Make the Most of Your Summer – Become a Life-long Learner

Dec 10, 2018

A Life-Long Learner

When you go to university, you’re learning how to be a learner. You’re learning the habits and techniques that allow you to take in and systematically retain a lot of information. That’s the true value of your study – not just the content itself. The tricky part is that once learned, techniques like these need to be maintained. If you neglect physical exercise, you lose your fitness. The same happens with these mental frameworks – they need to be worked out.

The goal is to ingrain these habits so much that you will keep using them your whole life. Being a lifelong learner will help you to stay relevant in a rapidly changing workforce, keep up to date on world affairs and relate to friends and family in social contexts. It’s a no-brainer. The summer break is, therefore, a great training ground for maintaining your study habits for the rest of your life.

Set your bar low

The break is very long, usually four months. That’s plenty of time to forget everything you learned in the past year, and get lazy on your study habits. We all want to relax and celebrate the year, and there’s plenty of room for that. That’s why the first tip is to set your bar low – don’t try to study like you did in the leadup to exams. It’s much more important to keep up a regular habit than it is to make each session a marathon.

That means that every day you could aim to spend half an hour reading, or organising and reading over notes from last year. Or, you and some friends could all read a book and meet up to discuss and talk about it. These are what B.J. Fogg, professor of Behavioural Science at Stanford University, calls “tiny habits.”

He views behaviour as driven by a mixture of three main factors: ability, motivation and prompts. These are fairly intuitive descriptors – you’re more likely to go play football if you’ve played before, and when you have a flat inspection, you’ll finally clean the kitchen. In the summer, we’re often in relax mode. So, your motivation for learning is down. But if you set yourself just a little bit of learning to do, your motivation will match it.

It’s about kickstarting the habit. Stringing together days with micro-learning sessions will make it easier to do a bit in each consecutive day. You could try marking your calendar every day where you are successful, to motivate yourself to string together chains of learning. It’s like a snap-streak but way better for your long-term success as a human.

It’s not limited to strictly reading and writing either – plenty of summer hobbies involve learning, from embroidery to playing music to exercising. Anything that gets you up, active, or using a skill is activating those learning centres in your mind. Your college break is yours, and you can fill it with whatever you want, so use it for something productive.

Put yourself into a learning environment

Of course, if you really feel like you need the structure, you could always enrol in summer school. What better way is there to learn in summer? Plus, you’ll still get a break. Most summer classes only take a month or two, leaving you a couple of months to relax, secure in the knowledge that your learning tools are fresh and you got a leg up on your degree progress.

One of the benefits of summer school is that you are in your learning environment. Professor Fogg tells us that environment is one of the most important factors in determining behaviour. For most people, it’s easier to focus at uni than it is at home. There are fewer distractions, more resources, and you are mentally adapted to treating it as a place of learning.

Even if you don’t enrol in summer school, your access card to uni will still work over the summer. Nothing is stopping you from going in anyway and using the library, computers or study spaces. If you’re away from the city you study in, try using a public library or another university’s. Or, try organising your own space.

Prompt your behaviours

Having a tidy local environment is the first big step to having a tidy mind. Try to keep on top of cleaning assignments in the flat and organise your own space, and you could notice a world of difference straight away. According to Fogg’s factors that influence behaviour, this can influence you in a few ways.

If you need to use your desk to write or read, but it’s covered with junk, that decreases your motivation to do that task. There are barriers to entry in play – you’d have to take everything off the desk, which means you’d have to find somewhere to put it all. Easier to just sit on the couch and scroll memes, right?

Prompts can come from local environments and routines too. Much like walking through the kitchen can prompt you to open the fridge and grab a snack, walking into your room and seeing a clean desk with pen and paper on it can prompt you to sit down and write anything.

And writing is a great activity that helps work out your brain in an academic way. It doesn’t even matter what you write – keep a diary, write a poem, or go for a full-blown essay on a subject you’re interested in. It goes hand in hand with reading, since the more you read, the more things you’ll think about and want to get down your own thoughts on the paper.

Maintaining a healthy mindset

I hope it’s becoming obvious now that all of these little habits and actions are mutually reinforcing. They back each other up in a positive spiral. When you keep “sharpening the saw”, it’s ready to go when you head back in for first semester. Otherwise, it’ll take you time to get back on track. Sure, you’ll get back on track eventually, but it’s much better to learn based on an internal rather than an external motivator.

That’s what being a life-long learner is all about. One habit backs up another, and your thought and behaviour patterns become entrenched. Be someone who reads – while you can apparently become president of the United States without even reading a book, most other successful people do what they do because of a wide range of knowledge that comes from a constant habit of learning.

While being more professionally successful, you’ll also be a better conversationalist and more in tune with yourself and your own views on things. It’s a big part of being a happy and healthy human. The last thing I’ll say is a handy little tip – sometimes, learning can be combined with drinking. Last year, I went to a pub quiz every Tuesday. It’s a fun social occasion, and also a bit of a workout for the brain.

The main thing is consistency. Don’t worry too much about big revision sessions over summer, unless you’re in summer school of course. Just aim to keep the ball rolling every day. Read – books, not Instagram captions – and do mentally stimulating activities. Trick yourself into it by putting yourself into environments that facilitate studying and learning behaviours, and maintain diet and exercise to keep your systems functioning. Then, when you come back for first semester next year, get ready to feel like a god when you pick everything back up straight away.

By Jack Buckley, Wellington, New Zealand 

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