How To Deal With Learning In Uni: The Art of Learning To Learn

I think I have been comparatively stress-free during my stay in IMU Bukit Jalil or in Seremban, and whenever I describe my life during medical school – especially the time in Seremban, I would say I really have had the time of my life, and it was mostly a joyride.

Of course, it was around about 75% luck – I have had amazing housemates and we were extremely close friends – a bunch of happy-go-lucky kind, and that made life probably a hundred times easier. But I believe the other 25% is my mindset.
I was fortunate enough to not repeat any exams, (considering my batch has had a failure rate of somewhere in between 5-10% each big exam, this was really lucky) but this is neither because I am intelligent nor hardworking. Of course I attribute this to a big pile of luck as well, but I think this was also thanks to the mindset against exams in general – and I am slowly learning that these sets of mindsets can be expanded to life in general.

So I thought why not just share this mindset to people who might be interested – if anybody can at least learn something from it, even if it may be one person, I would be glad.

First message I would like to give – Be Realistic.

I know that most of you whom entered IMU are over-achievers in your own lives. However, here’s something new – you don’t have to blame yourself for not having a distinction or a gold medal. Chances are that most of the students in your university were high-achievers in all through primary, secondary, and high school. In the midst of all the high-achievers, is it understandable that you have a few gifted students who would achieve double with half the effort?

I know, I know…with our Asian culture and mindset, it is difficult to change the mindset that A=average and B=bad, C=complete failure and nothing else exists, but if you don’t try, nobody will change it for you and beating yourself all the time is plain unhealthy.

Most of us have to realize that passing in a medical/dental institute is already an achievement, and aiming for distinction should come only if passing is a breeze for you… but for most students, it is NOT! The important thing here is to do your best, and not kill yourself in the process. I learnt this early, because I was never that over-achiever. I failed my A-levels and took it again to be able to enter university at all! – But I have been fortunate enough to not re-sit any exams in IMU. Again, half luck, but the other half is skill.

So how can we improve the efficacy of learning?

  1. Concentrate when you’re studying.

This applies to every aspect of the learning process. Whether you are in class, during group projects, or studying by yourself, it is definitely better to concentrate for an hour than studying with half the concentration for 2 hours.

I don’t suggest playing music when trying to retain facts – especially music with lyrics. Classical music may help you relax while studying when you’re too tense (I will talk about STRESS shortly) You may listen to music however when you’re trying to pull out information from your mind and to check which information you can access in your brain – i.e. when doing past year papers.

One suggestion to make such concentration possible, is to time yourself while studying. try to achieve the maximum amount of learning in the shortest time possible – this skill of “mental sprinting” will also be useful in various aspects of your life. The faster you can finish a task, the more things you can do!

  1. Control the amount of stress, and use stress to your advantage.

Everyone gets stressed out before exams – but not everyone knows that stress can be beneficial!

You should have an optimal amount of stress for you to perform maximally. If you’re feeling too sleepy or relaxed, drink a coffee or think about the semester fees.
If you are having palpitations because you are too stressed, accept the fact that you won’t function so well, and go talk to your classmates, joke about something, or go for a drink.

Try to be at the middle of the curve (the part that says “optimal arousal”) or a little right of the curve, so that you will recognize your stress and slowly move your stress-managing capability.

  1. Recognize that learning involves input AND output

Memory has no use if you cannot output it from your mind. therefore, you need to make conscious efforts to practice on out-putting what is in your mind… through writing, ( like exactly what I am doing right now!), teaching others, through discussions (PBL!) and doing essay-based past year questions.  It takes practice to put concepts into coherent sentences, but it really does promote learning because when you try to put things into words, you realize that you need to recall the facts, and link the facts together when doing so.

  1. Do past year questions

Past year questions are your strongest allies when tackling exams. every examination has its own trends, and you should make every effort to attempt past years – sometimes multiple times. not only to recognize the trend of the questions, but to realize which areas are your weaknesses, so you can revisit them. Get these from your immediate seniors, and make them for your juniors.

  1. Plan your learning early

Why do we have to plan early? various reasons. One – we have to allow ourselves some time to fail. If you set your plan too stringently, say, 5 repetitions of a particular topic over 2 months and you figure out that you can probably do only 3, you need to readjust your plan accordingly. Two – it is always better to study a little every day, than to study for the whole day for a day in a week. early planning will enable you to spread out your learning so that studying everyday would be a breeze. Victory loves preparations!

  1. Find your own studying methods

Everyone has different strengths in cognition. Some people can remember better when they read things aloud, and some others remember better when writing things down. Try to find how you study best, and stick to it. When it is not working, change it! Try many methods to find the one best suited for you.

  1. Improve memory by associations

Memory improves with emotional involvement.

We remember things better when we FEEL something when we try to retain facts. Therefore, try to make opportunities to link emotions to facts – a good way to link them is through humor. Try to make jokes out of facts. The sicker the joke is, the better, because that sense of disgust will also enhance memory. Have friends with a good sense of humor around. They’re usually good at turning everything into jokes.

Memory improves with associations.

When we are young, we can remember facts as it is, but as we get older, we tend to remember more when it is associated with other information.

For example, if you were foreign to English language, and to remember the word… say, “ubiquitous” – if you were 5 years old, you would probably be able to recall it next week. But if you were 55, you most probably will not. On the other hand, if I were to explain the meaning of the word, that it means “Being or seeming to be everywhere at the same time” and because this 55 year old man is a religious man, I tell him – “like god and his holy presence, it is ubiquitous”, he may be able to remember this word not only for a week, but his whole life.

Try to relate everything you have learnt, to each other, and to something you known previously -which brings us to my next point.

  1. Don’t just study all the time.

I just mentioned that people remember better when things are associated together. This means that your ability to memorize things will increase proportionally to your current memory of various other things.

If you have spent your whole life studying locked in your room, you won’t be able to easily relate things together – simply because you have a lack of retained facts to link together! This explains why people who does lots of sports, and has lots of hobbies seem like they have less trouble remembering new things.

Having lots of things to do is good for your hippocampus. “What is that” you say? It is the part of the brain responsible for remembering new facts. You can memorize new things thanks to this organ in your brain. In a nutshell, doing new things in life will stimulate your hippocampus, therefore making your ability to memorize more powerful.

Having hobbies will be hugely beneficial in relieving stress. doing extra curricular activities in university will help you find friends whom you can turn to. The list of benefit is endless. When in university, join at least one extracurricular activity. Trust me, it will be worth it.

  1. Teach people!

Teaching is a highly complicated task that requires a lot of skill! but when we actually attempt to teach someone else, we are forced to search into our minds into our retained facts, and summarize them and output them as coherent words so others can understand. this will make us realize parts of our memories that are lacking, so that we can go back and learn them again, and train us in the terms of output. the person who benefits the most from teaching, is actually the teacher him/herself!

  1. Have zero tolerance for boredom

I know studying can get boring. But boredom is the no.1 enemy to memory retention and recall. Don’t allow this to happen. Use many different ways to study, like drawing out mind-maps, conduct PBL-style discussion with friends, make quizzes for your friends to attempt using free softwares like “Kahoot.it”, make presentations, teaching other students, asking others to teach you etc etc etc. be creative.

In summary, learning is a skill we can learn to make learning less stressful and exams less scary. If you want to enjoy university life as much as I did, one thing you could do is to change your mindset. If you already have great friends, you are just one step away from a great university life!



Author: Tatsuki Abe (CM114)

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