Learning How to Learn

by | May 6, 2022

Written by: Roger Hsu

As a science instructor, one of the phrases I hear regularly from my students is “science is so hard to understand,” a statement that I wholeheartedly agree with. Topics like chemistry and biology aren’t normally utilized on a day-to-day basis, so learning the fundamentals of these studies can initially be a jarring experience. However, I believe that leaning into the discomfort that comes with grappling with novel and complex information teaches us more about how we process and learn information ourselves.

I have made it no secret to my students that I struggled with learning at their age: I often found myself confused when presented with new information in classes and frustrated when I couldn’t comprehend ideas that seemed to come more naturally to my peers. Those feelings of exasperation prevented me from trying to learn, and as a result, I shied away from subjects I found difficult and performed poorly in many of my classes.

Only when I began college did I realize that I could no longer run from learning: pursuing a career in medicine meant that I would have to not only study, but also succeed, in topics that were notoriously convoluted. I distinctly remember my experience with my first chemistry course I took in college as I constantly struggled to stay ahead and worked late hours to keep up with the breakneck pace of the class. The transition from lackadaisically approaching my classes in the past to fervently studying the material of each course was jarring, and I felt as if I was struggling to stay afloat. However, as each semester went by, I noticed that my experience began to change: despite the increased workload and complexity of information, I found that I no longer felt the frustration that I used to when learning. I now was able to digest novel information and translate it into a form that I could process myself, and it is this exact skill that I developed over time that I believe can only come from grappling with new ideas.

When approached with a challenging or difficult topic, people are forced to adapt and find the best way that they can process and learn information, and while it may not be apparent in the moment, we slowly teach ourselves how we best learn. I believe that “learning” is a skill that needs to be developed and strengthened over time, and one can only hone the ability to learn by wrestling with information that forces the mind the adapt its view, increasing the flexibility of how one thinks and approaches difficult topics. Therefore, no matter what you are studying, whether it be STEM or the humanities, each experience makes your mind more versatile and conditions you to lean into the discomfort of learning, helping you master how you learn.