Learning to Learn
Learning is not instinctive
Occasionally around about half-term of the first A level term I have heard comments to the effect that "X has not yet sufficiently mastered the techniques of A level study". If I then asked X about the advice that had been offered concerning study technique, as often as not there had been none. Plenty of criticism, perhaps, of the work so far, but usually regarding its content without much concern as to how it had been acquired. The very few who say this have forgotten that the development of solid understanding is not an instinctive process; knowledge does not fall into your head without any effort. Everyone who teaches you has at some time had to go through the process of learning; there is no short-cut.
This page offers a guide as to what you might do. It does not, by any means, cover all that could be said. There are numerous books available to help you, but the core of what you should do is here.
Knowing something ..
is not the same as knowing the name of something. To know something takes time, real physical effort, and a period of assimilation and reflection. To know something you must develop a whole host of techniques; even if you have coped easily so far there will come a stage where the rate at which you are required to obtain knowledge and understanding will tax any informal techniques that you have to their limit. And, perhaps, beyond to the point where you start to give up or to lose interest.
Knowing something takes time; do not be tempted to short-cut this time. At first you will feel that everything takes too much time, but do not worry. You are increasing your learning efficiency without realising it, and the more you learn the easier it becomes to learn more. Your learning will become much faster and less effort, I promise you.
Habit governs quite a lot of what we do and are. To achieve something fresh you will
probably have to change your habits, that is replace the old, weary, useless habits with
fresh and profitable ones. Mostly it comes down to two things: planning
The essentials are:
Concentration requires effort. Make that effort.
Many of the following points apply to any learning, but Chemistry (and other science) texts have particular characteristics that need care in the reading if they are to yield their secrets accurately.
The essential points are, for each learning period:
All of you can read. How do you read? Slowly? Try to increase your reading speed (there are books to help you do this). At a constant speed? DONT!
Have a look at the two extracts shown . That on the left is the opening of Chapter 27 of Anthony Trollopes The Small House at Allington; that on the right is part of page 134 of Atkins PW et al, Chemistry: Principles and Applications, Longman 1988.
You do not need to be able to read the words; before you read any more of mine, jot down the differences between the two pages and perhaps suggest how they might differ in the way that they are read.
A novel consists of a block of text only. Unless you are reading it for the purposes of literary analysis, your reading speed will be more or less constant, and you will start at the beginning of the page and turn over when you get to the end of it. Chemistry texts must be treated in a totally different way; if your reading speed is constant you will miss most of what the page contains.
This is because the page contains five of the six basic building blocks of any chemistry text; these are
In addition you will often have photographs, although my all-time favourite text (Kneen, Rogers & Simpson, Chemistry: Facts, Patterns and Principles. Addison-Wesley, 1972) has none. Nor does it use colour .you see how ascetic I am!
The only one of these five that can even remotely be treated like a novel is the text part. Everything else requires action, physical activity. You cannot read a textbook without paper and pen.
Like chemical equations, mathematical equations are very dense in information content. Like chemical equations, they have to be perceived in detail, so:
Don't leave a table behind until you're convinced that you have seen all that it has to offer.
After you have completed your target work, it's essential that you test yourself. This can be done by seeing if you can write out the main points. Can you write out all the equations? Can you reproduce the diagrams? Can you understand the graphs and reproduce them? You must be able to do all of these things; if you can't, then you haven't learnt the work. Self-testing is very important; do not neglect it.
Writing homework, assignments . . .
"Easy writing is damned hard reading". I cant remember who said this, but it is true. There are no easy routes to good written work, but the correct initial approach will make writing much easier and will improve your understanding of chemistry. There are three main features:
In addition you need to think carefully about how you might use IT.
Planning and research
The planning of any written work is actually the largest part of the task. Dont shirk it. It may be the arrangement of material you know pretty well, but even so you must check at every stage that what you have written is accurate and makes sense.
The planning for this page was done over a period of time, with jottings here and there. The bit of paper that has the plan on my desk as I write is itself a distillation of much else.
Much of a modern chemistry examination requires fairly short answers.
This is changing, however, and the latest syllabuses have been drawn up with
the (belatedly acquired) realisation that long answers are valuable. They
teach the skills of organising ideas. The principle of
planning is no different, though, for a 4-mark answer or a 10-mark answer. Think what to say before you start to write; then
you wont repeat the question or get lost, only to find youve used up all the
space and have still not answered the question. To plan a larger piece of work you have to
assemble all your material, and this may have to come from several sources. Research in a
library is a pretty physical type of activity; selecting a book, finding the information,
noting it, finding another book, and so on. You have to know how to use books.
As well as using the index, you should also have an overall picture of what any book that you intend to use repeatedly contains. Scan the contents page, so that you have some background information; have a quick look at the subheadings in the chapter(s) that cover the work you are currently doing. This is not learning, but is part of the background that will surface when you need it.
Notes from books should be concise. Do not copy them out. Graphs and diagrams, and equations, however, do need to be copied with great care. Consider whether a photocopy might be useful of an article or part of a book but remember copyright restrictions. Extracts from most books can be singly copied for private research, but some (including maps and music) may be excluded from this dispensation.
A feature that distinguishes good chemical writing from the merely competent is that good writing puts quantitative data in. Thus a discussion of the melting temperatures of metals, say, could come up with some vague generalisation; or there could be a table of values culled from the data book. You don't have to learn the values, but it will stop daft statements along the lines of 'potassium is a metal and has a relatively high melting temperature'. Apart from the question of what its melting temperature is related to, its value is actually well below 100oC.
Make a friend of your Data Book! If you haven't got one, get one. The Nuffield Data Book is excellent, as is that by Stark and Wallace.
The main points:
There is another point that is very important. Read this carefully.
IT, or not?
Pen and paper have been with you ever since you started learning. It amazes me still that so many people have little idea how to use them! The presentation of your work is very important; poor writing is not only an insult to the reader, it is potentially misleading in sciences where words such as alkene and alkane mean completely different things.
Making a mark on paper modifies all of the space around it. Graphic designers are well aware of this; the effective use of space is just as important as typographic design or the use of colour. The same is true of hand-written material. Some writing is easy to read (it may, oddly, not even be very neat) because it is well-spaced on the page. It has adequate margins, and the line width is great enough to allow ascending and descending strokes without them becoming tangled in other lines of writing. Standard ruled papers come in 7mm or 8mm rulings. I strongly believe that no-one has writing that looks good on narrow lined (7mm) paper. Dont use it.
I have a writing technique that I took from medieval scribes. If you use lined paper try writing between the lines rather than on them. The picture shows the difference (1).
You should write with an implement with which you feel comfortable. Formal writing should not be done in pencil apart from anything else it smudges and can be very hard to read because of a lack of contrast. At one time people took the view that proper writing was done in fountain pen, a ballpoint being an anathema. Fifty years on from my primary school teaching I still cannot pick up a ball-pen without a brief twinge of guilt! Write in ink; avoid bizarre colours; but choose whatever pen you like best. If your writing is poor, make a conscious effort to improve it. Legible writing generally has a consistent slope and is not excessively ornamented.
So, what about the word-processor? On the whole I prefer that students do not use one for routine work in chemistry, and certainly not for graphs or diagrams. My reasons are these:
What I tell you three times is true (2). In other words your own CPU between your ears is much more efficient than your computer in dealing with the complex notational and pictorial material that is chemistry; you will then have more time to do other things, including more chemistry.
Effective learning needs time, planning, effort, time, concentration, time. Follow the advice given here, and you will not only learn chemistry, but will acquire learning skills (ghastly word) that will stand you in good stead whatever you choose to do.
(1) The lines are taken from verse LI of the first edition of the translation by Edward Fitzgerald (1859) of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.. Khayyam was born in Naishapur, Persia (now Iran) in the latter half of the 12th century. How much of the translation is Khayyam and how much is Fitzgerald is a matter of debate, but it is a wonderful poem and has influenced me greatly. Verse LI is a pretty good exposition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics! The whole of the poem is here on my site.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
(2) In Lewis Carrolls nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark a number of people and animals whose names all begin with B embark on a sea voyage to find the Snark. No-one knows what the Snark is, but the first landfall is viewed optimistically by the leader of the expedition, the Bellman:
Just the place for a Snark!, the Bellman cried,
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it
I thought of this immediately I heard Education, education, education. Irony, of course. The Snark turned out to be a Boojum.
Carrolls more famous offerings concerning Alice have a Westminster link. Alice
Liddell was the daughter of Henry Liddell, Head Master of Westminster School in 1852 when
Alice was born, subsequently Dean of Christ Church Oxford where Carroll was a mathematics
don. Liddell was the co-author of Liddell and Scott, an enormous Greek lexicon still in
use; Alice was born in 19 Deans Yard, now Liddells House, Westminster School.