One of the biggest levers on your own life is your ability to form useful habits. When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.
But that sort of investment, if you spend a whole Saturday studying rather than watching TV, there’s no one there to pat you on the back or tell you you did a good job. Chances are what you learned studying all Saturday won’t make you that much better at your job the following Monday. There are very few, almost no short-term rewards for these things. But it’s a fantastic long-term investment. This is really how you become a great researcher, you have to read a lot.
People that count on willpower to do these things, it almost never works because willpower peters out. Instead I think people that are into creating habits – you know, studying every week, working hard every week – those are the most important. Those are the people most likely to succeed.
Stanford professor, machine learning researcher, Coursera founder Andrew Ng answering “Do you have any helpful habits or routines?” in this really great interview.
I have just found out that I passed my “Coursera”, online course in Animal Behaviour with distinction! (96% but who’s counting).
It might seem strange to some that for no real reason or necessity would I choose to partake in further education and put myself through 8 weeks of quizzes and written assignments. I chose to enroll in Animal Behaviour for a number of reasons and based on my experience I cannot recommend Coursera enough.
The great thing about Coursera is that even after you have enrolled in a course, you have absolutely no obligation (and you wont get in trouble from the lecturers!) if you decide at any point to stop, miss a week, or even start the course! You are in complete control. Whilst some students may be taking part in the courses to further their knowledge of subjects they are studying at university or work, there is no pressure. If you wanted to, you could just watch the video lectures and nothing else. It really is just learning for the sake of learning and you get as much out of the course as you put in.
I have been fortunate enough to have always enjoyed school but it’s amazing how much more fun it can be when you take the pressure of grades, exams and obligation out of the equation. I thoroughly enjoyed the eight weeks and really threw myself into the course. I dedicated my sunday evenings to watching the lectures, taking notes, doing the quizzes and would download the extra reading for the train if I fancied. I was also really impressed with the activity on the social networking pages set up for the students. All of a sudden I became part of a group of like minded people who, for their own reasons, had decided they wanted to learn something new. Not because someone had told them they had to, but because it genuinely interested them. As a result, the facebook page was flooded with cool videos relating to the subjects we were studying, the community were really supportive and when it came to peer graded assignments, you trusted that your written articles had actually been read thoroughly and fairly.
I think these courses are a fantastic way to tailor your knowledge and learning, especially for someone no longer in education. Having graduated with a degree in Theatre, Film and Television, I am repeatedly frustrated with how narrow my skill set is. I had a fantastic time at university and certainly have no regrets BUT despite all my best intentions, perhaps I didn’t choose the best degree for my career now. Had I known when I was 16 and picking A Levels (which would inevitably lead to my degree choice) that I wanted to be a presenter working in natural sciences and technology OR had I known how the industry worked, I probably would have chosen a degree in journalism or a masters in science. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I’m starting to rant.
I would love an official piece of paper to qualify me an “expert”, but I’m not in a position to go back into education and retrain. However, I do have enthusiasm, passion and a willingness to learn.
These online (and free!) courses may not provide universally recognised creditations, but they do offer me a stamp of approval from a university, which says I have worked bloomin hard and made an independent decision to study a subject off my own back. Surely one of the best examples of passion and dedication?
My intention is to do as many of these courses as I can. Partly because I feel somewhat responsible. If I am making a living presenting information to a willing audience, then I want to know that I have as much knowledge of the topic as feasibly possible. The second reason is because learning is fun and it’s incredible how much more rewarding it can be when you’re studying for you and no one else.
Have a browse through the upcoming courses on “Coursera” and you might just find that this time next week you’re studying egyptian architecture or canine phychology. I know I will be.
So… okay, years and years ago, when asked to take a science requirement in college, I took chemistry. I took chemistry because my brother was really, really good at it, and I was unsure what to take, so I thought maybe I’d be good at it too. And I wasn’t. I seriously wasn’t.
It started out almost comprehensible, and then it went over my head so fast that I never caught up again. I could manage the labs, but the theory was way over my head to the point it seemed almost pointless studying. But I did study. I studied my ass off. Only for my professor to tell my parents that I was probably goofing off rather than studying because that’s the only reason a person could possibly do badly at chemistry.
I still have a copy of my midterm report card, which I now find pretty funny: He says “The situation is not yet hopeless, but it is approaching dire.” By the end of the term my labs pulled my grade up to a D-, but I still failed the class.
This despite studying more than I’d ever studied in my life. I studied all the time, day and night, hoping it would make more sense. My roommate made me drop the next chemistry class I took when she found me staring at my textbook and crying.
I couldn’t really find a lot of interesting Coursera classes to take around now, and I’m still continuing my quest to keep my mind sharp and help myself recover from delirium-induced brain damage by taking classes there. Chemistry doesn’t really interest me all that much, but it was one of the only classes at the moment that wasn’t actively uninteresting. So I decided to take it.
This professor goes out of her way to explain things. She’s clearly very good at her subject, and very enthusiastic. But where my last chemistry teacher turned his enthusiasm for chemistry into a private club where only premed students, chem majors, and A and B students had a place, this one makes analogy after analogy until you understand things that you may not have understood otherwise.
And so far? I’ve taken three quizzes. I got 85% on the first, 100% on the second, and 100% on the third. (I should’ve gotten 91% on the third, but there was one lucky multiple choice answer where I guessed at random and guessed right. Everything else, both multiple choice and otherwise, I did through my own work.) Not bad considering that my expectations of this class were that I’d be happy to leave with a D+.
But it’s more than grades. My mind is getting sharper. And I hate to say it but it’s not just the delirium that’s made it get pretty dull all these years. It was partly that I was getting almost lazy. Not that I wasn’t working with it, but that I wasn’t doing anything with it that makes your mind actually have to focus, hone its skills, and work in the way that science and math do. There’s a very particular kind of mental acuity that those subjects require, that I’ve been neglecting for a long time despite the fact that I really enjoy science.
And partly that was because of my spectacular burnout last time I tried college – much later than the chemistry fiasco. I’d assumed that since college wasn’t the place for me, then this kind of intellectual stimulation wasn’t either.
And I was completely wrong.
And it’s actually pretty exhilarating to be using parts of my mind that I haven’t been able to use in a long time. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever used these parts of my mind properly – because in the past, I didn’t use acuity so much as brute force when it came to intellect, and there’s a big difference.
All of this is very important to my recovery from delirium, too. The longer you retain cognitive problems after delirium, the worse your chances are at a good medical outcome. So this isn’t a trivial matter or something I’m just doing because it’s fun.
But it is surprisingly fun. I didn’t know I’d ever find chemistry fun, but this is. And the sense of mental clarity is amazing, it’s like my mind becomes sharp and clear and focused in a way I’m not sure it’s ever been in my life.
In one of my classes, which was the one that was the most time-consuming, I got an A+. Did really really well. That’s pretty much guaranteed given my grades so far.
In my other class, I’ll be lucky to pass at all.
Because even though I got Bs and As on most things, as far as my actual score should have been from the answers I gave. In reality I got Fs on at least half of the tests because he took huge amounts of your grade away for doing it late. And I was so involved in the other class, and in recovering from surgery, that on at least half of the tests I was several days late at best.
I’m kind of disappointed.
I mean, I should be proud of myself, I learned a lot, etc. But those late scores messed with my official grade such that I probably won’t technically have passed the class at all. And that makes me kind of sad despite the effort I put into it.
I’ve already signed up for new courses, and I’ll be deciding which ones I’ll actually take, as they come up. It’s clear that it would be difficult for me to handle taking more than two classes at once.
The classes I’m doing next are all sciencey things, from what I can tell. And very difficult ones at that, that I’ll probably have even more trouble with than the two classes I just took. Because even though these ones took a lot of practical effort, the actual concepts involved weren’t usually too hard. It was the application of them that took all the time.
One of the classes I’ve signed up for next year is in a subject I’ve historically flunked. So I’m quite nervous. But I’m determined to at least try to learn it. Maybe in the last 20 years my brain has gotten better. Or… well, maybe not, probably not. But I can hope. The point of all this is to stretch my brain, so that’s what I’m trying to do. And often the only interesting stuff was hard-looking stuff this time around. And I can’t take a class I have zero interest in.
So we’ll see how it goes.
Either that or I’ll find another MOOC with more interesting classes and take those. That’s possible too. But I’d kind of like to see how I’ll do in the ones I signed up for.
I also wish there were MOOCs teaching high school level classes. Because I never really went to high school. Three months of regular high school and a couple years of special ed doesn’t count, and neither does “skipping” high school and going to college (in between those two things, or afterwards). So when some of the prerequisites for these things are things like “high school biology”, where on earth do I learn high school biology? I never took biology past junior high science classes. I never took biology in college. I have no way to get a beginning biology background, that I know of. Frustrating.
(This, by the way, is why it’s really, really misleading to describe someone as “skipping” a grade and assuming they did it because they knew everything you teach in that grade. That’s not what happens. At all. At least, not for everyone. And repeating a grade doesn’t mean you’re repeating the same material, either. I’ve both skipped and repeated grades, multiple times, and I never learned what I skipped and I never repeated material that I was supposedly repeating? My educational history is weird weird weird.)
And yes, I know there’s other kinds of education than formal education. In many ways, I handle non-formal education better, and learn better that way. But right now I really need the structure of the formal systems involved, in order to get my brain to do these things. Otherwise I’d just skip the difficult parts like I always do. And right now doing the difficult parts is important, because my brain needs the exercise, because oh hai brain damage, meaning oh hai cognitive rehab.
Anyway. I got an amazing grade in one class and will be lucky to get a passing grade in the other. I know grades aren’t everything either, but right now they’re one more thing that motivates me to do the work.
5:39pm 26.4.2015 My workspace today, cute little Cath Kidson pencil case I got from my family, My Bottle for much needed aqua, and my various notebooks including my current fave typewriter one! Love my Bazinga notebook too for making lists… All of this is a great distraction from the fact that I just don’t quite yet get Functions in computer programming so need to do some serious study to get my head around it for the test.
Coursera, a California-based venture that has enrolled five million students in its free online courses, announced on Thursday a partnership with the United States government to create “learning hubs” around the world where students can go to get Internet access to free courses supplemented by weekly in-person class discussions with local teachers or facilitators.