College Learning : WAYS & WHYS

Frank A. Logan


On "Having What It Takes. . .to Learn"

Going to college is not just going on to the thirteenth grade.  Even in subjects like math,  where college courses may pick up wherever your high school courses left off, the style is different.   In high school, most learning is done in the classroom, with a smaller portion given as homework.  In college, most learning is done outside of class.  The most important difference between high school and college is that YOU must take primary responsibility for your education.

College courses use the "mastery" concept.  This means that the professor sets a criterion level of knowledge or proficiency in the subject and all you need to do to pass the course is to demonstrate that level. Indeed, you can learn the material entirely on your own and then challenge the course.  This doesn't mean that professors won't help you learn.  College is not you on one side against a professor on the other; it is you and a professor against the subject.  They want you to master the subject and they will do what-ever they can to help you learn.  After all, teaching (that is, professing") is their chosen profession. But they expect you to do your part and to do it very largely on your own initiative.  Like never before, it is really up to you.

There is a "rule of thumb," or informal guide-line about how much time you should plan for independent study in college.  It is this: Average students should spend twice as many hours outside of class as they spend in class in order to get an average "C" grade.  Thus, if you have registered for a full 15-hour course load, this rule says that you should plan on spending 30 hours studying, IF you are an average student and IF you are willing to settle for "C" grades.  You may need less time if you are an above average student, and you may need more time if you want "quality" grades of "A" or "B".  In sum, being a full-time student is at least a 45-hour per week job.

Although this guideline is useful in giving you a general idea about the dimensions of the task, it presumes the wrong attitude toward your role as student.  The two-for-one rule treats the student as if s/he were a laborer who works by the hour.  I urge you to adopt the attitude of a professional student.  Professionals work by the task, not by the hour.   (Imagine a surgeon stopping in the middle of an operation and saying, "Well, my hour is up;  I'll  come back tomorrow to finish removing this tumor.")  Accordingly, your first goal is to analyze your assignments and divide them up into units that you can treat as tasks. Then you can be a professional student and complete each task as it comes along.

Of course, you can learn to anticipate the time that each of your tasks will probably require.  Also, you are likely to find that working by the task encourages you to work faster and you will have to be honest with yourself in deciding when a task is really finished.  Adopting a professional attitude toward your role as a student does not mean all work and no play. It does mean defining the tasks that need to be done and then doing them.


Many people are concerned about the number of high school graduates who are still "functionally illiterate."  A person who is truly illiterate cannot read or write at all.  A person who is functionally illiterate is one who cannot read or write at a level necessary to function effectively in some situation.

A very important aspect of being functionally literate for college is having an adequate vocabulary.  You obviously cannot understand a book that uses a lot of words that you do not know, and as I shall explain later, you  cannot speak or write well if you do not know the words that will convey the ideas you want to express.  For these reasons, a major objective of this book is to increase your vocabulary.

At the end of this book is a list of about 5500 words and your goal should be to know the meaning of ALL 5500 words before you finish this book.  These are not bizarre words chosen to display my knowledge of big words that are rarely used.  On the contrary, these are the most common words in academic textbooks including college freshman courses. Accordingly, these are precisely the words that you need to know in order to be functionally literate for college.  (Note: Although they are technically different "words", plurals such as book and books, or tenses, such as look and looked were not listed separately.  Counting them increases the apparent size of your vocabulary but what is important is the number of different concepts that you know.)

One reason the vocabulary list encompasses a lot of very common words is simply to let you confirm for sure that you do indeed know them. You may find some that you do not know and you should give them high priority for learning.  There is a more important reason.  You may have heard of one easy way to differentiate between an optimist and a pessimist: When flying out over an ocean, the pessimist describes the gas tank as already being half empty; the optimist describes it as still being half full.  In this sense, it is important to be an optimistic student.

The general point is this:  No matter how much you know, there will always be more to learn.  The pessimistic student focuses on how much s/he doesn't know and how hopeless it is to try to learn it all.  In contrast, the optimistic student focuses on how much s/he already knows and how much s/he is adding to that knowledge.  Suppose, for example, that you only knew 10 out of 1000 possible items.  After studying long and hard, you learn 10 more items.  To the pessimist, you only learned about one percent of the material; to the optimist, you increased your knowledge by 100 percent.  Be excited about how much you do know and how that knowledge is growing rather than being overwhelmed by how much you don't know.

You probably do not remember your own childhood experiences, but surely you have heard a child calling out, "Watch me," when s/he is about to perform some act such as diving into a swimming pool.  To the child, it doesn't matter that it is not an Olympic performance. . .s/he is proud to show even a little accomplishment.  Most of us lost that excitement in learning probably as older kids told us how bad we were.  But try to regain enthusiasm for learning just for the sake of learning.  You don't have to know it all to be proud of how much you are learning.

This vocabulary assignment is a good place to start learning to be an optimistic student.  Be impressed with how many words you know.  (Actually, you probably know about 1000 more words that aren't listed because they are rarely used in textbooks.) You can always augment your vocabulary; educated people keep learning new words throughout their lives.  Never mind that there are still thousands of words that you don't know.  Take heart that you do know several thousand words and that you can easily add a few hundred more in order to be able to handle college-level studies.

The vocabulary lists words that you should have learned by high school (level 3) and words that are common at the college freshman level (level 4).  You probably already know many of these words but you can benefit from greater familiarity with them.  For this reason, I shall use many of these words in the text of this book in order to provide a context in which to practice them.  My objectives are to illustrate how these words are useful and to insure that they are a part of your vocabulary.


A commitment is a public pledge to do something.  A commitment may be as mundane as a promise to clean your room, or it may be as dramatic as General Douglas McArthur's famous line, "I shall return," when he was driven from the Philippines by the Japanese early in  World War II.  At either extreme, or anywhere in between, a commitment is one of the most powerful motivators of human performance.

Most college professors simply assume that students are committed to doing their best.  This is another difference in style from high school. If you don't want to go to class, don't go.  If you don't want to do your home work, don't do it.  More generally, if you want to waste your time and money, your professors want nothing to do with you.  So long as you do nothing that interferes with the serious students, you can do just about anything you want.  And just about the easiest thing to do is to take advantage of this free style approach to education and let your studies slide.  That is why it is helpful to make a commitment.

Making a commitment does not mean dedicating  yourself to your studies.  A dedicated person has a single goal in life, such as making an Olympic team or being elected to Congress.  Dedicated people have a one-track mind; everything else is secondary to their paramount mission in life. Of course, one can be a true scholar and dedicate oneself to learning.  But such a strong commitment is not necessary.  In fact, good commitment should be almost certainly attainable.  It is much better to commit yourself to "getting at least a C" than to fail at "getting an A."  Always make your commitment at a level that is challenging but that you believe diligent effort will produce.

You may not have noticed that I defined a commitment as being a public pledge.  Evidence indicates that private commitments, such as New Year's Resolutions, are much less likely to be fulfilled than ones that somehow involve another person.  It is therefore important to announce your commitment as a student to someone else and to back your commitment up in a meaningful way.


There is a similarity between acts of learning and acts of sex: We all naturally manage to figure out ways to do them pretty much on our own but most of us could benefit from some advice in how we might do better.  Many people are too proud, too bashful, or too obstinate to admit that they are less-than-perfect in such things.  It is not so much that we really need help as that we can use new information.

Laboratory research with animals and humans has shown that we not only learn the tasks we are assigned but that, while we are doing so, we also learn some-thing about how to learn that type of task.  As one example, if you are asked to memorize a poem, you know how to do it because you have presumably memorized many poems before.  But do you know how best to do  it?   Should you try to learn it all at once or should you break it up into parts?   How should you divide up your time between reading and trying to recite?  Is it better to read and/or recite silently or out loud?   These are some of the how-to-learn questions that you can try to answer from your own past experiences, but about which you might benefit from some expert advice.

Indeed, expert advice is sometimes surprising.   For example, did you know that you can "overlearn" something?  If you repeatedly practice something the same way over and over, you learn it so well that way that you lose the ability to do it any other way.  Just stop reading for a moment and try to spell your full name backwards.  You've done it so many times forward that it's very hard to change!  Similarly, if you study college material too much the same way, you may not be able to recognize it when it's presented in a different way on an exam.

The critical phrase in the preceding paragraph is "in the same way." You can't overlearn material if you vary the way you study it.  Knowing a variety of learning tactics can insure that your study time is spent profitably.

I believe that one's attitude toward a task is even more important than one's technique---even poor techniques eventually work.  For this reason, this first chapter has described three of the key characteritics of successful college  students.   These are:

1.  Be a professional student.  Work to complete assignments and play when they are done.  If you have several  jobs to do, always start with the one you find least attractive (or most difficult) and always take a break after finishing a job. (I urge you now to study Appendix A.)

2.  Be an optimistic student.  Be happy to display how much you do know rather than being unhappy about how much you don't know.  (I urge you now to study Appendix B.)

3.  Be a committed student.  Make a public pledge that requires you to do your best job as a student balanced against your other commitments. (I urge you now to study Appendix C.)

These attitudes do not guarantee success in college.  You may not have an adequate preparation, and find that you need remedial work.  You may even discover that college is not right for you, at least at this juncture in your life.  But if you can be a professional, optimistic, and committed student, you can realize your full academic potential.

On Having What It Takes. . .To Learn

Biological psychologists have long been  searching  for the "learning engram," the raw materials of which memories made.  The only thing we can be sure of at this time  is  that  learning must result in some biological change in the body.  Rather than waiting until that perplexing mystery is solved, I recommend that you take the following hypothesis to be true

The biochemical material for learning is produced more-or-less continuously by the brain; you use it or you lose it.

To understand this hypothesis, you might imagine that the material is analogous to audio-visual tape for a television camera. Imagine further that a factory can produce the tape at a fixed rate,  that if the tape is used, a reasonably permanent recording is made for future play-back, but that if the tape is not used within a day or two, it goes bad and has to be purged as no longer usable.

The major weakness in the tape analogy is that the material of which memories are made includes  not only sounds and sights, but also smells and tastes and touches, as well as emotional feelings that may have accompanied the scenes. That is to say, our memories are much richer in content than television,  but the logic of the analogy applies.  It has several very powerful implications.

1.  You cannot remember what you study  if  there  is no fresh memory-matter available in your brain at the time.   You can learn just so much of any one kind of subject in any one day.  In particular, you cannot cram a semester's assignments into a few frantic days and nights of study.   On a more positive note, when you have done a good day's work studying, you can really enjoy your leisure activity knowing that you have learned all you can learn in a day.

2.  Any day you let pass  without spending  some time at your studies wastes some of your potential for adding knowledge to your memory bank. The memory capacity is unbounded; the limit is only in the amount that you can add each day.  Which is more, a memory bank gets richer every time the knowledge is used.

In sum, the bad news is that no amount of study now  will ever make up for all the wasted opportunities  to learn;  we can never know as much as we could have known had we learned to our limit every day. The good news is that it is not too late to learn enough to become a well-educated person within the foreseeable future.  It is even possible that the amount of memory-matter that is  produced by the brain factory every day is greater when it is used on a regular basis.

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