This Is the Key to Being a Successful Student, According to a Physics Professor

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to students as an educator? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Richard Muller, Professor of Physics, UC Berkeley, on Quora:

"Get into" your courses. Don't wait for them to stimulate interest you; seek what is fascinating about them.

Most of the classes at the university are there because someone once thought that they covered material that is both important and fascinating. Your current professor may not think so. If that is the case, don't give in to that lack of enthusiasm. Look at the material, and try to deduce why someone once thought it was terrific. Approach it in that way. You'll discover that the material is much easier to learn (you don't have to "memorize" things that are fascinating; you automatically remember them) and much more fun to think about.

I'll illustrate this with a particular subject that I studied in my first year of college at Columbia: the great philosophers of western civilization. All freshmen (and back then they were all male) took the same class, one in which we read excerpts of the philosopher's original writings (translated). I was having a hard time understanding what they were saying, figuring out how to remember and summarize it.

One day at lunch, a good friend said to me, "Have you read John Locke yet?" I had. "Don't you think he is spouting nonsense?" Huh? I had simply tried to understand what he was saying. My friend went on to argue that Locke was not being logical at all, but simply making different assumptions than had been made by those believing in the divine right of kings.

It had not occurred to me that my role might be to disagree with what I was reading! That I could (should?) evaluate it, decide whether I agreed or not. My role had been to learn from, not to argue with the great philosophers.

That moment changed my academic life. The difficult reading suddenly wasn't so difficult. I read with a chip on my shoulder; I was reviewing and evaluating the philosopher, not just learning to parrot him. I "got into" the subject. It became fun. I hardly had to memorize what Immanual Kant had said, because when I read his selections I was testing each of his sentences to see if I agreed or not.

I didn't have to study with another student. I could walk up to one of my classmates and state why I thought the philosopher of the day was right or wrong, and he would start arguing with me. I would invariably absorb his point of view, and recognize something that I had missed. Doing this was much more fun than "studying", and far more effective.

Every course (well, almost every course) you take fascinates someone, usually the professor who created the course (although not always the professor who was assigned to teach it). If you can look at it in the right way, it can fascinate you too. And then study turns from being a drudge to a review of wonderfully interesting material; then, instead of having to memorize, you'll effortlessly learn.

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