Doorways leading to two different paths, one is labelled as "my own path" and one is labelled as "conventional path".

A flexible approach to university might save you and your sanity

By: Zara Khan, Contributor

Picture the ideal student. They somehow find the time to volunteer and hit the gym while they maintain their perfect grade point average. They finish their assignments far in advance and probably already studied for that midterm. You envy them and their perfectly curated bullet journal. They are a perfect model of human efficiency. 

At the same time, there you are. Catching up on those missed lectures of yours, all while you have two essays due tomorrow and a midterm right after. There you are, going to sleep at 7 a.m., following a Red Bull-fueled study session with a brain that’s turned to mush. Okay, maybe it’s just me. 

But if you are anything like me, you most definitely are haunted by a chronic sense of failure. You might feel as if you’re not doing what you should be doing. That you should have figured things out by now. That you should learn a certain way and aim to achieve certain things. In many ways, you feel like you simply do not measure up to that ideal student.

However, our societal notions of what makes a successful student are deeply unrealistic. Who has the time to perfectly colour code their notes? Who really manages to get everything done ahead of time? Most university students have never had to learn how to learn properly until now, so of course, we’re going to struggle. 

We seem to imagine the ideal student as someone possessing inhuman amounts of energy. Someone who seems to be perfectly put together, studies for hours on end and finishes assignments far in advance. The fact that many of us seem to think that there is only one way to be a good student is concerning. So when many of us find ourselves struggling to measure up to that ideal, we seem to view it as personal failing more than anything else.

The fact that many of us seem to think that there is only one way to be a good student is concerning. So when many of us find ourselves struggling to measure up to that ideal, we seem to view it as personal failing more than anything else.

I’m not the ideal student. But what I find interesting is the fact that I’ve found more success as one that is not. In fact, I don’t take any notes during most of my lectures. Why? I’ve found that I actually retain the information better when I’m purely focused on listening. Instead, I might take notes that I need, prior to, or after class.

For the longest time, I tried to force myself to take notes during class, because that was how things should be done. What often resulted was a notebook full of the best doodles ever drawn, with absolutely zero recollection of what was actually taught. Not taking notes meant that I had more of an incentive to listen. But more importantly, it reduced the stress I often felt while trying to take good notes. Not only did I learn more, but I also saved a bit of my sanity.

A doodle found in Zara's notes.
A doodle found in Zara’s notes.

Now, I’m not advocating for you to eschew note-taking during lectures. Although, what I am advocating for is a flexible approach to education. For example, students believe that they should take a full course load which is about five courses for most programs. But what if you find yourself consistently stressed by a full course load?

Day after day, you find yourself struggling to handle the workload. The obvious solution is to decrease your course load. It might be slightly unconventional and it might take longer for you to finish your degree, but it might be a beneficial alternative to you. If the conventional path to a degree doesn’t fit your needs, you should look for alternatives. 

In my case, I actually took this semester off. I didn’t exactly have a fun time last winter semester, online learning quite literally sucked out the joy of learning for me. Rather than forcing myself to learn in a way that simply doesn’t work for me (which would have likely dropped my GPA), I opted to take a break instead.

This confused a few people in my life. They simply couldn’t understand why I would choose to “fall behind.” A younger friend of mine was very surprised by the fact that I could take a semester off at all. She didn’t know that it was even an option. 

Surprisingly, university can be quite flexible in many ways, yet few of us take advantage of this. Many of us seem to think that there is only a four- or five-year path to a degree. In reality, you can take as long as you like or as little as you like. In short, you can plan your education in a way that works for you.

This point doesn’t only apply to the length of your degree, it can apply to any aspect of your education. I’ll admit that I often pick between either going to the lectures or doing the readings if I find that the content overlaps. I’ll often ignore recommended guidelines for an essay if I feel like they are hindering the quality of my work (though I’ll check with my professors to be safe). My strategies are unconventional, but they work for me. 

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel that sometimes I’m more distressed by the fact that I am not doing things as I should be, rather than being stressed by school itself. A constant nagging feeling tells me that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be. That I’m doing something wrong by refusing to conform to those expectations.

Yet, despite all the inner angst about the whole thing, I’ve found that the most liberating thing I’ve done for myself is to completely ignore these societal expectations. Ignoring them has allowed me to figure out how I can make things work for me

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel that sometimes I’m more distressed by the fact that I am not doing things as I should be, rather than being stressed by school itself.

Not all strategies work for all people. The fact that many of us try to force ourselves into a narrow mould of productivity is quite counterproductive. If you, like me, find yourself struggling to learn the way you should, do yourself a favour: forget about how you should be doing things. Find out how you would do them instead.

Image courtesy of Graphic by Nigel Mathias

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