Just Not Feeling it -- Or When You Don't Love a Subject You Have to Take

Sometimes it helps get interested if you have to explain material to those who are not familiar with it as a way of testing your own understanding. Students who tutor younger kids find it helps them too.
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I had a great email when I got back to a work focus after the holidays. The topic was what to do when you are just not loving the subject you have to take. It was from a student I had met when I did a workshop this past summer for students heading off to college for the first time. I usually give out cards and tell students that the winners will reach out to me. And generally a few do. And Timothy did. And he wanted "to ask you for your opinion on the best way to consistently absorb information that you have no interest in or that doesn't challenge you much. What did you/do you do when you need to memorize/learn things that don't interest you much?" A really great question.

We have all been there -- the A+ students and those of us who struggled more. Some courses we naturally loved because the subject just spoke to us and some because we were blessed with a fabulous professor who could make reading the phone book fascinating. But there was always the one (or more) course that was meeting a requirement and just did not work for us. Today students are focused on the relationship of what they study to the jobs they see themselves having. So everything is also seen through the lens of relevance. Given that perspective a course won't be interesting if it does not relate to the perceived future career goal. There is the reality too that every professor does not teach like a rock star. I had one in graduate school who would literally doze off reading his yellowing notes and on a hot summer evening that meant most of the class wanted to doze off too.

But there are ways to approach this problem of not loving a subject. And it is a problem because lack of interest leads to less focus and attention to the class and maybe then to a lower grade. Readings do not get read. Dozing or texting in class happens. Hands do not go up when questions are asked. GPAs can be damaged. Think of 25 percent of your grade for class participation being shot because of boredom.

So here is what I told Timothy. First unpack the course. What are the skills you are going to get from it? Does it push you to read, research, write, collaborate with others, and solve problems? Which of these skills are you likely to need in the workplace where you see yourself? Your motivation can be to really perfect those skills because they will be useful to you for achieving your dreams.

Second, what might you learn about the world that could be good to know. Does it help to know something about how the body fights disease when you have a sick grandmother? Does it help to know something about the political process when the outcome of an election can change your quality of life? How does this subject relate to your life?

Does it help to know enough of literature or the arts that you don't feel like a dummy when your work colleagues are talking about books or a joke has a reference to Shakespeare and you don't get it? Or you are the idiot who does not know who Paul McCartney is when collaborating with Kanye and gets laughed at all over the internet. Some of what you learn just helps you be part of the conversation but those who are part of the conversation get ahead. Again it is tied to your dreams of success. You are keeping your eyes on the prize.

A magic way to become engaged and, maybe the most important, is to ask your professor what drew them to the subject in the first place. They have spent their lives deeply immersed in a field. They do it for the love of the subject. I know from my own experience that I had to love my field (American Studies focused on Business) in order to spend the 6+ years it took to earn my doctorate and then to teach it for several years after. They want you to love it too. They can get excited talking about it. Getting to know your professors is always a smart strategy. And so getting them going on what they love will endear you and also maybe turn on the light bulb for you. Both outcomes are good for your grades. And a strong GPA is good for your goals.

Similarly talk to upperclassmen who are doing this as a major. I remember assembling a panel of students of different majors to share with underclassmen what they liked about their chosen fields. And each was wildly enthusiastic about their own major. So use the experience of those who are immersed in the subject but closer to your own goals and life experience to see what they see through their eyes. How do they study? What professors do they love? What questions excite them?

Finally maybe you are not studying effectively. The struggle to get a subject can also be because you are not approaching the study effectively. Study groups can energize a subject because you have several minds and skill sets being brought to bear. Figure out how you learn best--if you are a visual learner then charts and pictures may help, for example. Learning social sciences is not the same as studying poetry or the memorization Bio requires. Use your school's tutoring centers to learn how to best approach each subject so you have a better chance of getting it.

One thing you may not realize is that you need to learn how to read for college. Yes, you might make it to college, but that does not mean you know how to read. With a heavy reading load - more than in high school - you learn that different kinds of reading work for different classes. Some academic disciplines require close reading, some require memorizing key concepts, and still others involve a process of skimming and comprehending. Some sciences, like biology, may require a lot of memorization, but you also have to understand what you are memorizing. So reading with access to a glossary or dictionary is wise. It is easy to be "bored" when the issue is really not understanding.

If reading in the humanities (history, philosophy, art) or social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics), look for themes or key concepts and evidence to support them. Once you know what you're looking for, it is easy to skim or read faster. A key skill in learning is to argue with evidence, so note where you disagree with the author's premises and why. Having that kind of debate can also get your interest up in a subject.

Sometimes it helps get interested if you have to explain material to those who are not familiar with it as a way of testing your own understanding. Students who tutor younger kids find it helps them too.

And finally do what Timothy did. Ask someone for help! So smart! Love may follow and bring success with it.

Learn more about Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D and her book I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide at www.collegecountdown.com

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