I entered post-secondary studies in engineering with an idea that I would learn the tools I would need to build a great product or to solve a problem that others couldn’t. In high school, I was the top of my class without much effort, but I was warned by those around me that staying at the top of my class in university would be much more difficult or even impossible. I took that as a challenge and I worked hard for the marks I got. Eventually, I graduated with honours and I was recruited for graduate school in an area that interested me. It wasn’t easy, but I was good at concentrating in focused bursts where I would learn efficiently, so that I didn’t have to study constantly but I did have to suffer through some pretty intense work periods.
It was a good thing that I had some free time because the most valuable things I picked up (valuable for my career) in university were the friends I made and the love of a team sport (Ultimate Frisbee). Since graduating, my best, most rewarding jobs have not come from my marks, but through connections that I made with people in school and playing Ultimate Frisbee at a high level after university. I also found time to be an active member an engineering team, which gave me much better practical problem solving experience than the exams and projects I did for my classes.
One of the most useful skills I picked up in high school and developed in undergrad was how to know when my understanding of a topic was good enough to move on to the next topic. I was blessed to spend two work terms living at my aunt’s house. At the time, she was the head of a post-graduate education program. She told me “one of the hardest lessons on the way to being ‘educated’ is learning when you have achieved understanding of a concept” and she encouraged me to learn what understanding a topic feels like.
I have had the honour of teaching my son to ride a bike. Learning to ride a bike can be scary because falling can hurt and there is a high amount of uncertainty around whether lifting your feet off the ground at a given speed will result in a smooth ride or a wipeout. The only way to really figure that out is to try and fall a few times. You can use tools like training wheels, helmets, and elbow pads to reduce the damage early on but without a bit of trial and error you cannot develop an understanding of what gliding on a bike feels like.
“Knowing when you know” is a similar process to learning to identify whether the bike you are riding will glide or crash. Arguably, going to school is one big personal experiment with the end goal of releasing you into the world to learn enough to do something awesome and then do it without spending all your time learning the background material.
How to get there
If you are currently in school, know this: learning to learn is much more important than your topic of study. Practice mastering a subject to the point that you will get the grade you want and then using the rest of your time to make some friends or find something you love to do. Run little experiments on yourself. If you think you understand a concept, stop studying and assess yourself on it. If you get a bad mark as a result, remember how you felt about the topic and work to raise your level of understanding on the next one. If you get a grade that is much better than you are aiming for – celebrate – but also consider using some of the time you spent getting that grade on something that will make your life better in the long run. If you don’t want to use your marks to experiment with, consider using a study tool like Minute School. Try the lessons and quizzes to compare how you feel about your understanding of a topic to an actual assessment of what your understanding of that topic is.
After some careful introspection, you will have a deeper understanding of how you learn. Then, you will be ready to go out, learn even more, and do something amazing.