Understanding the Purpose

A couple months ago, while in school, I stumbled upon a lesson that helped me get through a challenging course. Before learning this lesson, I struggled a lot in the course: I had difficulty understanding the lecture slides, reading the assigned readings (often times, I was still confused even after reading a sentence multiple times), and understanding explanations that satisfied the rest of the class. Despite studying on a regular basis, I didn’t understand the course material and by extension, the midterm questions. This was a problem that needed to be rectified.

 Research shows that we tend to perform better in subjects we’re interested in and by extrapolation, we tend to perform worse in subjects we’re uninterested in. A student who enjoys math would likely score higher on a math test than one who detests math because the former would take time to internalize complex concepts whereas the latter accepts a surface understanding of complex concept because that might be what’s needed to pass a course.

 Sure, I wasn’t interested in this course, but that alone shouldn’t prevent me from understanding its basic concepts! For many weeks, I pondered about my incapability to understand the course and for many weeks, I was confused. Then, one day, in a stroke of sudden illumination (okay that’s an exaggeration), it dawned upon me that the purpose of the course was to teach general abstract concepts. And in the next heartbeat, I realized that up until the present, I had been using the wrong strategy of trying to understand the details and concrete concepts, which weren’t presented in the course!

 While the course was teaching “addition is putting two numbers together to make a new number”, I was trying to understand why 2+3=5.  While the course was teaching “Edison made the lightbulb in 1879 “, I was wondering how society might have changed if he invented it in 1880. In attaching myself to detailed examples and missing the purpose of the course, which was to present general concepts, I focused on the less important ideas, strongly reviewing the few concrete examples and skimming the general concepts! I was fighting the currents and trying to walk up a downwards escalator. No wonder it was so hard! If the course was about detailed concepts, I might have scored well but it wasn’t, and as such, I was aiming for bullseyes on the wrong dartboard!

 Upon understanding the purpose of the course, learning the course became much easier. In accepting that the course didn’t expect me to understand the details and only the generalness, I shifted focus from trying to learn the details to trying to learn the generalness and began understanding the course!

What’s amazing is that my intellectual capacity didn’t change, only my focus on what to learn changed!

Lesson: Understanding the purpose of a task enables us to make more informed decisions about which areas to focus on

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