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Once upon a time ...

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

I was a terrible student. How I managed to get into uni, at the ripe old age of 33 (some would say, "biblical age"), I do not know.

When I was a uni student, an undergrad, I used to get to September, and wonder how I'd get to the end of the year. September was always my low mojo time. I would have struggled through first semester, and been relieved to pass my exams, let alone an entire course. I'd be tired, run down, and completely devoid of motivation.

Yet, somehow, I had to keep going.

You see, I had long held a dream of studying psychology. Like so many others, I wanted to "help people". That's a fine aspiration, but studying was not just tedious for me; it was downright difficult.

Some people are blessed with the ability to do well in exams. At school, I was surrounded by them! All my friends were smart (what did they see in me??). I once asked a few about their seemingly-natural abilities. Their responses surprised me. One said they just had a knack for bullsh**ing. Another was driven to do well. What was wrong with me??

I looked a little deeper into my own backstory, because your childhood experiences often lead to something in adulthood. I looked back to my piano teacher, when I was in the third grade. I would have been aged around 8, so a cute little kid with big blue eyes and freckles trickling across my nose. Not an imposing sight at all. I'd go to a nun for piano lessons at lunchtime or after school, as she was in the convent next door to my primary school.

At home, I'd practise my little heart out; I loved playing so much. No-one in my family ever complained that I couldn't play. No-one. Let's face it; when you're the youngest in a big family, someone will surely have a go at you if you can't play the piano!! No-one ever did.

I'd go to my lessons, and the old nun would take her steel-reinforced ruler in hand, and whack it across my knuckles as I played, screeching, "You haven't been practising! You haven't been practising!".

One day, I stood up from the piano stool, calmly looked her straight in her bespectacled eyes, and said, "I don't have to put up with this. I quit.", and I walked out, never to return again. I walked home, because we lived close-by; and told my mother, whose response was, "Fair enough.". I think she knew that she had an independent spirit in this kid, by then.

This experience didn't teach me a good lesson, though. I didn't learn that I was a strong and confident young person. I didn't learn that "practice makes perfect". I didn't learn a skill that could lead to a great career of creativity and beauty.

No, the lesson that I learned from all this was completely erroneous.

The lesson that I learned, was no amount of trying, practising, or perfecting will lead to the outcome I desire. No amount of homework will lead to improvement in skill, knowledge or in the graduation from one level of excellence to the next.

This is what led to years of not trying. I was the only girl in my class who failed to do homework. Sometimes, I tried, because I didn't like to be embarrassed in front of the class; but most of the time, I just couldn't be bothered. When my mother would ask if I had homework, I'd lie to her. She would tell me to read the Readers' Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionaries instead.

Somehow, I still managed to understand the concepts we discussed at school. By the time I got to high school, aged 12, I did pretty well in my Year 7 exams. But, by the end of Year 10, my marks were showing a steep decline. My first high school was only Years 7-10, and I had to justify to my parents why they should let me go to Years 11-12 at another school. School fees were expensive! As much as I had an idea about psychology, I still had no idea of how to get to uni.

Because I didn't develop the habit of doing homework in primary school, I didn't have the self-discipline to study during high school. Although I was awarded my School Certificate (Year 10) and Higher School Certificate (Year 12), I didn't have the marks to be offered a place at university.

Eventually, after a few years of working, and trying out a few TAFE courses, I finally bit the bullet and went to uni. At first, I did the Open Foundation in 1988, at The University of Newcastle (yes, "The" is part of it's name, though we now refer to it as UON).

A blue crest with a white seahorse and the southern cross; banner reads "I look ahead"
The old UON logo from when I started, 1988. The Psycho Society re-badged the motto to "I look in heads"!

Open Foundation is one of a number of pathways into uni for people who don't have the high school marks. Back then, there weren't many courses on offer, so I took Introduction to Legal Studies and Basic Quantitative Methodology (BQM). I learned that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights, and Australian citizens do not have many civil rights apart from a handful that arose from common law (court cases that set a precedent). The other course, BQM, utterly baffled me. It was a precursor to statistics (which I knew I'd need for psychology), but it was taught by an astrophysicist; I was more interested in the astrophysics, to be honest!

In 1989, I started undergraduate psychology at Macquarie University, which meant moving back to Sydney and working full-time to pay the rent. This was in the days before the internet. Everything was done with paper. If you couldn't find your lab, you missed class, and there would be no way to catch up. These days, practically everything is recorded and available for students; not back then!

I managed to get through 18 months of working Monday-Friday 9-5, and going to uni Monday-Thursday 6-10pm. I can't say I did well; but I got through it!! Work got in the way, and to be honest - I let it. Work was more ... rewarding!

Then, in 1999, the opportunity arose for me to return to uni, but this time back home in Newy. The first time around, I wanted to become a practising psychologist, doing assessments and counselling patients. This time, I wanted to become a neuroscientist. There was no neuroscience degree, and so I designed my own with the courses that were available.

That first year, I was enrolled in Biology and Chemistry, which Ididn't do in high school. On Mondays, I had a Biology lecture, followed by a Chemistry tutorial and then a Chemistry lab. Students had to do homework, and pass a certain mark (each week) to be allowed into the lab, because we'd be doing dangerous things in labs! I distinctly recall one Monday afternoon, sitting in the driver's seat of my car in the carpark outside the Science precinct, weeping uncontrollably. What was I doing here?? Was I kidding myself?? I can't do this!!!

Low mojo kicked in, and rooted me to the spot.

I had to find the strength and self-control to stop crying, mop up my face, and go into class. I was so scared that my Chemistry homework would be rubbish, and I would be an absolute fraud. My body was wracked with the convulsions of my tears.

I resolved to get in there, do my best, and find some study-buddies.

That year, my study-buddies and I would meet in the bar after class. I can tell you, that's neither the place nor the time for a study group. How I managed to pass Chemistry and Biology, was simply a miracle.

The following year, I started my first Psychology course. I was determined not to be stuck like before. This was the first year that UON had started an online community for students and their teachers, and it was trialled in first year Psychology. It was fantastic!!! I could see which students asked good (useful) questions, which students were doing the work on a regular basis, and which students were helpful towards others. These were my study-buddy targets!!

The people I credit with showing me how to study include my two study-buddies from first year Psychology. I learned to do the work: regularly, curiously, and purposefully. My course coordinator would post previous exams, so we could practise to see what we knew and what needed more work. We would meet at 1pm every Wednesday (I love alliteration), so we could encourage each other, and peer-tutor one another.

Now, there were three things that were important about how to do the work. It had to be regular - like a business meeting. Everything I did needed to have a purpose - it had to be meaningful to me. And, the other element was curiosity. I can't over-emphasise this enough. When learning new material, you have to ask specific questions of that material. You have to ask - Who, What, Where, When, How, Why, How much, How many, and finally, "Then What?". You need to see the patterns and the flow.

I was still learning how to study when I finished my Bachelor degree in Science, my Honours degree in Psychology, and my PhD in Psychiatry. No-one ever teaches you the tricks and hacks; you trip over them as you go!

A friend, whom I've known since high school, started her own undergraduate studies a few years ago. She works three jobs, is raising two awesome kids, and is doing a Bachelor degree - all at once! I can't think of one of those things that isn't stressful. A little while ago, she said I should do Study Skills Seminars - she is always encouraging me like this (the meditations on this site are due to her inspiration). I thought that I'd like to do the research first.

My research, into higher education best practices, showed me that the scientific studies to find the best methods for studying (for better exam marks) include doing previous exams.

It doesn't end there; because, psychology research shows that being part of a like-minded group will foster collaboration and competition (which leads to peer-learning and innovation). So, a study group is a great investment.

Once I did the research, I produced a short eBook; to show how to use your brain to get information in and out (when you need to), how to study alone or in a group, and how to reduce stress. Stress reduction is a big part of it, and students need to go easy if they feel the stress and worry that they can't de-stress!

There are many people who don't meditate, because of various reasons. They think it will take too long. They think that they'll never master it. They think that they will get distracted.

The trick is, to think what you think and then let go of it.

Go easy on yourself! You're allowed to think, and you're even allowed to think negative thoughts! But, you're also allowed to think positive thoughts, and to not think at all!

So, right now, my thoughts are with all the students who are suffering low mojo, all the parents, guardians, and foster-peeps who are struggling to help the students in their lives, all those with partners or parents who are struggling to study, and all the educators trying to support them. May you all find the encouragement and calm you need for this last push of the year!!

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