• Ian Gibbs

3 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started University

Updated: Apr 15



I had a tough time at university.


Although I diligently attend all my lectures, although I copied down everything the lecturer wrote and even though I discreetly recorded what the lecturer said on my state-of-the-art Sony Walkman (which I would then go home and listen to the lectures again while rewriting my notes - which took me hours to do, every afternoon), even after all of that, I still didn’t feel I was ‘getting’ it.


That’s because I didn’t know how to study properly and I didn’t know because no one had told me.


So here are 3 things I wish I had been told before I started university.

1: Learning is an active process


It might sound obvious now, but when I was attending lectures, it was very easy to fall into autopilot mode and passively copy word for word, number for number what they wrote on the board.


It was much more challenging to think for myself and make additional notes to help my future self remember what was important.


In short, to learn optimally, you need to mentally engage on all levels. You need to be constantly thinking, evaluating, questioning not just copying and following instructions.


If you’re not making the effort to fully engage, you’re not going to notice the important things.


I remember being astounded when going through my notes at the end of one year to discover a professor had given us EXACTLY THE SAME LECTURE on two separate occasions and nobody (from a class of over 40 students) had noticed. I don’t know whether it was intentional or just the result of a disorganised mind (he was that sort of a professor). But it didn’t matter. The result was the same. We had all robotically copied it down… again, without noticing.


So the first point is it’s important to learn actively. If you’re in a lecture, a seminar or a training day, if you want to get the most out of it, think for yourself, evaluate, question, make your own notes, not just a copy of what’s presented). Learning is an active process.

2: Studying for long periods is a waste of time


It’s interesting that the part of your brain that deals with paying attention gets tired.


You never get too tired to understand English.


You never get too tired to feel heat, fear or pain.


You never get too tired be able to breathe, digest or swallow.


Nevertheless, after just 15 minutes of concentration, the part of your brain that does the concentrating is already operating at less than 100% efficiency.


After 30 minutes, it’s operating on less than 50%.


This already means that during a 1-hour lecture, you’re struggling to keep up with things after the first half.


What it also means is that if you spend too long studying, your active brain has given up and you’re just going through the motions. You might successfully reread/edit/copy it all but the amount you actually learn will be minimal.

My mistake was to spend far too long trying to study.


I could have solved this by taking regular mental breaks. Even a few minutes helps. It might feel like you’re wasting your time, but brain-fatigue is a bit like being drunk, you’re too affected to notice it happening.


But what about hourlong lectures or meetings? You can’t take breaks halfway through those , can you?


That’s where point 3 comes in.

3: Social learning beats individual studying every time.


My final mistake was to study alone.


There’s a lot to be said about working at your own pace in your own way.

But there’s also a lot to be said about the benefits of studying in a small group.

The problem is that it’s not said very often and I certainly wasn’t aware of it during my four years at university.


When we vocalise our newly acquired knowledge, we develop new neural connections that reinforce our understanding. Furthermore, when we listen to someone giving their opinion of the same ideas, we find ourselves automatically evaluating what they say to see if it fits in with our own.


What this means in practical terms is that if you study together with one or two others, the ensuing conversations, discussions and inevitable arguments actually help you understand and learn the stuff better.


This also solves the 1-hour lecture problem. As your power of concentration fluctuates, you miss things. But if you went through your notes with a couple of other people, the chance of all of you missing the same key point is much less.


My mistake was to study alone. If I’d had regular periods of studying with my classmates, I’d have learnt more in less time and probably enjoyed it more, too.

Learning at university is the same as any sort of learning, there are many different ways to do it but not all of them are as effective as others.


Whether you’re studying for an MBA, learning a new language or just trying to play a new instrument, the way you try to learn can make a big difference to your progress, and that’s the fourth thing I wish I’d known before I started university.