Learning Skills

The Miracle Question, Part Two



Learning as Change   The hardest thing for a student to learn is how to become a student. It seems that all you have to do is show up, do what you're told to do, correct what you're told to correct, and, voilá, you will have learned from the class. But does completing all the work really mean that you've learned something? Does making all the corrections really mean that you've become smarter or better? Does getting an A mean that you've learned something? Think about this as well: suppose you try really hard and nothing changes? You work hard in a class and all you can do is get C's and D's? You talk to the professor, do everything you're told, and nothing changes? Why is nothing happening? In this situation, you're learning the cruel fact that effort doesn't count in the real world—there are no rewards for working hard. The only thing that counts is success, whether that success is acquired through lots of blood, sweat, and tears, or whether it was acquired through no effort whatsoever.
   Learning, then, is not about work; it's not about effort; it's not about showing up to class; it's not about talking to the professor; it's not about grades. What is it? When you say, "I learned in Professor Calvin's class," what are you saying? What do you mean?
   This is what learning is: learning is change. When you have "learned," you have changed in some way. You have information that you didn't have before. You have applications of that information that you didn't have before. You can communicate differently than you could before. You can put information and ideas together differently than you could before. Because you've changed, that means that other people can tell that you've changed. If you get an A in a course and your friend gets a D and you both walk into another course, the professor of that course will be able to tell within a few days that you're an A student and your friend is a D student without knowing what your grades are.
   So learning is not really about goals; if a teacher asks you to define your goals, you're not really going to say anything useful. Suppose your statistics professor asks you why you're taking her class. If you say, "My goal in this class is to learn statistics," you seem to be saying something meaningful. But in reality you're not; you're just blowing air into the wind. What does it mean to learn statistics? At the end of the course, how would you know that you've learned statistics? What would be different about you? Does your transcript or your grade tell you that you've learned statistics? No, they're just letters on a page. In addition how would other people know that you've learned statistics? In other words, what would be objectively different about you at the end of the course?
   Learning, then, is about objective change. You should be able to tell when you've learned something and when you haven't learned something. Most importantly, other people should be able to tell when you've learned something and when you haven't learned something. So you start with a goal: "I want to know statistics." But that's not enough; you now need to state an objective: "What will be the objective difference between not knowing statistics and knowing statistics? What's the objective difference between someone who's learned statistics and someone who hasn't?" That objective then becomes what you focus on in the class; that objective becomes the focus of the change that you will undergo in the class.

The Miracle Question   This learning assignment, then, is about answering this objective question. You now have enough assignments under your belt to have a good idea as to how you're doing in the course, which is probably not too well. You also have gotten back your first response to this question: almost all of you gave general and vague answers. Let's redo the question with what you know already about what you're doing well and what you're not doing well. Now suppose a miracle happened and you woke up this morning to find that you've finished the course but don't remember doing so. All you know is that you're staring at your transcript and it says that you have earned an A in this course. Now, this could be an early morning dream that you're having, or your roommates could have pulled a cruel joke on you and they're busying laughing their butts off in the next room. Here's the question: since you don't remember completing the course and you don't really trust the transcript, how would you know that you've completed the course and earned an A? What would be different about you? What information would you have? What would you know how to do? How would you communicate with others? How would your later assignments be different from the assignments that you've completed so far? The question, though, has a second part: how would other people know that you've completed the course and earned an A? What would be different about you objectively? What would other people see in your assignments at the end of the class that weren't qualities of the assignments you submitted so far in the class?

   Make sure that your rewriting of the question is as precise as possible. Indicate how any change that you will make will affect other classes and even your professional career. Finally, make sure that what you identify as objective changes are things that you can do right now . If you say, "I want to know world cultures," not only is this imprecise, it's not something that you can start thinking about and working on right this very minute.


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