How do I learn how to learn?
July 15, 2007 7:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I become open and patient about learning new things instead of terribly angry with myself and very easily frustrated? In many aspects of life there are things I'd like to do, or learn, but don't - because upon hitting a challenge I get intensely frustrated and angry and am mostly occupied with feeling terrible.

I was in a class last week trying to learn some basic object oriented programming and I nearly ran out of the room in tears at one point, and spent a significant part of the class time fighting the urge to throw something, or yell, or stomp around and basically act like a bratty child. I asked for help from the instructor when I needed it and got by all right, but it was exhausting and really, the bouts of anger and frustration kept returning the whole time. I have to study this independently to get the concepts down and I'm already dreading going through this cycle again.

I also realized this isn't unique to working with technology - I also had it in college when I had to write long papers, and always put them off because I would try to work, but couldn't concentrate and wasted an immense amount of time fighting off the emotional reaction described above.

This is no way to live! There are a lot of creative things I'd like to do, writing, working on music, design and photography, and maybe I'd like to take up a sport or take lessons. In fact I'd like to do a lot of this stuff without taking lessons but I guess I just need some advice first. I tried yoga and quickly came to dread going to class, and then quit, because I spent about 2/3 of it trying not to get upset with myself and to stop thinking "I can't do this" the entire time. I would feel pretty good afterward when I got through the class, yes, but the fight didn't make me look forward to going back.

I tend to suffer from low grade depression/dysthymia but medication has never helped me (I have tried many) and I do try to take good care of myself, I eat healthy food and do get exercise although it's mostly day to day long walks, I don't do anything really intense. (Jogging would be another activity where it's that constant struggle with my brain telling me "I hate this, I can't do this" and feeling intensely frustrated and angry with myself..) What do I do?
posted by citron to Human Relations (29 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there's any secret technique involved. Learning how to fail without self-hatred is difficult, but there's nothing for it but to be philosophical with yourself.

"The standard isn't perfection. The standard is the alternative." If you judge yourself by comparing yourself to perfection, you'll come up short and feel bad.

The idea is to accept that sometimes you will fail. But sometimes you'll succeed. Successes make you better; those are points in your column. Failure may be frustrating, but what does it actually harm? If, when you fail, someone else gets hurt -- then that's bad. But if the failure doesn't cause any harm at all, then how is failure any worse than the alternative, which is to preemptively give up and not try at all?

The standard is the alternative, which is that you never tried at all. If you try and fail and if the result is no worse than if you didn't try at all, then it's a "0" in the score column, not a "-1". And if you try and succeed, then that's a "1".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:05 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

My father gave me good advice when I was feeling like this. He said, "Don't expect to know something you haven't learned."

Allow yourself the time to learn something before you expect yourself to be good at it, or even competent. I'd wager you'd judge your first day of trying to play chess against kasparov's latest game. It's not fair, and it's certainly frustrating.

Be kind to yourself. When you feel yourself getting angry, just tell yourself, "I don't have to be good. I don't even have to be competent. I just have to try to learn. If I fail today, that's ok. If I fail tomorrow or forever, that's ok too. But for right now, I'll just give myself the opportunity to learn." At least, that's what I do.
posted by milarepa at 8:09 PM on July 15, 2007

Thanks all.. I hear you. It's hard, I get this overwhelming, irrational feeling. Like.. like road rage! Only it's school rage! And then my concentration is gone and my energy depleted. I used to be a very good student but only so far as things were easy for me..
posted by citron at 8:15 PM on July 15, 2007

have you tried cognitive therapy? it might help you figure out how to channel that anger into something constructive.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:23 PM on July 15, 2007

Well, I'm mildly dyslexic with math issues... doing an ounce of math is much harder than a pound of something more fun/less beating my head against the wall because the deck truly is stacked against me. Possibly getting tested for ADD/learning difficulties might help? A lot of times, I can find ways to sidestep what is causing the problems for me- if you are a visual learner, hearing it read aloud might not help at all, ect. For my dyslexia, having something explained in more practical terms than left west/right east really made some obvious to anyone but a dyslexic things very clear to me.

Also, try setting small goals, that are easily achievable but would still give you a sense of accomplishment, and then work your way up to big goals.

And don't panic! it helps nothing.
posted by Jacen at 8:26 PM on July 15, 2007

Good advice above. It helps me to break tasks down into smaller ones so then I can note my achieving levels of learning. Little baby steps for everything. I congratulate myself for each little step along the way. This also helps me stay in the present moment so I don't focus on how much I don't know and how long it's going to take me to learn that - which is almost immediately overwhelming and frustrating.

I do a similar sort of mind game when I exercise or do something I basically don't want to do - but should because it's good for me and ultimately what I want to do it.

When I loose it, for some reason it helps me to think of this old Michael Jordan ad where he talks about failing. I remember when it came out he was at the height of his success. It's pretty silly, but sometimes in nursing school I would be soooo frustrated on the verge of tears for the 100th time about something I needed to know and I'd just say to my boyfriend: How many baskets did Michael Jordan miss?! And he would calmly reply: thousands. It would make me laugh a bit and bring some brevity to the moment. Find your MJ ad that lightens your mood. Hang in there - you're learning how to.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:38 PM on July 15, 2007

Loosen your grip on the bad feeling. Don't identify yourself with it so completely. Remember that you are not your rage -- it's just a feeling, it's not who you are -- and feelings always change.

Instead of being totally consumed with it, cultivate a gentle internal witness: "Oh yeah. Here it is again. Hello, rage."

Carve out a little place inside your own head that is not caught up in your rage -- a place, not matter how small, where you're just observing it. Over time, with practice, you may find that witness place gets larger, giving you a sense of refuge inside yourself.

Remember that you may not be able to stop yourself from feeling bad, but feeling bad about feeling bad is totally optional.

When you get a wave of rage and frustration, pause, breathe, and let it sweep through you. Don't beat yourself up about it, or give it additional energy by struggling with it. Just let it go.

The sooner you witness a bad feeling, and loosen your grip on it, the sooner it can change.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:50 PM on July 15, 2007 [12 favorites]

The way to become a better learner is to practice by finding more things to be a beginner at.
posted by rhizome at 9:28 PM on July 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

It's hard, I get this overwhelming, irrational feeling. Like.. like road rage! Only it's school rage! And then my concentration is gone and my energy depleted.

I wonder if drugs might help? I find that smoking marijuana helps me zone in, maintain focus, and enjoy the learning process.

I have never tried Xanax or similar prescription "be happy" type drugs, maybe those would also help take the angry edge off?
posted by Meatbomb at 9:54 PM on July 15, 2007

ottereroticist, you don't have a background in psychosynthesis by any chance do you?

I have been attending a counsellor who specialises/ prefers this approach, and it works really well for me (MUCH better than CBT).

Here's something along the lines of what I have learned to do: I say to myself- outloud or in my head depending on context - 'OK, the angry part of me REALLY wants to be heard right now: Hey AngryMe! Yes, I can hear you, but you're not helping. Please tone it down or help me. Otherwise shoosh.'

It doesn't work every time, but it works a lot better than doing nothing. I find my rage at not being able to learn new things usually comes from the fact that I am terrified of failure or looking stupid as a result of failure-- and you can't fail if you don't try eh? A very silly way of looking at things, because it means I only do what I know I can, and am now suffering deeeeep boredom. Plus it means I tend to act like an angry child, and that's not how I want to behave.

I find also that the anger seems to come from my overactive Critic-- so addressing comments to your internal critic can also help dissipate the toxicity of your anger.

"Observe but don't engage" might be a good mantra for when you feel the rage building. And hey, if you know you're going into a situation where you might be triggered into rage, a little pep talk beforehand can really help.

eg 'OK dude, I know this might be hard but you're doing really well, OK? You can do this, and I know you're going to walk out of here having learned a lot, just stay focused and try to keep it bite-size. Hang in there. You can do it.' etc etc

Good luck! I know how frustrating this is!
posted by gerls at 9:56 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

try a little cognitive therapy on yourself. What is it that you are thinking as you get so upset? Maybe it is something like "I have to perfect or I'm no good" Make a list of these thoughts. These are the beliefs that are driving the emotions. for each thought, figure out what's wrong - it might be the thought that one mistake means everything is a disaster or that you can't make a mistake even when you are learning. Figure out the truth of the situation - one mistake isn't the end of the world; if you already knew everything, you wouldn't need to learn it; you don't have to be perfect,just good enough. The next time you have this problem, sit down later and write down all the negative thoughts. For each one, write the counter argument. After you do this a few times, you will be able to provide yourself with the counter arguments in real time. It takes practice but over time it will help short circuit the overload. If you want help figuring out to do this, check out "Feeling Good" by David Burns.

Your reaction is so strong - it seems like a response to deeply rooted feelings. Since you are in school, you might want to talk to the counseling center about this too.
posted by metahawk at 10:04 PM on July 15, 2007

ottereroticist, you don't have a background in psychosynthesis by any chance do you?

No -- I owe a lot of this stuff to Buddhist writers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:09 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Aha.... something to add to the (Stuff I Should Read) List! Thanks!
posted by gerls at 10:11 PM on July 15, 2007

You are procrastinating. Specifically, I think you're suffering from what psychologist Albert Ellis calls Low Frustration Tolerance (some others call this feeling Discomfort Dodging). The best way to overcome feelings of low frustration tolerance (LFT) or discomfort dodging is to put yourself in situations where you experience these feelings and then work on staying in the situation for greater periods of time.

The following is from The Procrastination Workbook by Dr. Bill Knaus:
Procrastination exposure training involves recognizing when you start to procrastinate. Then, before the process cascades into a full-blown procrastination habit sequence, you deal with the initial discomfort-dodging urges that can trigger procrastination. To implement your exposure program, take any timely activity that you have put off. Approach the task with the idea that you are going to work through the tension to get to the desired result. Allow yourself to feel any accompanying negative sensation, and the urge to procrastinate. Stick with the feeling. Show yourself you can tolerate that experience. Keep initiating actions to complete the timely activity.

When you allow yourself to experience procrastination-related negative sensations, you show yourself that you can tolerate that tension. You will soon see that such tensions are time-limited. Through this tension exposure process, you can teach yourself to build tolerance for tension, and use tension sensations as a signal to act productively, rather than as a signal to avoid productive actions. By showing yourself that you don't need immediate relief from tension, you position yourself to apply your higher mental resources to guide your actions.

Procrastination exposure training is not a one-time event. This training involves experiencing procrastination tensions often. It involves cuing yourself to use the tension as a catalyst for purposeful action. Perhaps sooner, rather than later, you can show yourself that you can tolerate the sort of discomfort that can trigger procrastination, and constructively act despite the tension.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 10:41 PM on July 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

You realize, of course, that you CHOOSE how you feel. So when that overwhelming wave of school rage breaks over you and you're submerged in the red mist and everything blurs out, at that moment make a conscious decision to feel something else. It really is that simple and it really does work. It won't happen right away, and it won't work perfectly every time. But it is enormously empowering to realize that you are in charge of your emotional state, and not just some of the time: all the time. I think it's less important to figure out WHY you feel that way than it is to develop some easy coping skillz that'll provide positive feedback and nip your anger in the bud.

Speaking of bud, I lived by Meatbomb's advice for years and it seemed to work fine, but ultimately state-dependent learning is no path to self-fulfillment. Xanax turns people into useless zombies and it's insidiously addictive. Not Cool.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:51 PM on July 15, 2007

Instead of being totally consumed with it, cultivate a gentle internal witness: "Oh yeah. Here it is again. Hello, rage."

If you like ottereroticist's lovely Buddhist approach, you can take it further by imagining the rage in the form of a wrathful deity. Aren't they cute? And they're actually good & protective! Let them have their little wrathful dance whilst you sit back & think "d'aw!" and then get back to business.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:41 PM on July 15, 2007

Do you feel like you should be able to do it or that everyone else would expect you to be able to do it and you get frustrated/embarrassed when you can't do it right away? Like everyone is looking at you and wondering why you're even bothering to try, because you so obviously suck? I have a real problem with that - I hated creative writing as a kid because I read so much and what I wrote could never compare, so I didn't even want to try - and what helps me is to keep telling myself that no one expects me to waltz into a class and instantly be the best. I've recently taken up roller skating and my mantra has been 'You're still new. You're still learning. It's okay to fuck up. No one expects you to be awesome. Seriously, it's okay to fuck up - no one minds. You're new.'

I know exactly where it comes from for me - I was the brainy kid at school and everyone *did* expect me to be able to do everything straight away, and I could because school was easy for me. Then I hit college and university. Damn, was that a shock.
posted by corvine at 5:09 AM on July 16, 2007

Wow, I have the same problem.

People are always telling me not to be so hard on myself, but it's impossible for me NOT to be. When I get into something and am not immediately good (or at least able to not look like a fool) I blow up or shut down.

Corvine nailed my issue... Like everyone is looking at you and wondering why you're even bothering to try, because you so obviously suck?

No advice, just commiserating.
posted by Hugh2d2 at 6:27 AM on July 16, 2007

Hugh2d2 (citron, and others?)

You might find this thread interesting...?
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:38 AM on July 16, 2007

I was in a class last week trying to learn some basic object oriented programming and I nearly ran out of the room in tears at one point, and spent a significant part of the class time fighting the urge to throw something, or yell, or stomp around and basically act like a bratty child.

Sounds like a perfectly healthy initial reaction to OOP. The same kind of thing happens to competent writers when they first encounter Baudrillard.

OOP is deeply unnatural. It's a Procrustean bed for a programmer's natural creativity. The simple fact is that not everything is an object, and attempting to force things which are not objects (like, for example, processes and transformations) into an OO conceptual framework really does cause ridiculous amounts of rage and frustration - especially if you get a glimpse of the enormous amount of superfluous work that's going to go on under the hood as a result.

My best advice to you: keep on doing that extracurricular study. Don't expect to be taught things; have enough faith in yourself that you will be able to learn them. If stuff isn't making sense in class, just make notes so you can come back to it later. I expect you'll find that in the course of just trying to do this stuff, you'll have those "Aha!" moments where all of a sudden you see the benefit of all that foolery with circles and arrows and little pictures of clouds and boxes with wavy lines on the bottom; and it's then that you should go back to your class notes and find out how to use the stuff productively.

You can also remind yourself that this stupid mountain you're climbing right now is not, in and of itself, any harder than any of the mountains you've successfully climbed before, and now walk up regularly before lunch, and that you will, eventually, grok enough of it to make the rest fall into place with minimal pain.

Those people around you who don't appear to be fighting back tears of rage and frustration at OO? Drones. None of them will ever amount to anything. If OO doesn't enrage you when you first encounter it, you don't understand programming.
posted by flabdablet at 6:59 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Everyone has had good insight into what the idea here is: give yourself some space, don't criticize failure that occurs while learning something new. The tricky part is figuring out how to do this.

ottereroticist has nailed it, I think. To quote from a writer I like, who also happens to practice Zen buddhism:

"It still amazes me how, no matter what hardships I endure (and there have been many in recent times), I'm always happy. This is not some innate strength or serenity - it is the result of years of training and practice. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - we can't escape pain, fear, sadness, heartbreak, anger, anything - but we can choose not to be enslaved by them. We can choose not to suffer, we can choose to find heaven anywhere in the hell of the phenomenal world." (

Emotions are largely outside of your control. They arise and fall without checking whether you want them to be there. Practice - hard, consistent practice - will help you to avoid the epiphenomena that you're describing when you fail at something you're learning.

Good luck, and best wishes.
posted by ellF at 7:54 AM on July 16, 2007

I used to be a very good student but only so far as things were easy for me.

Me too, and I have struggled with this exact problem you're describing for years. Once I broke down in frustrated tears in front of my new boss because i was having trouble understanding something he was trying to teach me. Embarrassing in the extreme. I think the issue (as a few have mentioned above) is that we're so used to things being easy, we never learned how to deal with things that aren't. Definitely read the article from UbuRoivas's link for more insight on this.

One thing that helps when I get this feeling now is to try to observe my frustration as something interesting. "Hey, this is really pissing me off! Weird! That doesn't even make any sense. Aren't human beings strange and funny? And how awesome must this subject [whatever I'm learning] be, if it can get to me this much?" Pretty soon interest in my weird mood overtakes the weird mood itself as my dominant emotion.

The thing that helps even more is to imagine myself completely giving in to the frustrated feeling, throwing a full-out tantrum or screaming or whatever the 3-year-old inside me really wants to do in that moment. In my head, I'm kicking and screaming on the floor and calling my teacher/textbook author/computer/whoever a poopy-head. If necessary, I will actually pout and stomp my foot quietly in real life. The whole thing is so silly, it makes me laugh and helps dissolve the frustration. I already know on an intellectual level that my anger and frustration is silly (because I'm just a beginner at this!), but acting it out in my head lets the absurdity register deep down, so that those feelings just melt away.
posted by vytae at 8:25 AM on July 16, 2007

Along the lines of what vytae's saying, it's often interesting, rather than just trying to transcend the emotion, to really explore it in the moment and see where it's coming from, here and in the moment.

Just examine the sensations you're having. Where in your body do you feel them? Is your jaw clenched, stomach clenched, hands balled into fists? Is your heart racing? Is there pressure somewhere in your head? Where? Are you on the verge of tears? What's going on with your feet, knees, shoulders? Are there images in your head? Of what? Are there words in your head? What are they?

Don't judge any of these sensations, or try to figure out why they're there. Just observe.

Eventually the anger/rage/hurt will start to recede, because all emotions pass, and you'll start to feel some of the sensations changing or lessening. What does that feel like?

Two reasons for this examination: One, I think that ignoring emotions is generally futile, so tuning into them gives you a bit of clinical distance on them (it's hard to be swept up in rage when you're dispassionately trying to determine whether you're stomach muscles are clenched) while preventing you from repressing them (which, in my experience, tends to lead to more frustration about not being able to stop feeling frustrated).

Two, I find it that if you can regularly tune into what your body's doing in response to your emotional state, it's easier to identify the emotional state before it gets out of control. So if I know that my stomach clenches and my heart races when I'm anxious, I can often identify that I'm about to get anxious because I feel my stomach clenching. At that point, before I'm in a full-blown "OMG CAN'T FUNCTION ACK ACK AAAAACK!!!" state, I can start tuning in and taking deep breaths and calming myself down (which may feel close to impossible if I wait until I'm swept away by the emotion).
posted by occhiblu at 9:17 AM on July 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Like everyone is looking at you and wondering why you're even bothering to try, because you so obviously suck?

Getting over this assumption helped me immensely when I decided to take on harder and harder learning challenges. I thought back to all those times I was at the top of the class or the most deft learner -- what did I think about those struggling classmates? In truth, sometimes they gave me a little boost ("Cool, I'm doing well/I'm ahead/I won't have to study hard tonight/I must be good at this."). Sometimes they gave me extra time to try something out while I waited for my turn to come around again. Yes, sometimes I was a little bored if they needed to go over something I already knew, but that's it. That's the worst effect the slowest student in class has on the quickest -- a little boredom. (And the few times I've been in class with someone who's completely over his/her head, I feel empathy for their situation and usually offer them help if they ask. It's not their fault that the class administrators didn't employ criteria to make sure everyone in the class is at the same level and of the same mental agility!)

Now I'm in a language class where I'm the most-beginning student, and it really helps me to remember that my struggles help my cohorts feel confident that they're doing so well and appreciate the extra time that I take in coming up with my sentences because it enables them to try out more complex sentences when it's their turn. (Which in turn helps me learn, because they're taking a risk.)
posted by xo at 9:34 AM on July 16, 2007

There's lots of good advice in this thread but the core problem is your depression or dysthymia. Learning can be very difficult and stressful, and if youre mentally in a place where everyday things are depressing and difficult then many other things will push you over the edge. Do you find you have this problem when you're not depressed? If not, you should really consider the depression to be the root of severe moodiness and find betters way to tackle that.

Its also possible that a person with chronic depression (low grade or not) in his formative years would miss out on what his peers got from early educzation. It could be that because of your mental problems you never learned how to learn in a structured environment. This could be causing your frustration too. If so, don';t be shy about tutoring or taking an easier programming class (sub 101) to begin to catch-up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've probably had low grade depression (and a few episodes of more serious depression) since my early teens and I am doing better now than in a long time, but this real basic impulse to quit things or not do things or stay home is still always present.

It could be that because of your mental problems you never learned how to learn in a structured environment.

Interesting. I never thought of that! What does it mean, precisely, to know how to learn in a structured environment? There are certain methods or steps to it? I will have to research this. That is really something I never thought about whatsoever.
posted by citron at 8:59 PM on July 16, 2007

What does it mean, precisely, to know how to learn in a structured environment? There are certain methods or steps to it?

A couple things that helped me: Knowing that school isnt purely a DIY environment. Don't be shy about asking "stupid" questions in class. In fact, school is much easier if you take on the role of the guy who asks the "stupid" questions all the time. Your shy classmates will thank you.

Exploit the resource that is your professors. Schedule office hours. Also, lean on your classmates for help or try to form some kind of group. Exploit resources like other textbooks, online, and tutors.

You also shouldnt be afriad of making an appointment with your professor and saying, "I feel like Im going to fail unless something drastic happens. What can do recommend I do?"

Lastly, try to find out who the "good" professors are at your school and try to take their classes.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:51 AM on July 17, 2007

I'm a learner. I could label myself by my job (programmer/writer) or by my passion (theatre), but what makes me me more than anything else is learning. I love learning. I love the process of learning even more than I love having-learned-something.

But I used to be like you. Maybe worse. Back then, I wouldn't have even bothered posting a question like this, because I was convinced I had forever lost the knack for learning. I was sure my brain just couldn't learn anything new.

I eventually discovered that I was underestimating how hard it is for adults to learn. This was ironic, because it sure felt like I was trying hard, but I wasn't trying hard enough.

Most learning involves memorizing, grasping an abstract concept, or a combination of both those things. Yet I was doing neither. What I was doing was reading (or listening to) something ONCE and then beating myself up because I didn't remember it or didn't get it.

I found out that once is not enough -- that the learners of the world made sure they got exposed to ideas and techniques multiple times in a variety of ways.

Here's a technique that's worked really well for me, especially with programming-related ideas: get info three times from there very different sorts of sources.

For instance, I didn't master OOP until I had read a book about it, heard a lecture on it and watched a video about it. Note: reading three different books about it (or watching three different videos) wouldn't have worked as well. I'm not sure what this works, but I've noticed it again and again, both with myself and my students (I taught for 20 years).

My guess is it works because we're social animals. If you hear something once, your brain probably says, "Only one guy is telling it to you. Can't be all that important." But if three totally different, unrelated guys tell it to you, your brain decides it must be key social information, worth keeping. Your brain is much more likely to see a book, a video and a lecture as "three guys" than three books.

You shouldn't have much trouble finding three different sources for info, and if you do, go ahead and choose three sources of one type -- say all books -- but try to find books that are very different from one another.

Another great thing about the three-sources technique is that you're likely to get the same idea filtered through three different metaphors or teaching approaches. This is awesome for "getting" something. Often, an idea will click the third time you hear it.

Three times works well for me. Maybe you'll need four. Who knows. Experiment and adapt the concept to what works for you.

And give yourself a breather between each source. Don't read a book and then immediately start to watch a video. Sleep on each source before starting another. You do all sorts of valuable cognitive processing during your sleep.

And remember: you're not SUPPOSED to get (or remember) the idea after encountering just the first source. Think of the first source as prep for the second and the second as prep for the third.


Don't confuse learning with school. School CAN be about learning (or partly about learning), but school doesn't equal learning. I'm sure you know people with degrees who don't know what they're talking about. And I'm sure you know experts who don't have degrees.

You may have to be in school right now (or you may want to be in school right now). And it sucks not to do well in a class. But that is its own problem. It's not the same problem as not being able to learn.

Some people -- and I'm one of them -- are great learners buy bad academics. This is not true for everyone, but I found getting-an-A and learning-a-subject to be two wildly different skills.


Ask yourself this: what if I could wave a wand and give you the ability to learn anything instantly. But I also told you that, via this magic, you could never tell anyone about what you learned.

So you could learn how to play the piano, and you could play it really well for yourself, but if you were at a party and someone said, "Hey, can anyone play this piano?", you'd have no chance to show off your skill.

Would you still want to learn how to play the piano?

This is a really useful thought experiment, because it will help you get clear what learning means to you. There are no wrong answers -- no answers that make you a bad or stupid person -- but whatever answers you get will tell you something useful about yourself and perhaps help you solve your problem.

Do you have a thirst for pure knowledge?

Do you yearn to be taken seriously as an intellectual?

Do you want to get an A?

Do you want your professor (dad? mom? friends?) to respect you?

Do you want to better yourself?

In the past with myself -- and with students -- I found that extra baggage got in the way of learning. Someone couldn't learn OOP, not because the concepts were so hard, but because their mind was taken up with "not looking stupid."

This is totally natural, but it's worth identifying. Some people might have to give themselves permission to look stupid for a little while, so that they can get down to the business of learning.
posted by grumblebee at 8:46 AM on July 17, 2007 [7 favorites]

Grumblebee's suggestion of looking at at least three different sources triggered something in my head -- people learn through different routes. Some people learn best by listening to lectures, some through visuals (pictures, diagrams, videos), some by banging their way through doing it until they figure it out on their own, some through reading, some through talking it out with classmates, some by being forced to teach it themselves. (I'm sure there are other ways, too.) Most people probably learn best through some combination of the above, which is why good teachers try to use all of these techniques (and others) in every class session.

I recently went back to grad school, in a program through a School of Education and with psychologists as my teachers -- so, basically, with professors who have a strong grasp of how people learn, and that different people learn differently. It's amazing to me how quickly I'm picking up some of this information, in large part because the professors are so good at making sure we always have multiple routes for attaining the info. We read the text, we get a lecture in class, we watch a video, we break up into small groups to discuss things, we're forced to present topics in front of the class. It sometimes feels a bit repetitive, but it does seem like every single student comes out of it with a firm grasp of the subject.

All of this to say... don't feel like you're "behind" or unusual for needing multiple sources. It's natural, and good teachers know that, but bad teachers (or teachers without enough time or resources) can't always give you what you need. Which is why you sometimes have to push to get your needs met -- not because you're a poor student, but because you have poor teachers.

So don't beat yourself up about seeking out extra help. It's generally the sign of a good learner, not a poor one.
posted by occhiblu at 10:30 AM on July 17, 2007

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