Overcoming bad learning habits

Thanks to a year long course I’m taking in Higher Education teaching I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the education I received, not only as an undergraduate but throughout my schooling. One issue that I keep coming back to is that I believe I’ve developed disadvantageous working habits due to the use of exams as the primary form of assessment in the UK education system. I’ve always excelled in exams, whereas with coursework I lack the discipline to stay focused without the tight time constraint of an exam. In fact the vast majority of my coursework has been finished just before the deadline as that is the only time I seem to be able to focus on working. With exams however, I am very effective at revising efficiently, and I also tactically study certain subjects which I am confident will come up after close inspection of past papers. I’m a visual learner and when I come to the exam I can picture in my mind the part of the page with the relevant notes. While I am hopeless at focusing on uninteresting tasks for a long period of time, exams are generally 3 hours or less, which when combined with a tight time constraint enables me to stay well focused on my work, and then fall back into zombie mode afterwards. It is hard in exams to assess whether the student has a deep understanding of the material, and rewards shallow learners who can memorise the important bits which the examiner is looking for, whereas on a piece of written coursework a greater level of depth is expected due to the longer time frame. Owing to my inability to focus well I am most definitely a very shallow learner (or is it the other way round?).

In effect, I’ve been taught over 17 years of formal education how to pass exams well. My character traits such as; being a shallow learner, having an inability to focus without a pressing deadline and having a visual memory, aren’t as useful in the real world as they were when I was younger. Instead I wish the education system produced individuals who were taught to think more, rather than learning the tactics of passing exams. I find this particularly challenging with my research, as most academics are very intrinsically motivated deep learners, whereas I find I can only be motivated extrinsically (usually by a deadline), and I prefer to have shallow knowledge of many areas rather than a focus in one. While I do really enjoy my research, there are some days when I’m achieving very little and have little drive to research any more that I question why on earth I thought this would be a good idea. Maybe when I’ve got my PhD I’ll have to admit that I have slightly developed my skills.

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