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Challenge Builds Strength

Study Swami: Building Independent Students

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Dr. Dan Himes, Founder of Study Swami

In my position as a Professor of Physics I had the good fortune to be able to teach small classes of a remarkably diverse student population. Each student was usually with me for two or three semesters, and the intimate setting allowed me to get to know them quite well. Many of the students were “unconventional” in the sense that they were changing careers, veterans of the armed forces, or returning to school after a long layoff. Some were dealing with changing life circumstances or struggling with emotional adjustments.

Regardless of circumstance, their ultimate ambition was to take control of their lives. They were very serious about making sure their efforts paid off. They were willing to work hard on something when they saw the value of what they were doing, but if they didn’t see that value then they spent their time on something else.

It was clear to me that as I worked to understand how to better teach the courses I had to explore how the students were learning.

I started with a few observations:

  • Some students did well on the physics exams by knowing which equation applied to the situation, but didn’t know the concept behind the equation or really where it came from. It was just kind of “magic.”
  • Some students quickly grasped the “big picture” but struggled with the details required to work through a problem. Their exams were incoherent.
  • Some students could do well point-by-point through the problems but did not get the overall picture. They struggled to apply ideas in different contexts— meaning if I gave the same problem but replaced, say, a bicycle with a unicycle or a motorcycle, they were lost.
  • And, of course, many, many students fell into the “I do well on the homework but I can’t seem to do well on the exams” camp. This may have been the most frustrated group of all, because they were working hard and succeeding in “practice,” but couldn’t perform come “game time.”

I was as troubled as my students with the lack of results that some of their efforts produced. It made sense that I should look into how they were studying the material, as there may be significant differences among them.

Crucial point: Without exception, every student I talked to thought they had a solid study method. They studied in a way that made sense to them. In reality, however, some students approached their learning in a very haphazard way while others were methodical and disciplined. Often, the student with the better skills outperformed the student who was able to grasp the ideas more quickly.

So I started coaching the students on how to study the course, and building in assignments that encouraged proper learning strategies. I also took away certain crutches. In particular I quit allowing equation sheets on exams. They had to concentrate on the fundamentals of the course and be able to derive the specific cases, rather than just getting lucky by having the correct equation on a page.

As a result, their grades went up. They were actually learning, not just “number jamming.” We could talk about, for example, chapter 5 things in chapter 9, because they were actually learning— and that made chapter 9 much easier.

A change of cities brought about a change of focus for me professionally as I entered the field of educational software, where I felt I could have a larger impact on a greater number of students than the 100-200 I saw every year teaching at the college. As I continued to delve into the research of study skills and methods one thing became inarguable: Technique matters. A lot. I hired experienced classroom expert teachers, to help me develop an inventory of study techniques, both general and subject–specific. And I hired people to help me build Study Swami as a vehicle to get these techniques into your hands.

It is, simply, the most complete resource I’ve ever seen for students. And as I say in my introductory video, these aren’t some hand-waving techniques from my yesteryear. I still take difficult classes (my most recent was a technical and mathematically-oriented class with a take-home final that took over 30 hours!). These are the techniques I use. I wish they were around back when I was in school!