Nick Ang profile picture

Nick Ang

How to be a good student

chalis007 189517 unsplash 1024x683 Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Tao Te Ching

This is a deeply important saying that I believe will either set a student for stellar success or utter failure in learning what he or she set out to learn.

To me, this is trying to say that a student needs to look inwards, not outwards, to learn. Look inwards and ask yourself some questions, like:

  • Why am I trying to learn about topic/field X?
  • What do I need to know in order to consider myself proficient in it?
  • If I had the ability and proximity to ask anyone who is actually skilled and knowledgeable in X, what questions would I ask to help me get to the level of proficiency I’m striving for?

Learning to me is very much an internal struggle. Cognitive dissonance is what psychologists use to describe the mental state in which one enters when she’s trying to grapple with a new idea that pokes uncomfortably at her existing ideas. I believe that when we’re really learning, we should constantly be experiencing cognitive dissonance.

The key here, though, and this is what I think the quote above is trying to explain, is that as a student, we should not wait for ideas to come flying at us like basketballs. We’re not hoops with feet. And our teachers are not basketball shooters.

To truly learn, we must first know why we want to learn something, then ask ourselves what we must know to gain a good understanding of it, and finally and most importantly, continually ask questions to people who are actually proficient at it.

The ball is in the student’s court, and it’s always been there. As a student, we should shoot for the hoops, with each score representing a new idea or concept grasped.

And when we find that we’re not getting better at shooting from certain positions in the court, we should ask on-point questions to our coach, like “I can’t rely on the board to bounce my shot into the hoop from here. If it was you, would you keep trying for the board or go straight for the hoop?”

The moment you adopt the mindset that shooting for the hoop can and must only be done by you in order to gain proficiency at it is the moment you’ve entered the state of mind of a student.

In this state, anyone who has had any remote success at shooting hoops can provide you with insight, because you are primed to ask the right questions, befitting your current level of understanding, to extract and absorb it.

The teacher would be said to have appeared.

This way of thinking is not suitable for very young children, because they need guidance at every step to learn how to learn. But I believe adult learners have no excuses to not adopt this mentality.

Want to learn something in a short span of time? The only way is to adopt this mentality. Drop your ego and sense of entitlement, put on your student uniform, and start asking as many questions as possible.

Rely less on the external factors like your teacher’s charisma and energy to motivate your learning (even though that would be a nice bonus). You’re not a child anymore. Learning is your responsibility, so look inwards.

Ask, ask, ask. There are only dumb questions if you think questions are a kind of performance to gain your peers’ and teacher’s validation. And they are not - they are the fundamental building blocks of learning that will make you see your teacher.

Nick Ang profile picture
Husband, dad, and software engineer that writes. Big on learning something everyday and trying to have fun before the lights go out.
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