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The UnCollege Blog

4 Ways to Expand Your Capacity for Learning

By Jean Fan

In school, learning happens in a vacuum. We associate it with the hours of 8 to 3, with orderly schedules and heavy textbooks, with boredom and the grind. At the end of the day, we leave, glad that it’s finally over.

When I began my gap year and embarked on an exploration of self-directed learning, I knew that learning would be very different in the real world. Specifically, I knew that in school, I wasn’t learning nearly as effectively as I could be. I knew that this year, I wanted to be.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months thinking about this question: How can I expand my capacity for learning? Below, I share four things that I’ve started to do (or do better):

1. Treat everything as a learning experience.

Too many students fail to understand that there’s a distinction between learning and getting an education. They think learning only takes place in the context of school, and end up missing out on incredible learning opportunities in the real world.

Try to learn from everyone and everything. This requires a very open mindset, especially when you’re doing things or talking to people that you don’t find yourself particularly interested in. But hey, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to be doing something, you might as well take something from it as well!

2. Take care of your body.

Earlier this week we had ran a workshop on “Wellness” at UnCollege. Based on the logic that mind and body are one, it makes sense to take care of your body if you want to learn as much as you possibly can.

Eat right, get enough sleep, and work out every day you plan to work. You’ll be a lot more focused and in the right frame of mind as you try to learn.

3. Make learning what you do for fun.

It’s a Saturday morning. You have the entire day free. How do you choose to spend it? If you’re a hackademic, you wake up and want to get started on learning.

You take classes and read books -- not because you have to, but because you want to and you’re intensely curious. Maybe you decide to learn about biotechnology, or maybe you decide to take a windsurfing class. What you learn doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you feel about it. Aim to associate learning with fun.

4. At the same time, understand that learning is supposed to be challenging and dynamic.

This has been the most difficult thing for me since leaving school, where learning is very structured and organized and sometimes not all that difficult. At the beginning of my gap year, for example, I tried setting a rigid schedule for my learning. It didn’t work.

If one section was particularly difficult, I couldn’t just scrape by with a B on a test and forget about it, like I often did in school -- I needed to spend more time and just keep trying until I actually understood it, or what was the point?

Moreover, I found my attention naturally shifting as I began to learn more about certain areas. I realized that, unlike in school, where you often stick with one textbook throughout the entire course, in real life you can jump between resources and topics and entire fields however you please.

If you anticipate that learning will be challenging and dynamic, it’s less likely that you’ll get frustrated and quit. And if your goal is to learn more effectively than you ever did when you were in school, that is an immensely helpful realization to have.

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