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Celeste Leander_Collegia
October 3, 2017
3 mins read

Advice from a prof: Rethink how you learn

Dr. Celeste Leander shares how she went from being a passive to an engaged student.

Because I always loved animals, I thought I would like to be a veterinarian. My family didn’t have the resources to send me to school.

In fact, other than my mother’s 2-year nursing degree (which she earned after I was born when she was 18), no one in my family had ever gone to college or university. No one was particularly against the idea at the start, but it was very clear that I was expected to be financially independent when I turned 18. In a way, this was a wide-open adventure. I had little expectations and zero pressure. I felt like a pioneer!

I started my academic journey at a 2-year junior college in the very northwest corner of California. It was a beautiful campus nestled in the redwood rainforest, and I made a secret promise to myself that I was going to get straight A’s. (I was not particularly committed in high school and ended up with mostly C's and B's in grade 12. I had no idea how to even earn an A.)

My tuition was a lot of money for me. I was working part-time at a movie theatre, and I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do this college thing.

I had one amazing professor that first semester. He was a grumpy-looking older man, and he came into class the first day with a black trash bag. Before he even introduced himself, he came around and made us throw away all our newly purchased highlighters. He told us, “Highlighting is passive, and you’ll never learn anything that way.” And then he marched up to the podium and began his lecture. I remember being confused—I didn’t know how I was supposed to take notes or study.

But this simple moment—throwing away my highlighters—forced me to rethink what learning meant.

I began studying with friends, some of whom were also in the anti-highlighter class. We talked to each other and professors and we learned to actively take notes. We learned to summarize information. We learned to ask for help and do lots of problems. I was lucky because I was forced to figure out early on how to be an engaged student.

What I learned that term were some skills that were actually pretty simple:

  • I paid attention during lectures and summarized my notes as soon as I could afterward. (Immediately after, if I could.)
  • I learned to study in small chunks of time during the day instead of putting it off until evening.
  • I learned to focus my study time on things I didn’t know, instead of reassuring myself by reviewing things I already knew.

I did manage to get straight A's that term and got a small scholarship, which led me to university.

I transferred to Humboldt State University for my 3rd year. That was the year I had too many classes for the first time. I remember taking a physics course where I enjoyed the theory part, but did not enjoy (or pay attention in) the labs. This seemed fine—or so I thought—because I had a lab partner who was very capable.

What I didn’t realize in advance was that part of the course grade included individual lab exams. I went into the first exam completely unprepared. I was supposed to complete a circuit, and I remember sitting there in front of all these wires and power supplies and having no idea how to proceed.

I managed to squeak through the class in the end—barely—learning from the experience that I was responsible for all parts of the courses I was taking. I earned my Bachelor’s degree the next year and started down a winding road that eventually led me to UBC.