Introduction Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Learning to Learn

TASK versus TIME
Why you should not spend time studying
"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." -- Alvin Toffler

Let's face it, students don't spend enough time learning and what's even worse is that they waste much of the time when they think they are doing it by doing something else which they call learning but isn't. They often don't realise that they are doing something else until exam time looms and they get round to some kind of critical appraisal of what they know. Some just let the examiners do that for them.

In this first part of Learning to Learn we'll take a closer look at what many students do when they think they are learning and suggest a better approach.



Most students are time oriented
Then let's begin with the fairly reasonable observation that almost all students plan their study-work around the available time or, to be more accurate, around the time they are prepared to make available once all the necessities of student life have been accommodated. This preoccupation with the amount of time spent working is, as I hope will become clear, inefficient, often fruitless, and leaves many students dissatisfied with the result. What is worse is that lots of students actually recognise this inefficiency which in turn reduces the learning process to a disheartening, joyless and unfullfilling exercise. The inevitable conclusion is demotivation, under achievement and, sometimes, failure.

The fact that a large proportion of students manage to succeed with a learning schedule based on "time spent studying" is a testament to their ability to apply themselves to the task rather than any underlying effective study strategy.

The alternative
It need not be this way. A simple rethink of how to study involving a move from learning by allocating units of "time" to learning by accomplishing "tasks" will help nearly everyone. This "task" not "time" orientation is fundamental to an effective learning strategy but it is not the whole story as you will discover as you work your way through these pages.

The aim of this first part is to persuade you that many students study very inefficiently and without a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish. Do not be downhearted if you recognise at least some small part of yourself. I make no apologies for being very negative, it's necessary because only by identifying why it is that you have trouble learning will you be able to change your method to something which might work for you.

You have to be "Task" not "Time" Oriented
Being focussed on accomplishing a task rather than merely devoting a period of time to learning is such a fundamental aspect of an effective approach to studying that it's worthwhile dwelling on this a while so that you are left in no doubt. Once you're convinced we can build on it.

OK, so what's wrong with sitting down and spending some time "studying"? Let's take just two examples and see what really happens.

The study period
Good practice dictates that a didactic programme should not completely occupy a student's time but should provide periods for study. These "study periods" provide an opportunity, during the normal working day, for students to learn. In this example our conscientious student at the end of the morning's first lecture knows she has to do some work and she's been told that study periods are designed for this purpose. Having discovered the library she heads off there with the intention of spending the 60 minutes before the morning's second lecture "doing some work".

10:00 am

Lecture finishes

10:10 am

She finishes chatting with friends and heads off to the the library

10:15 am

Arrives at library

10:20 am

Finds a seat and wonders what work to do

10:25 am

Decides to read through her notes on Head and Neck Anatomy

10:35 am

Gets a little bored with her own notes (after all, she wrote them). Decides to take a mini-break so sits back and has a look around

10:36 am

Drags her attention back to Head and Neck anatomy

10:40 am

Her attention wonders again and she has another glance around the room and maybe stands up to stretch her legs

10:41 am

Drags her attention back to Head and Neck Anatomy

10:46 am

Is really bored and decides to leave early and visit the loo before the next lecture

The result of this study period is less than 19 minutes of activity which could remotely be called learning but which in all probability has achieved little or nothing. Worse, she has no record of what she did and is at-risk of reproducing the same inactivity, covering the same material, during the next study period.

The visit to the pub
This time our conscientious student decides to do some "work" before going out for a session at the pub with his mates on the rugby team.

5:00 pm

Practical class finishes

5:30 PM

He arrives back at hall and has dinner

6:00 PM

Arrives in room and sits at his desk with the intention of working for two hours

6:10 PM

Decides to "learn" some microbiology because he hasn't done any work yet on this topic

6:15 PM

Has found his microbiology notes and a couple of textbooks and begins reading

6:25 PM

Looks at his watch and is surprised to discover that he's only been working for 10 minutes

6:35 PM

Looks at his watch again and decides it's time for a cup of coffee

6:40 PM

Sits back at his desk with coffee and listens to some music while he drinks

7:00 PM

Realises 20 minutes have flown by and he should get back to work

7:10 PM

Another look at his watch, decides it must be slow and calls next door to check the time

7:20 PM

Sits back at his desk having worried the chap next door by saying how hard he is working

7:27 PM

His mind wanders and he starts thinking about the pub and what his mates are doing right now. A smug feeling creeps over him when he imagines them not working.

7:28 PM

Drags his mind back to microbiology

7:30 PM

Catches himself dropping off over his notes

7:33 PM

Does it again

7:35 PM

Decides he's too tired to work any more and gets ready for the pub.

The result of this 2 hour study period is less than 35 minutes of actual work, again, like the previous example, there is no record of what he has achieved but worse, he has convinced himself, if he wasn't already convinced, that he's not an "evening or night" person and that it's no use him trying to work at these times because he just falls asleep. His time is much better spent relaxing so he can devote his remaining energies to studying during the day. Unfortunately he is likely to follow this work pattern in his timetabled study periods.

The root of the problem
The root problem is that neither student has got a clear idea, before they sit down to study, of exactly what it is they intend to do. Secondly they have no mechanism for keeping a record of what they have done and thirdly, they have no means of measuring their progress and achievement. Any successful study strategy must enable you to clearly identify:

1. What needs to be done

2. What has been done

3. What progress has been made in terms of learning

In both cases, if asked, the students will say they have worked for an hour, or two hours, and really believe that they have and, what's really bad, they will think they have achieved something; that they have been learning. The overarching fault is that both have decided to work at their studies for a fixed amount of "time" rather than identifying "tasks" which need to be addressed.

The message from this first part is:

Be "Task" and not "Time" oriented

I would like to make one final point before moving on to something a bit more constructive.

What's this timetabled revision for?
Most teaching institutions whether schools or universities set aside a period before formal examinations as so-called "revision time". Too many students interpret "revision time" as the time when they finally get down to some kind of work and use the time to cram as many facts as possible. Facts "learned" this way are stored in short-term memory which is why they are forgotten so soon. If you use an effective learning strategy which results in in-depth understanding encompassing detailed knowledge instead of merely knowing a few key facts, then revision time can usefully be spent reflecting on some of the more complex problems associated with your subjects rather than spending boring hours sweating over lecture notes in a blind panic.

The revision timetable
"Holy cow!! Didya know the exams start in 2 weeks!"


"I'll draw up a revision timetable when we get back from the pub"

Three hours later a revision timetable is drawn up which allocates fixed amounts of time to different subjects.

Whoa! ..... ..... We're back to allocating time again and what criteria are used to decide how much time is spent on each subject? The answer is that often the basis of the allocation of units of time is obscure. Students who like and enjoy a topic are, quite justifiably in their own minds, prepared to work longer and harder on it, often to the detriment of other, less well-liked topics. They may even end up doing very well in these but ultimately fail the examination as a whole because of their inadequacies in the subjects they neglected.

It doesn't matter how the "time" in their "timetable" is distributed, the whole process of distributing units of "time" in this way undermines the very basis of the way in which we learn.

Having drawn up a timetable you have immediately fixed yourself into a "time orientated" attitude to your learning which reduces the whole experience to that of a timeserver. Someone who clocks on and clocks off. Someone who confuses work with time-served at the job.

Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that having drawn up your "timetable" you haven't locked yourself into spending two hours "learning" differential equations or the reasons for the fall of the Holy Roman Empire or the biology of the cell. Boring, boring, boring. And once locked into this 2 hour period what is it that you have accomplished? Who knows? You have no record of your achievement, no yardstick to measure your progress. Unless, of course, you use the exam your cramming for and that can be a tad late.

If you're not convinced by now that trying to learn by merely sitting down in front of your notes and a couple of textbooks is fruitless then there's little you can learn from reading further. Good luck.

For the rest of you, those who, hopefully, are convinced that time-serving is a poor and soul-destroying means of learning and want to know of a better and more satisfying way ... read on.

What you need now is a method to discover what it is you don't know, how to correct this and how to better manage your time to do it. The first thing you need to know, indeed need to know how to discover, is what you don't know. Confused? Then find out how to discover what you don't know in the next part.



Students don't spend enough time learning because they get bored


Most students adopt a time-oriented approach to studying


Studying for pre-determined periods of time is soul-destroying. It leads to de-motivation and boredom


You should be task not time oriented


A task oriented approach allows students to set clear objectives, measure their progress and keep a record of their achievement.



Part 2 Discovering your weaknesses