The Tricks of the Trade; Developing Personalized Learning Methods

by John G. Visconti
East Bay Tutors


I commuted to school during my freshman year in college. Twenty-six miles separated my home from my university. Under ideal conditions, the trip took forty-five minutes by car. But in rush hour, travel time could easily extend beyond one hour, or even ninety minutes. I usually returned home tired, hungry, restless, and in no mood to study.

Midway through my first semester, I began to hang around campus long after my afternoon classes concluded, hoping to miss rush hour, and make better use of my time. I generally visited the cafeteria and coffee shops, casually reading my text books and glancing at my notes, but I sometimes headed over to the library, and searched for sources for papers, or pursued the recommended reading lists associated with my courses. Before the days of computer searches, digitized materials, and the internet, most research required lots of time.

Time, in fact, represented the essence of all my challenges. I needed to make better use of my time. But efficiency emerged as an elusive goal, and the more time I spent thinking about my needs, and the more conversations I had regarding this subject, the worse things seemed to get. Reading books on ‘time management’ requires the one commodity interested parties can least afford to sacrifice: time.  Arguably, if one had the time to read such literature, one would not need to read it in the first place.

I soon realized, however, that my schedule allowed for plenty of time to effectively pursue my studies. I simply needed to use my time more efficiently. But how? Most answers were typically wrapped up in narratives featuring words and concepts such as focus, concentration, discipline, and awareness.  They were nice words too, and the solutions which emphasized them sounded great, especially upon the reader’s introduction to such literature. But these approaches tended to assume that the customer already possessed the qualities and virtues the lecture claimed to develop —– improving one’s focus required focusing —– and the inefficient studier simply had to look inside himself, and grow from within. I wanted external solutions. I longed for methods, practices, and detailed strategies.

One day, while stuck in traffic on my journey home, I found myself listening to a radio talk show. The host of the show was arguing with a caller. The caller insulted the host by describing the program as worthless. The host, drawing on the caller’s familiarity with recent issues discussed on the program, asked the caller why he listened so conscientiously to a program he considered worthless. The caller seemed stymied by the question, and could not effectively answer. I wondered why I consistently spent time on things I knew to be less than meaningful or unproductive. More importantly, I wondered how I might make better use of the hours spent listening to radio while driving home.

My car featured a radio and a cassette player. I often listened to popular music albums, most of which had been recorded from my own turntable with the tape-deck in my room. I could record LP’s and I could record my own voice. What else could I record? I thought about the possibility of recording the classroom lectures of my professors, but that idea did not appeal to me. Bringing a cassette-recorder to class would be conspicuous. Instead, I would have to go to the cassette recorder, construct the desired tapes, and bring the tapes to my car. What would I record on the tapes?

Audio-books, to my knowledge, were not generally available at the time, but I could easily read my own textbooks into my cassette recorder and generate my own “books on tape.” I could also read my class notes into my recorder and create my own audio notebook. But the idea with the most potential represented a combination of the textbooks and class notes. I could record the homemade “study sheets” I routinely prepared for myself before exams. These study sheets were combinations of lecture notes, complete with annotations, critical passages from texts, definitions of important concepts, brief biographies of individuals significant to the topics at hand, and other items I deemed relevant to my preparation.

Although I did not realize it at the time, another element or aspect of cognition emerged during my recording sessions. As I read my study sheets into my cassette recorder, I found myself attempting to make sense of the ideas, themes, and competing interpretations implicit to my notes, textbook readings, and other sources. Perhaps I was trying to bring order to my own narrative; or perhaps I was trying to make greater sense of the larger meaning behind all the names, dates, facts, statistics, and stories within my course materials, or maybe I was just trying to make a challenging task more enjoyable. Whatever the reason, I was thinking about my course work in new ways. Indeed, I found myself attempting to draw some conclusions, develop some interpretations, bring some order to and make general sense of what previously seemed like an amorphous mass of information. Transforming my study sheets into narratives allowed me to discuss my work with myself.

I soon began to enjoy the recording sessions. The cassette-recorder allowed my “voice” to emerge. My willingness to critically reflect upon my course materials grew by leaps and bounds. I soon found myself passing critical judgments on views expressed in my class notes, textbooks, and other sources. Instead of summarizing films, I reviewed them. I developed my own hypotheses and theories about questions raised in my course materials. I presumptuously contemplated the psychological and emotional factors which influenced this particular professor to say what he said, and that particular author to write what she had written. Views that did not appeal to me were subject to ridicule and satire in my recorded narratives. I even made fun of the accents of certain professors —– I was 18 years old at the time —– and I falsely attributed bizarre comments to certain speakers in order to caricaturize their remarks.

Mnemonic devices emerged everywhere. When I recorded something I considered witty or humorous, it helped me remember the subject or ideas under consideration. Today, thirty-six years after my freshmen year in college, I still remember things I recorded about my early courses.  As I walked around campus, thinking about the recording I heard this morning, or the recording I would make of the lecture I just experienced, my relationship with college fundamentally changed. My transformation from passive to active listener inside the classroom was one thing, but my evolution as a “subject,” or an individual equipped with a sense of his own distinct identity, represented something more. The voices inside my head, which emerged quite literally when I discovered headphones, subjected me to new forms of intellectual exercise.

The thoughts which emerged in my mind as I left each classroom were mine —- they were part of me, and, in a sense, they represented and defined me, at least temporarily —– but the voice transmitted through my headphones also belonged to me; it described earlier thoughts that once represented and defined me. What happened to the questions I considered when two sets of my own voice clashed? A new sense of critical reflection emerged.


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I remember standing outside a conference room in the history department of Penn State University during the spring of 2009. Inside, a group of professors, my “dissertation committee,” were discussing the thesis I had written for my Ph.D. degree. They had been meeting, in one fashion or another, for the past several months, to evaluate my work. Now, they were undoubtedly rehashing some well-worn ideas about the relative strengths and weaknesses of my dissertation, considering some talking points for the oral defense which would soon begin, and rehearsing the collective method of questioning they planned to present during my exam. I expected the chair of the committee, my dissertation advisor, to emerge from the room and invite me inside, within a few minutes. In a sense, many years of work were about to be clinically judged, and the verdict would significantly affect my immediate future.

I suddenly realized that someone was attempting to gain my attention. A hand on my shoulder distracted me from the voice transmitted through my headphones. It was another professor from the department. This fellow had nothing to do with my work, but he knew my dissertation defense was about to commence. We engaged in some idle, pleasant, friendly chatter.

I knew this person was trying to help me relax. I appreciated the gesture, but at the risk of sounding immodest, it really was not necessary. I was relaxed and confident. In fact, as we spoke, my mind wandered backwards in time to my earliest university experiences. I remembered when it was so important to have an undisturbed private space, where I could listen to my “study-sheets,” just before final exams. How nerve-wracking those moments could be! I always worried about technological issues. Would my cassette-player work? Were the batteries strong? Would my tape hold up one last time? Which tape would I play? Would I get to the exam room with plenty of time to spare?

But I had been doing this for thirty years now, and this method always worked for me. Technologically had improved, and so had I. As a college freshman, I could not explain the relationship between memorization/familiarity, and intellectual ownership in the context of learning, the way an educational psychologist could, and I still cannot do so. But that does not matter. I am a historian.

My point is simple. There are tricks of the trade that students can use to help themselves learn. For me, the method was recording my notes, important passages from books, and other relevant course materials, and then listening to my own lectures. It began as part of a crusade to use my time more efficiently, but it evolved into a systematic approach to remembering things, developing interpretations, constructing meaning, and gaining mastery of new ideas.

Students should examine themselves and the contexts in which their education unfolds. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How do you learn efficiently? What are the circumstances in which you must pursue your current coursework? What are your possibilities? No teacher, guidance counselor, tutor, or learning instructor is truly qualified to answer these questions. Listen to your own voice.



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