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Learning vs. Passing

  1. Sep 21, 2011 #1
    I've gotten to know this guy a little close and some of the things I have learned from him just leaves me saying wow! He's an international student.

    Basically, this post is about learning vs. passing. How many students get good grades but don't really learn anything? This guy tells me he doesn't take notes in class, and that American college is easy yet people always complain that it's hard. Basically what he does is thoroughly study the textbook and sometimes Internet resources inside out. This guy is a math major and doesn't even use a calculator. He has turned down several honor societies because they promote mediocrity. I find this really amazing. Over the summer I tried studying ahead for classes this fall without a syllabus or anything. Some of the things are learned in-depth teacher just brushed over it briefly. I went to him asking for help and he told me it's just memorization. Can you believe that? So I can memorize my way and pass the class without learning. Anyway I want to know what you guys think about studying the textbook thoroughly vs. memorizing to get an A and forget everything. Lastly, the general advice for college students on saving money on textbooks is to buy them on Amazon or Ebay for cheap. How about just grabbing any textbook on the subject from you library for free? Or getting an older version of the book for even way cheaper? The concept doesn't change does it? How do you guys study?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 21, 2011 #2
    Well, that's really unfortunate that your professor just told you that it's all memorization. I don't know what type of course we are talking about here, though. Perhaps the professor thought that a thorough explanation was "beyond the scope of the course." The great thing about learning the material is that, if you learn it, you probably will do well in the course and know the material. Sure, you can just cram or memorize (I will say that, as your math classes get more advanced, pure memorization will hardly get you anywhere), but you're cheating yourself. Some people go to college to get a diploma; others go to learn the material. You will find many students who do one or the other. It's up to you to decide how you want to get through college. Because you are on here asking makes me think you are the type that actually wants to learn something. If that's the case, no one is every stopping you from studying hard enough to really understand the material.

    As for texts, well, I generally don't recommend just grabbing any book from the library. Different texts cover different topics within a subject, and at different levels. The text you find may not be relevant to your course. Typically, professors choose texts that they like well enough to base their class topics, notation, and pace on them, so it makes sense to use the text they require. If you are really wanting to save money, you can always contact the professor and ask if the older editions are okay, or if the text is really necessary for the course at all. If the professor tells you that the text is just a recommendation, see if he/she will recommend a cheaper/free text that covers the same material. Or, try to find a book online that covers the same topics and has the same target audience. Most of the time, the preface to the text will tell you the target audience and any necessary prerequisites. You will find that there are a lot of free, online texts that are generally pretty good. Also, Dover Editions are usually very affordable versions of great texts, so they are worth looking into.

    How do I study, you ask? I go to class, take pretty good notes, and pour over the text or online resources if I don't understand something from my class notes, or I just want a different point of view. I almost always fumble through the homework sets by myself. Professors often times recommend that you work together, but I am always more productive and I learn more if I just sit down and struggle until I can solve the problem. (There are limits, of course. If I have been stumped for an extended period of time, I will go to office hours.) Once I am satisfied with my answers, I will meet up with a few peers to go over our work and make sure we obtained similar answers. You'll figure out how to best study as you gain more experience taking classes, exams, and doing homework.

    Some good online resources are Physics Forums (of course), Wolfram's Mathworld, Wikipedia, and PlanetMath. If you want some pdfs of texts, shoot me a message and I will see what I have to help you out.

    I hope I answered your questions.
  4. Sep 21, 2011 #3
    What year are you? In my graduate classes memorization gets you nowhere. You can have the whole text memorized for all I care, when you get a problem you have to figure what the heck memorized stuff has to do with the problem at hand.
  5. Sep 21, 2011 #4
    I'm a second year Biology student. First year was rough for me I didn't do any work. This year I have actually been working, studying so I'm learning a few trades in the art of studying that's why this thread was made. I think it's really cool what this international student is doing. I have friends who get A's but it seems it's about memorization to them. One of my friends had their book earlier before the semester but didn't want to begin studying ahead with the fear that what if what they study isn't covered in the course?

    The course I'm talking about is Microbiology. I've heard it many many times that Biology is just memorization etc., but I feel one can memorize, get an A and not learn crap. Yesterday while studying I sent some questions to my prof for Bio II and he ended up sharing those questions with the class today because he felt they were good. Now if my approach is just memorize and pass exams, I don't think I would care / question. I just want an A, right? Who cares about learning. Lol.

    This international student however really impressed me though with his approach. He said, "most students want to pass and not learn anything" so they buy the textbook etc. He said, suppose in a subject like math, if he's learning something derivatives or something, without buying the textbook his prof recommended he should be able to find any textbook(s) on derivatives and learn from there. Why? The material / concept is the same. It's really changed my approach to studying lately.

    Maybe math is different from Biology I guess. I have heard it from med students, residents, and doctors that undergrad (pre-med) and med school are mostly just memorization. Lol so I don't know.
  6. Sep 21, 2011 #5


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    People aren't always good at judging how they learn and understand.

    e.g. to someone for which problem solving is second nature, memorization would have elevated importance -- the importance of problem solving is downplayed due to it coming naturally, and so it would seem to him that the important thing to solving a problem is to have a wealth of knowledge on hand that could be applied.

    But conversely, to someone who is unskilled at problem solving, rote memorization of a wealth of facts would be of little help -- his time would be better spent on learning how to solve problems.
  7. Sep 21, 2011 #6
    But I mean that's also what I'm talking about. You mentioned beyond the scope of the course. Suppose I'm taking German. If I'm not taking it because I need to fulfill a requirement but I'm taking it because I actually want to learn German, then whether something would be covered in class or not that shouldn't matter to me. I want to learn it so I might study my textbook inside out and even beyond the "minimal" needed to pass the class.

    In the same way, I'm majoring in Biology so at the end of the four years when I get a degree shouldn't it mean I have mastered Biology or at least know it inside out? Not just good grades but not really knowing anything. In high school kids would get 97s / 100s in a class then the following year when they took a class which builds on the previous year where they got 97s/100s it's as if they never learned anything to begin with. Get me? Passing a class vs. learning? Some high school academic "superstars" might fit the description.

    Yeah definitely. I'll send you a PM about the texts. I'd really like that, man. :rofl: I may never buy a textbook again for the remainder of college :biggrin:

    Your study method is pretty solid. I'm not too good with group work. I sent several messages to some class mates asking for help but they all just left me hanging. So I don't rely / depend on people anymore. I try and study on my own (works best for me) and I send the prof a message with questions.
  8. Sep 21, 2011 #7
    Good point. I struggled a lot my first year because I wasted a lot of time when I did try to study. I wanted to try and read the whole book and a part of me would say just focus on the necessary part to pass and it was a conflict. Trying to learn the whole thing (even things not needed in the course) takes longer and might lead to falling behind. Also the way I think really gets in the way for me sometimes. I have this "there's a big meaning big picture" to everything style of think so I sometimes over complicate simple things. I second guess myself on exams even though I have studied. I ask myself unnecessary questions.

    Also I feel like memorization and learning can/should go hand-in-hand because in the end memorization is needed but to just memorize and not know the meaning behind what you have memorized is a what I'm getting at. Fortunately for me, I have the luxury at my college here to choose the courses I want so I can at least choose stuff that interest me and I want to learn. I hear in some places your schedule is made for you so you might be with a subject you don't like but you'll have to live with.
  9. Sep 21, 2011 #8


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    Your questions also depend on the instructor, the course's goals (i.e. mathematics courses offered by departments other than the math department tend to be more applications-focused), the topic (and at what level it's being studied), as well as many other things.

    In general, though, memorization will only get you so far. Not to mention the fact that I can't think of a more unsatisfying way to learn mathematics.
  10. Sep 21, 2011 #9
    You could probably use an older edition with no problem at all. The only issue I can think of is if you have homework from the book, in which case your problem sets are almost guaranteed to be mixed up. You can always email the professors of a future course and casually ask how the homework is handled (if any). I rented all of my trivial books from chegg.com (humanities, and other such things), but I purchase any science books from amazon. There is free next or two day shipping for students sometimes, everything arrives on time, and you can make physicsforums.com some money by doing that using this link:
  11. Sep 23, 2011 #10
    Ideally, if the course subject matter is something the student is interested in, then by all means one should study all the material in the book, regardless of what is covered in class. The problem is this usually isn't feasible in terms of time. Most students take max load, and therefore are somewhat forced with regards to time management to only study the material pertinent [i.e. covered] in each particular course.
  12. Sep 23, 2011 #11
    I dunno, when I get A's it is mostly from understanding, conceptualizing, and applying the material. One of the reasons why I always thought those who got A's usually were more apt to understanding the material than those who got C's or below.

    As for biology, to me there are a lot of things that need to be remembered, but if you understand how the cell cycle applies to genetics, and how that applies to alleles and protein regulation, etc..., and you understand all of that, then memorization isn't the forerunner. Understanding is much better than memorizing a bunch of facts, but I guess people get A's from just memorizing which is horrible. You don't exactly learn anything, just doing simple drone work. Higher education is supposed to be different from High School.

    In any case, from what I saw, there were a LOT of students in the first few biology courses, but sooner than later most of them either dropped out or changed their majors. My school has a system in place noted as the "weeding out" system, if you don't understand, future classes which required you to understand past course material, will be a bit too hard for most to complete. Exams are just 1.5 weeks after class starts up so catching up would be a stretch. So, getting an A from just memorizing won't exactly help you as the future courses are more project oriented, research, etc..., and the tests generally draw upon understanding more-so than the "point-out the fact" knowledge.
  13. Sep 23, 2011 #12
    I agree with you, in principal. But several others (yourself included) have made the point that time is a limited resource and it's just not always feasible to learn everything about every course you're interested it. Even if your primary concern is learning, no doubt you want good grades so that you can accomplish other goals: a good job, a graduate school, etc. So, you have to strike a balance between all your courses (and your social life, for that matter.) What that balance is is entirely up to you.

    I would say most of the high school academic "superstars" do fit this description. The fact that we have an education system that allows this is sad. On the other hand, I don't have any idea how to fix this. It is something I think about a lot but have come up with few answers.

    I echo this sentiment. As an anecdote, my ex-girlfriend was a biology major and she was rather surprised in how the structure and expectations of her biology classes changed when she started taking courses like cell biology or microbiology. In high school (and her college introductory college courses) she could get by with memorization. That all changed quickly.
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