One Thing That Will Make All The Difference In College (and High School)

Recently I had an incoming freshman visit my office as part of a scavenger hunt for one of her classes. The goal of the exercise was to help the students get to know the faculty and be less intimidated by them. If that goal was achieved or not, I do not know, but what I do know is that she asked an excellent question that I wish every student knew the answer.

Her question was, “What is one piece of advice that you could give me to help me be successful?” I don’t know if she had been prompted by her professors or others to ask that question, but it was an excellent question. I like to think my answer was equally as excellent.

My advice was that she apply every concept, every skill that she learned to an outside project; learn the theory, idea, concept, and USE IT! If you are learning to program and have been taught to do a sort routine, write a program that needs a sort routine. If you are learning the principles of animation, make your own animation that uses squash-stretch, and not with the supplied 3D model! If you are learning to teach, go apply what you are learning by volunteering to work with youth and practice what you are learning.

tl;dr – One thing that makes all the difference when you are learning a new concept or theory is to apply that idea to your own original work. It will help you to learn the concept better and give you more practice to becoming an expert.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the concept of how many hours it takes to become an expert in a field of study is discussed. Repeatedly, the idea that 10,000 hours of practice and experience in a field is what is required to distinguish one’s self. To be at the top of a field, 10,000 of purposeful, targeted practice is required.

10,000 hours might seem an overwhelming number of hours, but it is very do-able over the next four or five years (the typical time a student is in college). Spending 40 hours a week, 50 weeks out of the year (we will give you two weeks off for good behavior) for four years will put you at the 8,000-hour mark. More than enough to distinguish yourself from other graduating seniors, and only one year shy of becoming an expert in your chosen field.

If you are unable to dedicate 40 hours a week (which, realistically, the average person is not able to do with a full load of classes, a part-time job, and any type of social life), 20 hours (4 hours a day, 5 days a week) a week has you achieving a level of competence (4,000 hours) that the majority of other graduating seniors will not have attained in the same amount of time. With this level of dedication, if your goal is to become an expert in your selected field, it will take approximately 10 years to achieve the 10,000-hour distinction.

Some might become upset to hear this, but dedicating less than 4 hours a day, 5 days a week while you are in college to what you have selected as your career could mean two things:
1) You are not passionate about the field that you are studying
2) You should find a field that you are passionate enough about to dedicate that amount of time.

Do you have to become an expert in your field? Absolutely not! Many people live very contented lives without achieving the level of expert. It is completely acceptable to take 20, 30, or even 40 years to become an expert. For that matter, who says you have to become an expert? But if you want to be an expert (and some of us do), dedicated, focused time is required.

Recently I was reviewing senior portfolios. I require all of my seniors to submit an ePortfolio to display what they have accomplished over the course of their academic studies. One problem that I saw among several of my students was that they were including samples from course work as part of their ePortfolio.

While this is to be expected to a limited extent in entry-level portfolios, I was nonetheless, disappointed. If you are learning to do animation, programming, game design, or any other field with specific skill sets, your portfolio is going to be reviewed by others who have been through similar educational programs as you. They know a class assignment when they see one and will not be impressed no matter how well executed the assignment.

If you want to stand out from your peers, take the skill that you have learned and apply it to your own project. Case in point: I have been teaching a course in animation this semester. One of the first concepts that students learn is Squash-Stretch animation while maintaining the volume of the object.
Typically this assignment is completed using a variety of balls to represent different weights and density. This is a very important concept. However, if you are showing that same assignment with the ball that you used in the second week of your course work, you are not doing yourself justice. Apply the concepts to new figures and objects. That applied work is what you include in your portfolio.

Of course, the idea of applying what you are learning beyond the classroom is not limited to just your major or area of interest. This learning concept will help you to learn any concept and be able to apply the knowledge when you need it.

© 2019 – Brian Burton, Ed.D.  Dr. Professor-Dad

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