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Why Your Classes are Boring

Why Your Classes are Boring
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    Does your textbook make your eyes glaze over? Is the desire for a degree or diploma the only thing keeping you focused on your classes? I’ll admit the lecture format most schools use to teach material isn’t the best way to hold your attention. But I think there is a more important factor when deciding if classes keep you interested:

    Are you actually using the information you’re being taught?

    Find a practical purpose for the courses your taking. Not only will this help your attention span, it will help your grades. If you can actually apply the information from your courses to daily life, the significance will help the information stick.

    Here are some courses you might be taking and potential uses for them in your life:

    1 – Statistics

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    Do you run any personal experiments? Knowing statistics can help you in designing your own tests and interpreting the data. Personal experiments are a great way to make targeted improvements. The foods you eat, things you buy and time you spend can all be tracked. Statistics can help you become more self-aware about the experiments you run.

    2 – History/Culture

    A history class may seem far removed from your daily life. I’ve found that classes that examine historical events or other cultures can give you a different perspective for viewing your life today. Going into Ancient Greece, India or Africa can be like a cultural exchange without leaving your home.

    The practical value of this new perspective can be in recognizing your assumptions. Different cultures look at the world in different ways, the ability to switch how you view your own world is powerful. Especially if the current lens you are using isn’t enough to solve your problems.

    3 – Economics

    Few courses break down how a society works more than economics. Whether you run your own business, want to understand political debates or invest in the stock market, basic economics is a must.

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    If you’re creative you can apply economic ideas to situations without money. Relationships, time-management or health can take on new perspectives if you start looking for the relative scarcity in a problem.

    4 – Psychology

    Psychology and sociology courses can be excellent when trying to understand your behavior and what makes people tick. Almost two-thirds of the psychology course material I’ve studied could be easily applied to my life. Operant and classical conditioning when changing habits. Cognitive biases and heuristics to improve my decision-making.

    Some universities are even including pop-psychology or “how to be happier” classes. I haven’t taken one of these courses, but I’m sure it goes a step further in connecting psychological principles to practical issues.

    5 – Computer Science

    Learning how to program computers can have many applications (no pun intended). Programming can help you solve technology related problems and when merged with your other creative skills it can be a valuable asset in a career or business.

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    Beyond the straightforward uses of programming, I’ve found it gives many useful metaphors for looking at everyday problems. Is your time-management system buggy? Do your habits produce the output you want for the given input?

    How to Find Hidden Applications in Your Courses

    Those five subjects are just a small fraction of the ways you can apply courses to your daily life. The best way to find practical uses is to start looking. If you believe your course has no practical purpose, it will be impossible to find one. Even the most abstract courses can be transformed into a useful study with a bit of creativity.

    Here are some different ways you can use information you learn in school:

    Give Yourself a New Box

    Thinking outside the box has become a tired cliche for thinking creatively. But the image it conjures is accurate. All of our problems exist within boxes of thinking. The assumptions form the walls of this box, and solutions outside the walls are ignored.

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    The best way to apply courses in your daily life is to take the problem solving methods you use in one setting and apply it to another. How would you solve a relationship problem if it were in an economics class? Psychology? Computer Science?

    Most people don’t think outside the box because they don’t realize its there. You actually have many different boxes, all for different types of problems. You spent good money and study time to make a new box for a subject, why not apply it to a different type of problem?

    Expand Your Abilities

    Courses that teach a practical skill (accounting, computer science, design, etc.) can be helpful in giving you new tools to tackle daily life. When I began learning statistics, the new abilities expanded what I could do when running my own personal experiments. Instead of relying on intuition and guesswork to interpret data, I could use statistical methods.

    My challenge to you is to go through all the course material you’re currently taking. Look for one way you can apply one idea from a course in your daily life. This could be writing a simple computer program to track information for yourself. Or it could be using operant conditioning to change a habit.

    Once you get into the pattern of applying academic concepts to the real world, the information sticks. The difference is in just viewing an idea inside your mind and actually holding it in your hands. Experiencing an idea for yourself will make your classes less boring.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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