Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a five-part series that will teach LDS students how to study and learn – from a spiritual perspective. Read the introductory article here.
Teach them to never be weary of good works, but to be meek and lowly in heart; for such shall find rest to their souls. O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God (Alma 37:34-35).
Good study habits are best developed by practice and routine. This implies wise use of time, place, and circumstances, along with many of the other principles discussed earlier. But none of these things can take place without a proper attitude.
The great motivating force for a good student is a desire to learn and to use his knowledge for productive ends. In order to develop such an attitude, he must become aware of certain basic universal truths, which are as follows:
- The inherent value of mankind. God loves each of us and his justice does not permit him to be a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). Though present earth conditions may make it more difficult for some than for others, nevertheless, God does not put impossible stumbling-blocks before us. He has even made provision that we may not be tempted beyond our ability to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13). This is because he wants all of us to succeed.
- Agency. Because much of our success depends on us, God has given us agency, whereby we are at liberty to choose the path we will take.
- Fallibility of the human mind. Because we lack total knowledge and because our agency allows us to make incorrect decisions, we sometimes fall into error. It would be folly to ignore this basic fact. But it would also be wrong to assume that once in error we must remain in that state. The principles of faith and repentance can apply as much in the quest for knowledge as in the change from a sinful to a saintly state.
- Divine origin and destiny of man. Despite our human failings, each of us possesses the divine spark inherited from the Father of our spirits. It is this spark, when motivated by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that can enable us to overcome all obstacles in our path. Our goal is to become like our Heavenly Father and, in his great love, he will do all in his power to help us, if we but use our agency to choose his perfect method.
- Balance between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual natures of man. We are indeed complex beings, with needs in all four of these spheres. As such, we must be careful to attend to each in such a way that no one of the others is neglected. It requires a certain measure of good sense to obtain the proper balance – along with some inspiration.
- Open-mindedness. This quality is perhaps one of the more important for the serious student. To close our minds is to declare that we have all the truth and knowledge we need or can get. It is arrogance in the extreme. But being open-minded does not mean that we must tolerate falsehood or evil, as defined by God.
- A sense of self-worth and self-esteem. He who lacks self-esteem will accomplish but little during his earthly sojourn, for he believes himself incapable of doing anything worthwhile. While it is true that our mortal natures make us susceptible to error, it is important to remember that we are spirit children of God, destined to become like him and that, with his help, there are no obstacles that can keep us from attaining worthy and realistic goals. At the same time, we must not think ourselves to be all-powerful or perfect, for, without God’s help, we are little indeed (Isaiah 55:6-9; Helaman 12:4-8).
Along with these basic principles, there are other qualities that a good student will possess. One is loyalty. Our foremost loyalty should be to God, followed by loyalty to those things to which he is loyal, such as the prophets, the scriptures, and the Church. God is also loyal to all his children, but not to all of their acts and thoughts.
It is also important to be honest – not only in exams, but at all times. To be otherwise is hypocrisy, which will prevent us from attaining our goal of becoming as God. Tolerance is another important quality. Through our love of others, we must be tolerant of our brothers and sisters, while not condoning wrong.
While we must avoid being judgmental of others, it is important to remember that God will ultimately judge all of us. In that judgment, he considers four aspects of human behavior: words, thoughts, intentions and deeds (Mosiah 4:30; Alma 12:14; Moroni 7:6-9). Our deeds must be backed up with good thoughts, righteous intentions, and truthful and uplifting words.
The student who has mastered all the skills of study and yet who does not find the time to implement those skills will surely fail. It is essential to learn how to manage our time. Part of that management is in the area of planning.
If you don’t plan to succeed, you automatically plan to fail. It’s that simple. Failure is remaining wherever you are or going backward. Success is moving forward, at whatever speed we can. Progress is best accomplished by planning our steps in advance. This means not only setting up goals to reach, but also some sort of time scheme into which to place them.
Find time for your study. The best way to do this is to prepare daily, weekly and monthly schedules – and annual schedules for long-range goals. It is important, however, not to schedule away all of your time. Life is full of too many emergencies and other unexpected situations to fully conform to our anticipations. There should be sufficient free time (in the form of recreation, for example) to make your schedule flexible should the need arise. But try to stick to whatever schedule you decide upon.
Based upon monthly goals, set up weekly schedules. Then examine the weekly schedule each day to decide on priorities for that day’s activities. The top-priority items should then form your daily schedule.
Along with the planning of schedules, you should institute a program to eliminate time-wasting activities. By this, I mean activities that do not involve the use of your mind or body or the relaxation of either, where necessary. Sleep, for example, is not a time-waster if your body needs the rest. But if you take a nap for lack of anything else to do, then your time – one of your most priceless possessions – is lost.
I make it a point to always engage in something beneficial during lulls in my daily schedule. If I’m riding on the bus, waiting in a line, or if I find myself in any type of “holding pattern,” I read a book or an article. If I don’t have anything to read at hand, I set my mind to meditating on a given topic. I always carry pen and paper with which to set down any ideas that occur to me during such times. For many years, I kept a note-pad and pen beside my bed, for I have often found myself waking in the middle of the night or in the morning with a new idea that I would like to store for future reference. On some rare occasions, I have found myself waking numerous times throughout the night with important ideas to set to paper.
I mentioned meditation as a means of “passing time” while waiting for the next scheduled activity of the day. But I believe that it is also important to set aside time for daily meditation. By seriously considering a subject at hand, the whys and wherefores become clearer to us and we can incorporate the idea more fully into our consciousness. Sometimes, you will want to couple a period of meditation with prayer.
The environment in which you study can make a difference both in your attitude toward study and in your achievement level. Most people study best in silent and undisturbed surroundings. It is usually best to avoid outside distractions, such as the television, loud or vocal music (because we tend to pay attention to the words), noisy places like cafeterias, etc. A number of anthropological studies have been conducted into the effect of percussion instruments on the human psyche. In many societies, they are used to induce trances. Some forms of rock music have similar effects on the human mind and actually inhibit an individual’s ability to process information. On the other hand, tests have demonstrated that some types of light classical music (notably Baroque music, with Mozart’s compositions being the most effective) actually enhance one’s learning processes.
I have noted only one exception to this in my personal experience. During my summer term at the University of California in 1969, I left my wife and children at home in Salt Lake City and rented a room on the Berkeley campus. While attempting to do homework, I noted that part of my difficulty lay in the fact that I couldn’t hear the children playing nearby. It was perhaps not so much the silence that was disturbing but, rather, the concern over the welfare of my family so far away.
There is a saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It may also make him irritable and hard to get along with. It is important to break up study sessions with occasional relaxing activities, such as playing a game, participating in sports, watching TV or a movie, going to a party, or taking a walk or hiking, jogging, bicycling, engaging in conversation, etc.
In general, I would say that it is good to study with one’s classmates. Because it is unlikely that any one student will have learned all that has been discussed in class, sharing information is an obvious solution. However, such study sessions cannot replace personal study time. Subjects discussed with classmates are not always relevant to you. Not all of your questions will be answered, for it is unlikely that your friends have all of the answers. Helping others with their questions is, of course, a good review for you also. Moreover, if you happen to have a logical but otherwise incorrect answer, some of your friends can perhaps help you to see why you are wrong and give you a better idea. On the other hand, you may be right and, by reviewing your reasoning with others and showing them why some of their ideas are wrong, your own reasoning and conviction can be strengthened by trial under fire. But do remain open-minded and do avoid dogmatism and argumentation that can lead to bad feelings and unpleasant results.
Classrooms, libraries and homes tend to be the principal places where study is carried on. However, we should not neglect church meetings and temple attendance. The facts and principles taught us in these non-religious settings are very important, but we can also learn through precept, meditation and inspiration from the Spirit. Being where we should be at any given time – including church services – is an important part of the learning and disciplining process.
8. Classwork and Homework
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdom -That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you (D&C 88:78-80).
Formal education in schools and colleges is generally rather structured, with little opportunity for the student to “do his own thing.” Such a system has both advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious disadvantage is that it prevents the student from discovering new things or new methods. This, however, can be overcome as the student takes time to do extracurricular research and as he enters into his chosen profession. The greatest advantage of the structured program is that it is the end result of generations of experience in teaching methodology.
Most high schools and universities list both required and optional courses in their curriculum.
Often, the student may wonder why he is forced to take a class that neither interests him nor has a bearing on his future career. While “general education” programs have often come under criticism (especially from students, many of whom feel that they cause delays in getting into the meat of their studies), there is much to justify their existence.
As noted earlier, there is a distinct advantage to having a general education. Overspecialization tends to narrow the student’s views and make him incapable of the great achievements that come from interdisciplinary studies. Moreover, an exposure to a wide range of subjects gives the student a more rational foundation on which to make his ultimate choice of profession. U. S. Department of Labor research has shown that the average worker changes his field of work three times during his lifetime. This means that no one of us can be sure that the profession we have chosen is the one in which we will ultimately spend most of our time.
There is little doubt in my mind that certain of the classes I took in high school and at the university will never play a direct role in my future life. But the outlook gained from such classes has been invaluable. It would be difficult to express verbally how much the tremendous struggle to do well in my genetics class at the university taught me to be a good student. The principles of genetics have not all remained with me, but I shall never forget the principles of study learned by that most difficult class.
When I took my first linguistics class, it was also a tremendous struggle. But, being part of the requirements for my BA in anthropology, I determined to learn all that I could. It was an uphill battle most of the way. But by the time I completed the course, my mind had been opened to an entirely new way of thinking and of organizing factual information for analysis. It was like climbing a very difficult mountain and finding a new world on the other side. I have never been the same since then.
All too often, we see students enroll in a difficult or undesirable but otherwise required course and then either do mediocre work or drop the class because of disinterest or in an effort to “keep my GPA.
” This is perhaps one of the gravest mistakes a student can make. Success comes not in completing all the easy tasks and rejecting the hard ones, but in meeting all challenges. The climb up the mountain may be more difficult than the valley road, but the view from the top is exquisite.
For my part, I went out of my way to take a large number of courses that were not required for either general education or my majors. By the time I received my BA in anthropology, I had almost enough credits for bachelor’s degrees in French and geography. Two years later, when I completed my second MA, I had almost enough credits in history to qualify for an MA in that field as well. While I sought no degrees in French, geography, or history, I was sufficiently interested in those areas to take a large number of courses in each.
One of the more important factors contributing to effective study is a good system for the preparation and use of class notes. The system described here has served me well and I recommend it as the best system that I have found.
1. What to write in class. It is both futile and unnecessary to write down everything said by the instructor. Rather, one must be selective, taking note of the major points only. This would include facts and figures as well as terminology peculiar to the subject, theories and major principles. It is also important to record bibliographic references – and not only the ones in the reading assignment.
2. Taking notes from readings. As with lecture notes, write down only the major points, facts and figure, terminology, etc. Also note the chapter and paragraph divisions and any outlines given by the author. These will give clues to the author’s feelings regarding the importance of various topics and sub-topics. Comparing these with emphasis placed on the same topics by the course instructor will give further insights into what is expected in the class and in exams.
3. Reorganizing your notes. Hastily-taken class and reading notes are usually not suitable for study. It is important to reorganize them into a study guide. Following the three steps I use has proven very useful:
a. Read through all of the notes and make a tentative outline of the major and minor topics. This should be done periodically during the quarter or semester, not just at the end.
b. Clip and paste the notes or recopy them on topical sheets corresponding to the divisions determined in step (a).
c. Neatly type the notes with titles for major and minor divisions. Highlight especially important items for quick eye reference. For some of the more difficult topics, give page numbers from the class text.
It is best to follow these steps at the conclusion of each major topic presented by the instructor, in order to minimize the work required at exam time. For the same reason, it is advisable to keep up with the assigned readings. As noted earlier, cramming is not an effective method of study. The preparation of the study guide is greatly facilitated if the student has access to word processing on a computer.
4. Reviewing the notes. It is important to set up a regular program for reviewing class notes. As you study the notes, it is well to highlight or to underline in colored ink any parts that seem difficult or that you think you may forget by exam time. By so doing, you will draw your eye’s attention to those facts during each review of the notes. You should study the entire note composition for the final exam. Previous reviews, including the reorganization of the notes, will make cramming unnecessary.
Experience has taught me that a regular program of taking and organizing notes in this fashion is an extremely effective way to learn. Material learned by cramming or slipshod methods cannot long be retained by the human mind. If you involve your ears by listening to lectures and asking questions in class (never skip classes; have a friend record any you miss through necessity), your hands by taking and reorganizing notes, your eyes by reading the texts and notes, and your mind by doing all of these, you will find great satisfaction in learning and in getting better grades.
The professional teacher is the first to admit that no exam can give a complete view of the student’s achievements in the class. But because mortal life is limited in its duration, it is not possible to test all the knowledge the student possesses. The exam therefore gives a representative list of subjects that the student is expected to know. It would be helpful if each teacher would make it clear exactly what the course exam might require (short of the actual wording of the questions, of course). But since not all follow such a system, it behooves the student to try to learn as much as he can and to try to determine enough about the teacher’s personality and methods in order to anticipate what he wants on the exam.
There are several factors to consider in regard to this latter subject. First, it is likely that quizzes and mid-term exams will be good clues to what the final exam will be like. The student should also rely on the class notes and on any bibliographical references given by the instructor – and particularly any points that have been stressed more than others. If the teacher gave handouts in class, use them to study for the exam, for the instructor evidently considers them to be important.
Sometimes, facts given in lectures disagree with the textbook(s) used for the class. No one is infallible and the instructor may be wrong. However, the textbook author is also capable of mistakes. Either one may have more complete or more recent information unavailable to the other. It is not possible for the student to accept all he hears or reads, and a reasonable teacher would not expect such gullibility anyway. But you should exercise caution in approaching teachers with examples of contradictions, lest their pride be hurt. Do so only if you feel confident that the teacher can discuss the subject open-mindedly and unemotionally.
It is, of course, healthy to disagree in your own mind with what you have been taught, provided you have good reason to do so. On exams, however, you may be expected to give the answer your teacher anticipates, even if you disagree with it, and even a right answer can adversely affect your grade if the teacher disagrees. If you know your instructor well enough, you can give his or her answer, then add your own objections, backed up with your reasons.
Naturally, it is discouraging for a student to receive a bad grade on a class exam. But even wrong answers can be useful. By knowing that something is wrong, you can eliminate the error in the future. We can learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. It would be unwise to throw the exam into the wastebasket without examining it thoroughly to determine how and wherein we have erred. The same is true of any of life’s experiences. Repentance is a universal principle.
In my own teaching, I have sometimes asked students a question to which I knew they would not have the correct answer because they didn’t yet have all the data.
I never do this in exams, only in class discussions or homework. Were they to always receive the correct answer from the beginning, they would not know why it is correct. By having them reason out the wrong answer and then afterward adding the new factors that lead to the correct one, I can show them how only with complete information can one arrive at the proper solution.
Wrong answers on an exam – though not designed to accomplish this purpose – can serve the same end. If you do not understand how or why you made the mistake, ask the instructor to explain it to you (not always as a challenge to his answer, but for your own information and progress). It has been my experience that a corrected error is longer remembered than an answer correctly given the first time around but without sufficient thought, or even as a “guess.”
If you disagree with a teacher’s evaluation of your exam, there is no reason to hesitate discussing it with him. Teachers, too, are capable of error, both in evaluating answers and in adding up score points. Whenever a student has come to me to air a grievance concerning his corrected exam, I have tended to believe that he has a good reason for doing so, and therefore I have usually adjusted the score upward, after an examination of the problem. (It may, of course, be somewhat dangerous to admit this in print, lest any of my future students read it and take advantage of me. But I do feel that honesty is important and I also believe in tempering justice with mercy and vice-versa.)
As a long-time student and teacher, I heartily condemn the rat-race to obtain good grades. It is unfortunate that we must tolerate this system to determine how well the student has achieved the course goals. But perhaps even the most fanatic of the anti-grade teachers must sometimes admit that the ABCs are a more objective system than the flip of a coin or a subjective interview with each student. Grades are, for the present at least, a necessary evil, and we must learn to live with them. However, we must not let them enslave us.
The student who works only for a grade will find himself sorely unhappy in life. He will become the person who strives for money at the expense of happiness. Home will become a place to recharge one’s batteries for the following day’s battles. The family will not be the center of his life (as it always has been in the eternities of the celestial kingdom), but only one of the things that one can buy – along with the material possessions bearing price tags.
The goal in study must be to learn knowledge and skills and to derive pleasure therefrom. This pleasure can, of course, come from material benefits deriving from a well-paid job. But satisfaction in achievement is just as important. It is not for the grade that one must work in school, but for oneself, for one’s family, and for one’s Heavenly Father, who sent us here to learn.
Some three thousand years ago, God offered King Solomon any gift he would choose. He chose wisdom and was rewarded not only with his chief desire, but also with material and other benefits beyond measure. Jesus summarized the great eternal principle involved here by these words:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33; see also Jacob 2:18-19).