A student learning in a UBC classroom.
October 9, 2019
4 mins read

What you didn't realize you were learning in class

It can be easy to answer the question, “What do you learn in your classes?”, by naming facts and reciting formulas. But there’s a lot you learn in university that you don’t necessarily study for.

Here are 5 things you can learn during your time at UBC that go beyond your lecture notes—brought to you by second-year student Shawn and recent grad Jordan.

1. You learn to take your learning to a higher level

Shawn: For me, doing physics back in high school meant a) plugging numbers into formulas, b) hoping that whatever my calculator returned was one of the choices on the exam, and c) praying for scaling. University taught me that physics, like many courses, was more about learning the basic concepts and how they relate to the world, rather than just computing the math. Now, I approach courses with this insight: probe and grasp what’s really going on and see how they contribute to my understanding of how and why things work, instead of resorting to mindless formula-chugging.

Jordan: Going through university, it felt like everything was focused on short-term learning goals—write this essay, study for this exam, over and over. Looking back now though, I think less about all of the individual things I learned than I do about how I became better at interpreting information over time. Will I always remember what year Bismarck consolidated the German states? Maybe not, but I will always have the skills I learned in critical thinking. 

2. You learn what you’re capable of if you put your mind to it

Shawn: In my first year, I felt stretched by my courses, especially Calculus and Physics. I motivated myself to push on and get help. I went to tutoring sessions and invested more study time in these subjects than in ones I understood better. In the end, I managed to surpass my expectations of how I would do (whew). Now I’ve learned to stay motivated and goal-oriented, no matter what challenges I have up ahead.

Jordan: I really broadened my idea of who I was in university—I surprised myself by doing fairly well in my Econ courses (I never considered anything math-related a strong suit) and found myself struggling while studying second languages (which I thought would come easily). For everything that’s difficult for you, there’s something you’re really good at, and it’s not always what you expect. 

3. You learn that everyone thinks differently—and that’s okay

Shawn: When I was stuck on math problems, I’d log onto Piazza or ask my friends for help. I found that there rarely was only one way to solve (or explain) a problem. Whereas certain approaches and explanations may work for someone, they may not make as much sense to others. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we’re here: to learn how we, as individuals, best understand new concepts and to practice being open to different approaches.

Jordan: At the beginning of university, I thought that “thinking differently” from someone else meant that you held divergent worldviews. Group work and class discussions made me realize that while you can essentially agree with someone on the result, you can have really different processes to get there. If someone is a meticulous planner and someone else just goes with the flow, they can both write great essays or put together great products, but it might be tough for them to find common ground if they have to work together. It’s good to work with people that think differently than you do, though—you can usually pick something up from them that makes you a better thinker.

4. You learn to spot your assumptions and biases

Shawn: I used to jump to conclusions about a course (e.g. its difficulty, my interests in it) based on how I felt about it in the first few days. But often, I’d see how off these conclusions actually were: I grew to like the material and see the assignments as rigorous brain exercises. I bring that perspective into other matters, too: I try to give everyone and everything (at UBC and beyond) the benefit of the doubt—and question my hasty conclusions.

Jordan: I actually felt smarter at the beginning of university than I do now. I don’t mean that negatively; there’s a bit of a paradox where knowing more means you’re actually aware of how much you don’t know, and you feel like you know less. For example, I’d always considered myself a history buff, but after taking several courses in history, I realized how little I actually knew. It’s not really a bad thing. Growing up in Canada, we tend to focus a lot on European history, and I was able to study other areas of the world in my courses that deserve just as much attention. In a way, it’s exciting—I have my whole life to learn as much as I can about the whole world, beyond just one part of it. 

5. You learn to communicate with emotional intelligence

Shawn: Being in a new learning space with so many more individuals has shown me how diverse the UBC community really is—and how important it is to care about and respect others’ opinions and beliefs. I’ve learned to watch how I act and what I say in everyday interactions both in and out of the classroom, and to voice opinions (e.g. during group discussions) while also validating those of others.

Jordan: Working in group projects has helped me figure out the line between assertive and aggressive—I used to always be nervous about taking the lead in case it made me unlikeable. Turns out, people often appreciate some leadership! Being a leader is often as much about making sure others have the platform to share their opinions as it is about sharing yours, and nobody should dislike you for encouraging your groupmates.

Take your time at university—and through all the challenges you’ll meet—as a reservoir of opportunities to learn. Onwards to lifelong learning!

Header photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing