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Often when studying a new complex subject, I become frustrated because neither the lecture notes handed out by the teacher, nor the notes I took are complete enough for me to grasp the whole picture. As a result I either stop studying and thus learn nothing or stick with it becoming more and more angry and learning less and less.

For example, the teacher have mentioned a quantity X in a problem and is using it pretty much everywhere but never gives it a name. I often don't realize immediately that I have no idea what this X is. When I look at another exercise at home asking to use X I have no idea if the form used in the first problem is general or not. The lecture notes don't mention a name for this quantity and therefore I'm unable to search for information on the internet. At the end I felt like I lost an entire hour because of this stupid teacher that doesn't properly define what he uses (to be fair I probably lost most of this hour because of this student that doesn't notice when he need to ask for clarification but it rarely cross my mind in those moments).

How can I avoid this situation? And when I'm in this situation how can I clean my mind to try to learn anyway?

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3 Answers 3

Chances are that some of your fellow students have understood more than you, and sometimes it's the opposite way around. Therefore it's very effective to form study groups in which you discuss the material together. The probability of everyone failing to understand a concept is usually low.

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First and foremost, the key to learning is to understand the definition of all terms before they are used in the matarial. If there is a term, a symbol or anything you don't understand stop immediately and find the definition of that term. If it is during a lecture stop and ask the teacher. If it is wile you are reading a book or online text, look it up in the appropriate dictionary or search the internets.

If you find your teacher consistently uses terms without defining them then discuss this as a concern. The teacher might be unaware and assumes that these are common knowledge terms.

I have observed good interviewers do this. If there is a term that might not be understood they stop and ask the interviewee to explain the term.

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When I was in university, I encountered this a little too often for my comfort. I spent about a semester wondering if college-level material was so far advanced that I wasn't as prepared as I'd thought I was. Eventually, I came to understand the idea of learning styles. Just as every instructor has a communication style for course materials, we all have individual styles for learning that information. I find that I learn best in small groups and one-on-one instruction. I often do not follow a specific PATHWAY to learn material, as much as I jump around the edges of it, ask questions, learn various parts, and eventually come to understand the whole.

Unfortunately, in a university setting with large lectures, this approach for information does not help me understand or retain the information. The instructors, out of necessity, present the material only one way, and likely the textbook publishers have used a number of focus groups to find out the most commonly effective way to present the material.

Right now, I am studying object-oriented programming for the first time, after years of procedural programming. I am also working as an IT contractor doing Java and .NET development. My teacher has no practical experience with programming in a business environment, and many of the examples and techniques she's showing us make no sense to me because of similar examples from a live production environment with which I work every day. This dissonance makes it extremely difficult to wrap my head around what she's teaching us and what I need to demonstrate in order to get a good grade. Like you, I am frequently frustrated with my class.

I know that for me to learn effectively, I need small groups and one-on-one instruction. I've worked with my instructor during office hours to better understand what she's talking about. I bring in samples of source code from the projects I'm doing at work, compare them to similar things we're doing in class and have her explain why she's teaching "X", but the legacy code I'm modifying is built like "Y". I have lunch with colleagues regularly who help me understand these differences as well. I've also found four other students in the class who are having similar problems; we regularly communicate our problems and solutions.

The point I'm making is that by understanding my learning style, by understanding what I need to best assimilate new information and ideas, I can be a lot more effective in asking for what I need. I'm not just saying "I don't get it." I find better or different ways to ask questions that will mesh with my learning style and help me understand more clearly. Showing my teacher "this is how we're modifying the customer address in a production environment" while looking at the "make an address book application that allows you to add, edit and delete records" assignment helped HER understand my difficulties, and having her point to various sections of code and explaining why the differences existed allowed me to better understand what she was looking for in the class. But this all started from my understanding that this is an better way for me to learn, and being proactive about ensuring that the instructor can give me that support.

Understand your learning style, and a lot of your questions about HOW to learn will become self-evident.

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