How We Learn to Think

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Whether you are just starting out on your academic journey, midway through, or about to embark on your final few classes before graduation, one thing is certain: you will cognitively push yourself to the limit. As a student, learning is your profession, and like a professional athlete engages in practice and strength training, so must you learn to strive for optimal performance from your mind.

Metacognition  is the act of thinking about how you think. Have you ever stopped to consider the ways in which your thinking is enhancing or hindering your learning experience? As a human being, you are bombarded every day by lots of stimuli-the horns honking outside, the child crying beside you in line at the grocery store, that annoying little string hanging off the sleeve of your sweater. All of the sensory information surrounding you everyday influences how well you take in and apply information. Consider this: if you are constantly distracted but the dripping faucet in your dorm room, how many times will you read this sentence?  Being able to tune out the distractions and focus on the task at hand is an imperative part of becoming a successful student. Developing strategies to help you think about how you think best is the first step towards a healthy cognitive relationship with higher learning.

Just like you read instructions before you begin any complex task, an effective plan for thinking helps to evaluate your cognitive process. Before you begin any learning activity, consider your situation, how you process information, and then make it a point to reflect upon your success or to revise your plan for next time.

The first step in analyzing your thinking habits is to acknowledge that many of the habits you have picked up along the way are not actually benefitting you , but also may be hindering your process. Ask yourself: why do you engage in the study routines you do? It is likely that some of the habits you use today harken back to your first days of studying, so why would you apply the same approach to your adult learning that you used as a teenager? For example, as a teenager I would while away the hours laying on my bed, reading Wuthering Heights and finding the length of the hypotenuse of a isosceles triangle. I would blast my music, insisting that it helped me drown out the city noise coming from outside my bedroom window. As an adult these strategies no longer work for me, if I try to focus on a book while lying in bed I fall asleep, if I have music blasting in the background I can’t help but dance. Music and coziness hinder my ability to concentrate. Music, where you are sitting, background noise are all situational factors that you have control over. Take a moment and consider what situational factors you have control over and if they are really helping you or if they are simply a matter of habit. Perhaps your kitchen or dorm room is hindering your thinking skills. Take a trip to the library or find a quiet spot where you can focus, and see how it affects your concentration. Play around with your situation and find a good match for you, once you do so, make sure to revisit your situational factors from time to time to make sure that they are helping and not hindering your learning.

In addition to considering situational factors, part of metacognition is thinking about how you learn best. There is a lot of focus around the world on logical and linguistic learning—reading, writing and arithmetic.  However, there are many different ways people learn—we dance, we paint, we interact with other people. All of these various ways of learning light up our brains in different ways. When we watch a beautiful ballet of Romeo and Juliet our brain reacts in a fundamentally different way than when we read the words on paper. The suggestion isn’t that dance replaces reading, but that exposing yourself to different interpretations of material enhances your understanding. Analyzing a beautifully complex piece of artwork can mentally prime you for understanding the complexities of geometry, just as listening to a delicate concerto can prime you for weaving through the many circles in Dante’s Inferno. Exposing your mind to several different styles of taking in information activates your brain to process incoming stimuli in new ways, thus aiding in the learning process. Consider this when thinking about how you learn best, and know that free hours spent engaging in lots of different activities are all part of your learning experience. Focus on the task is ideal, but when you need a break, try to spend your break time using different parts of your brain. Doing so can help you return to your task with a fresh perspective and renewed spirit.

Once your situational factors meet your needs, and your brain is prepped for optimal learning, remember to reflect upon your experience. What worked for you this time? What wasn’t so successful? What might you do differently next time? The act of reflection is an important part of metacognition. It’s what prevents the same errors from being made again and again, and it helps academics revise their learning strategies. Perhaps you need to make a change to your situational factors, or maybe you need to incorporate some meaningful breaks into your routine. Remember, the very best learners take lessons from when they haven’t been successful and build upon the skills that led to success.

Figuring out how you learn best is an exercise, one that can only begin when you commit to thinking about your thinking process and evaluating how you learn best. What works for your neighbor, roommate, or professor may not work for you, so be patient with yourself until you find a good fit.

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