Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Homework Assignment Doubling as Personal Missive

Last Spring I heard of a website that offered free online college courses on a number of topics, As soon as I checked it out, I was hooked. One of my strongest character strengths is a love of learning. I signed up for a basicchemistry class and a class about systems biology, which I dropped when I realized how far over my head it was. The cool thing is there is no "drop by" date or penalties for dropping or even getting a low grade. It can only work for you--high grades can be used on resumes, for example, or in my case, mostly for personal satisfaction.

I was both stressed out over the summer from a household crisis, and traveling a lot, so I took a break from online classes. I started up again at the end of August, and got a little carried away. I now have eight active classes in subjects as diverse as biology, music, and philosophy. All the start and stop dates overlap with each other, so there is a continual cycle of new classes opening as old ones wrap up.

One of the shorter classes, which I thought would be easy, was called "Learning How to Learn." It claimed it could help me improve in subjects I have difficulty with. I thought it would be interesting and simple, only four weeks long. It was fairly simple, but it was a class that definitely took itself seriously, with actual quizzes and a final assignment to share what we have learned and how we are applying it to our lives with the wider world in some format. Hence, this blog.

I suffer from chronic procrastination, and need continual reminders to stay focused on my actual priorities. Nothing ever seems to stick. While I think there is a half life to any anti-procrastination skill I learn, I appreciate them for as long as they last. One thing they mentioned in this class is called the Pomodoro technique, which is a fancy way of saying "set a timer and work for 25 minutes" that someone patented. I had been introduced to this practice before when I was taking NVC business classes with Francois Beausoleil He called it "chunking time." (This was actually a bit confusing because in this class 'chunking' referred to something else, a way of remembering information.)

I also read an inspiring article encouraging inspired people to procrastinate on the unimportant things, and focus on our passions. It asked the questions, "What is the most important thing you could be working on, and if you aren't, why not?" I started asking myself what the most important thing I could be working on was, and what kept coming to mind was an article I'd been dreaming of writing for months. With this clarity and the focus of the 25 minute sessions, I managed to finish and submit my article in a matter of days. (I will be sure to share links if and when it is accepted and published!) The full article can be found at

Pretty quickly into my college career, I gave up on taking notes. I noticed that it just wasted paper, distracted my attention from listening to everything the professor said as I tried to finish the previous sentence, and didn't impact my test scores at all when I stopped, because I'd never reviewed them anyway. I could always review the book if needed. I think this worked because of a number of factors, mainly that I was at a less-than-rigorous community college that did not challenge me to expand on my natural giftedness in the social sciences, which is what I was studying (psychology, anthropology, religion). I became contemptuous of fellow students who filled up notebooks and did laborious review sessions. I scoffed at them, saying that, "If you stop wasting your time in class taking notes and just pay attention in class, you'll do fine on tests without studying." My approach to learning was to be a very effective sponge, but only in certain areas. Other subjects I didn't seem to absorb so easily.

The Learning How to Learn class has encouraged me to be more of an active participant to incorporate subjects I do not naturally excel at--for example, music. I am taking a musicianship class that involves learning and practicing scales, intervals, triads, and chord progressions (so far). There is a big focus in the learning class on which types of studying techniques foster long-term memory. Highlighting, re-reading, and concept mapping are shown to be ineffective. Simply closing your eyes and trying to recall what you've read, however, works really well.

A more nuanced version of recall is called memory palace, which involved associating what you are trying to learn with physical spaces. I applied this by going for a walk in my neighborhood. I worked out what notes are in a C chord, moving my fingers in front of me as if on a piano. They are CEG. I then attached them to a pinwheel in someone's yard, and made up a story about why--the letters C and G are rounded like a pinwheel, and the E is like the pinwheel's spokes. I continued to do this with the notes for F and G chords, attaching them to other yard accessories, such as a flag and a windchime. Later, on another walk, I went in the other direction, and associated the G notes (GBD) with a large oak tree, the F notes (FAC) with a loquat tree, and the C notes (CEG) with some roses. This made sense because in the C chord progression, G is the dominant chord, F is subdominant (these both correlate to sizes of the trees), and C is the tonic--and you can make a tonic from rosebuds! I learned this kind of technique as a kid under the term 'mneumonic device," so it comes somewhat naturally to make these associations now. They seem random and weird, but they really stick in my mind--and give me the added benefit of getting to know my neighborhood better. I know where to find loquats next June!

I continue to love learning, but am trying to give myself a break and not sign up for anymore classes right now unless they are extremely compelling. I'm also limiting myself to classes not taught by white men, again unless they are on extremely compelling subjects. I want to learn from people with perspectives of less privilege. However, I would love for you to join me for any of the classes I'm taking in the future--I'm starting two in January: "Buddhist Meditation in the Modern World" and  "Beauty, Form, and Function: An Exploration of Symmestry." It would be great to have you in class with me and compare (nonexistent) notes!

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