Utility)
This method is helpful for learning abstract concepts. In school, it is especially helpful for mathematics.
Self-explanation involves solving a problem, and simultaneously writing out notes by each step explaining why each step was chosen/performed. This technique works best when learning something for the first time, as opposed to practicing something that you’ve already learned.
5. Interleaved Practice (Moderate Utility)
The studies on this method are limited, but the results look promising.
Interleaved practice involves learning/practicing separate disciplines, that have overlapping traits, at the same time.
This has been found to work best for physical learning, such as developing motor skills, and cognitive learning, such as mathematics. Up to 43% improvement in math skills has been reported.
Similar to distributed practice, this technique is better for long-term retention.
6. Summarization (Low Utility)
Studies have found that summarizing (every page or so of text read) is more useful than the other low utility techniques, but not near as effective as the others. It has been shown to help with written exams, but not with multiple choice exams.
My results with this technique have been about the same. It helps me sometimes, but usually I get mediocre to poor results. Some people do very well with this method though.
7. Highlighting and Underlining (Low Utility)
This was the overwhelming favorite among study participants, but it performed very poorly.
The same reason that people love it is the same reason that it doesn’t work very well – there is no challenge.
I’ve never found this to help with learning much. But I do highlight the shit out of books I read. Not for learning, but for reference points when I come back to them.
8. Keyword Mnemonic (Low Utility)
You’ve heard of this one, it’s the trick people use by associating a meaning/phrase with how particular keywords sound. This is popular for learning foreign languages or memorizing someone’s name.
I’ve heard plenty of people swear by this, and I’ve used it a bit myself. But the results are very hit-or-miss. And studies found that this technique is generally effective for short term retention only.
9. Imagery for Text Learning (Low Utility)
This technique involves picturing images in your mind to match the text that you are reading. However, it tends to work best for memorizing short lengths of information, like a sentence. Similar to mnemonic learning, this method varies dramatically between the individual and only works for specific situations.
10. Rereading (Low Utility)
I tried this one many times in college, and it never worked for me. The studies found that this technique was only notably effective when a particular chunk of text was reread in back-to-back sequences. So rereading the same chapter that you read the day before might not do much for you.
If you choose to go to college, do not walk away without learning the most important skill they offer – how to learn.
Remember, all education is self-education.
Apply and modify the Magnet Approach and the Disciplined Approach until you have your own systems figured out.
And if you want to experiment with different techniques, start with the ones proven to work most effectively.
Until Next Time,
This was one of my favorite Pretty Lights tracks to listen to when studying. He’s no longer my go-to, but I still put his catalog on repeat from time to time.
Just hearing this brings back memories of my college library and dusty west Texas hotels.
What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or have any thoughts to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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