Learning, Not Studying

For a long time I always talked about “learning” for exams until a native speaker pointed out to me that it should be “studying.” Apart from being an embarrassing mistake to make for an English teacher, it brings me to a relevant point about when I use those words. I use them before exams and I have learned over the years that one of the most astonishing things you can say to students is “You don’t need to study.”

Students don’t understand that sentence. It goes against everything they’ve been taught in their years in school. School is all about studying. Remembering facts, dates, names, rules, etc. to write them down during a test or exam, just to forget almost all of it once the exam is over. Ask any student and they tell you that this is how it works. They’re not even really aware of it, at least not the forgetting part. They are taught to study for exams, not to learn anything. Okay, maybe they are also expected to learn something, but the focus is on the studying. “Remember pages 34-45!” “Look at the vocabulary!” “You have to know all the names of the kings and queens!” To students this becomes completely natural. What do you do before an exam? You sit at home and study. It’s the only way.

What is the point of this studying, this remembering of words and numbers? Nothing really, how could it be if you don’t need it anymore after the exam and so unsurprisingly forget everything again? Our brain doesn’t need knowledge that it finds no use for and that’s exactly what most of this is. Stuff you don’t need. It’s simple really: if you needed it, you wouldn’t need to study it, you wouldn’t need to force your brain to remember it for a short time. Our brains welcome useful knowledge and don’t need any convincing to store it. Useless knowledge though is a different kind of animal. Our brains see that and go: “Really? You want me to memorize this? Well, that sounds like work. I sit back and let you do all the work if it’s so important to you.” So you sit at home repeating everything again and again and again, using memory aids and studying techniques to somehow manage to remember all of it. And then? Do you know all of that knowledge? Can you apply it? Do you have a use for it? If the answer is ‘no’ (and normally in about 90% it is), then it is not knowledge. Another aspect is of course if you have an emotional reaction in some way to any given facts, since that helps memorizing them too. (I'm not a brain expert, by the way, I just think that if knowledge doesn't make your brain react in any way it will be forgotten faster).

If you actually want to learn something, then you need to understand it. If you understand something, it is stuck in your brain. You can’t un-understand something. Once you understood it, once you comprehended it, there’s no way back. Of course that doesn’t mean you remember it until you die, but whenever you are confronted with something of that subject matter, your understanding will help you. Facts won’t. That is why I always tell my students that everything they need to for an exam is what they learned in class. I try to make them understand things and try to make sure they really do, but if they understand it, they don’t need to study. In exams I’m either asking them to apply their understanding to text or pictures that fit within the topic, so they can show if they understood it or I’m asking them for their opinion, which is in their heads anyway.

So, does this mean every student gets a good mark in the exams? Of course not, because you still have to use your brain. In fact, here you really need to use your brain because it’s not just facts you have to put on paper, but I want my students to think. To answer Why? and not What? To make connections between different issues, to reflect upon them and to ask themselves what they think.

It is amazing and saddening that this is very hard for students. Many struggle at the thought of not studying for an exam (and do it anyway) because it doesn’t fit into their perspective of school. Many students need that guideline of knowing exactly what to study to find their way through an exam. They rather are told what to remember than to be on their own with their minds. I’m guiding them, but in the exam it really comes down to what they make of what’s in their heads and that is a scary thought for many. It’s uncertain because they don’t know what to expect. It asks them to depend on themselves and some aren’t ready for that yet. And I don’t think many others ask them to do that because normally you just tell kids and teenagers what they should do. So, whenever I tell them not to study, they’re equally excited, nervous and scared. And I like that. In other subjects they know exactly what to study, but are still nervous and scared. But certainly not excited.

Granted, not everyone is excited. Granted, this doesn’t work in every subject (I guess, but I’m not sure). Granted, even I let my younger students study vocabulary. Granted, not every knowledge that can be applied, you will remember. And granted, not everything I teach them might be useful in their future lives. But I still try to do it as much as possible and I stand by this simple motto: You can study all night and learn nothing, but if you really learn something, you don’t need to study.