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M. Scott Wilkerson

Curiosity about the World Around Us: On Doing Good Work in the Geosciences

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning, whether it be in the Geosciences, like Geology, Environmental Science, or Earth Science, or in some other discipline.  Ultimately, learning success hinges on the foundation of hard work and preparation coupled with an innate curiosity about the world around us.  With that in mind, here is some advice that might serve you well in your career at DePauw.

 Read.  Read the news(paper). Read books. Read your textbook. Read your instructor’s emails. Read the instructions for your homework.  Read the problem before you try to answer it.  Read the expression of those around you.  Reflect on what you have read.

Write.  You probably saw this coming...  Capture your thoughts, whether it be in a daily journal or in a research notebook as you gather data.  Take notes...perhaps this will be in the margin of a textbook as you read or in a notebook during class lecture/discussion (you should always be doing the latter).  Rewrite your class notes...not only does this help organize your thoughts, but it helps you assess areas of uncertainty on which you can follow up with the instructor. Outline...flesh out your ideas in outline form and then expand on each concept to form coherent, well-organized paragraphs (or slides in a presentation).        

Manage Your Time.  Avoid distractions.  Use a day planner (digital or analog) to organize your activities. Start early on assignments.  If you get stuck on a problem, don’t “run on Jell-O” (bouncing around a lot, but not getting anywhere) for hours on end.  Move on to the next problem and then talk with your instructor when you next have a chance.  Show them what you have done and where you got stuck, and ask for recommendations for moving forward.  

Detox From Your Cell Phone/Social Media/etc.  See Manage Your Time. 

Engage.  Avoid “TV-watching” mode in class...it is easy to sit back, look at cool slides of rocks, and passively listen to information being shared by the instructor.  Take notes.  Ask questions. Make comments. Think critically about the information.  Student engagement is contagious, and everyone in class will benefit from these interactions.  

Assess Your Knowledge.  We’ve all heard variations of the adage, “There are no stupid questions.”  However, it may be hard to come up with questions on the spot in class.  Or, you may think that you understand the material in real time, but find out differently later.  As you work on assignments, review/rewrite your notes, read the textbook, and constantly assess your understanding of the material.  For example, after you read a section in a textbook, pause and ask yourself the main points.  If you have trouble doing this, you may be “going through the motions” and not retaining information.  This same approach works for reviewing/rewriting class notes...review them shortly after class, highlight those areas where your understanding might need to be improved, and formulate questions for the next class or for the instructor’s office hours.  

A Picture Is Worth A 1000 Words.  Whether reading a textbook or taking notes in class, always pay particularly close attention to photos and illustrations as they often convey an incredible amount of useful information.  Geoscientists, in particular, find that carefully drawing and labeling diagrams greatly facilitates and reinforces understanding of key scientific concepts, features, and processes.         

Please keep in mind...while many of us might desire for learning to be one of those instant gratifications, it is not. It is a process that can be slow and tedious, that can have more than its share of wrong turns and dead ends, and that can grow/develop upon both our successes and our failures. In the end, however, the path to life-long learning, no matter how many twists and turns it contains, is incredibly rewarding beyond just the knowledge itself.