Studying

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In short: This entry is a rather personal account on how it is to study at academia, provided by the Wiki team. It shall help interested students sort their own experiences being a new student.

Prof. Henrik von Wehrden

What to expect when you study at Leuphana, or basically any given University
Studying is about learning. Learning will be the main focus of your whole day, and sometimes even beyond the day. Learning to learn is a key goal that schools still miss out on big time, even if the situation has already greatly improved. I only learned to learn properly at university in a structured and self-motivated way. Balancing your learning efforts against your motivational levels is something that you develop and learn, and different people learn differently, which is a trivial detail but important to consider given the pressure that many people perceive. Being in academia means tinkering with the skills you need as an academic, often your whole life.

About reading
Academia is first and foremost about reading. Reading a lot is inevitable, and in addition you need to learn to cross-read large chunks of text and fast. Quite often it is not about getting every bit of the text, but instead the bigger picture. This is not some ability that you are being born with, but it will take years to evolve. Still, reading you must, and a lot, and all the time. The reading assignments of an average study program should amount to several ten thousands of pages, and since you have other interests that are also transported in written texts, it is important to develop strategies how to read. Find a spot that is comfortable, but not too comfortable. Also, work on your posture. Some people benefit from alternating locations. A location change for a power session can be a beneficial strategy. Also, try to find audiobooks, which may be available for some of the more mainstream stuff you have or want to read. My audiobook account is an important staple in my life, and contains hundreds of books. I also love books, but there is only so much I can read on an average day, and audiobooks are great during transit, gardening and sports. I also get a lot of inspiration from podcasts. Still, the staple in my branch of science are scientific articles and books.

Doing Group work
Science is about collaboration. Many people have a misconception about this. Collaboration does not mean that you work together non-stop, are all exited standing in front of whiteboards and sitting at round tables, cheering each other on. Instead much of the time spent in group work is about planning together, working solitarily, and then bringing the different bits and pieces together. You still will have to do most of the work alone, otherwise it is going to be a huge time drag. It is an important skill to do brainstorming in a group, and a whiteboard can indeed go a long way. Group work is however often about dragging people along, and can be even about working against people. Compromising is a great skill, but how do you deal with unequal knowledge and experience in a group is often altogether different; an unbalanced work load can be the most destructive force in any group work. Therefore, it is important to find strategies how to cope with all of these challenges, which again takes practice. To be able to foster more effective groupwork in which you feel comfortable and you know how to deal with your different group members try out the Belbin test for group roles. Looking back at my own experience, I think it was important to learn how to adapt myself to diverse settings. Many problems we face in groups are because the group is a reflection of our own flaws, so that we can overcome them. This is why I like working in groups.

Writing daily
Integrating your thoughts quickly into a written text is at the heart of academia. If we want to learn to communicate our thoughts to others, we need to learn to write. Many people claim they are not good writers, yet I would counter argue that they are not good at developing their writing skills. The first way to become a good writer is to become a good reader. Being inspired by others can help you to consciously grasp why some sentences are better than others, and how you may borrow from the writers able to produce better sentences. It is surprising how well a professional educator on writing can empower you to this end, and at Leuphana we are fortunate enough to have the writing center that is excellent in teaching these insights. There are also some really good books on learning to write, and I would argue that among the more known books on writing, it is almost impossible to make any mistakes. Just get one that speaks to you or was recommended by somebody, and put time into it.

Another approach that was beneficial to me is to write about things that keep preoccupying your mind. If you keep coming back to a certain thought, yet cannot really verbalise why you cannot let it be, why not write about it? Writing can be a surprisingly catalytic and clarifying approach to structure and analyse your thoughts. Writing 500-1000 words per day should be a no-brainer for any aspiring academic. Start with a research diary, reflecting and verbalising what you learned on this specific day. This only works if you make it a habit. New years resolutions are worthless to this end. You need to minimise the friction instead, finding the right time, place and mood that makes you automatically start writing no matter what. Me, I sit in the chair where I write most texts, listening to the "Tales from the Loop"-soundtrack that propelled about 90% of all texts I wrote in the last year. If I put on this soundtrack, my fingers start twitching almost by instinct. Writing should be a reward, as I think it is a privilege. Writing cannot be pressed between two other time slots, it needs to be free and unbound, allowing your mind to do nothing else. From then on it is to me how Jazz is in music. Much of Jazz music is hard work and practice, almost to the point where your subconscious takes over and you are in autopilot mode. You need to practice enough so that your lack of skill does not stop you from writing. To me, this learning curve is surprisingly rewarding, it is almost like learning to be a rock climber. The first day is the horror. All muscles ache, you are basically destroyed. This will get worse for a few days. Suddenly, after two weeks of daily practice you will surprise yourself. After three months of daily practice you will lift yourself easily up the wall on previously impossible routes, and to others your path looks smooth and easy going. Writing is just like this.

Studying teaches you to try things out
Beside the three staples of academics - reading, group work and writing - learning at a University is also about many other opportunities to learn and grow. This list is very specific and context depended for each and every single person. Still, the general consensus is that studying is about trying things out, how you can learn best, and find out what you are good at, and how you can contribute best. Here are some points that I consider to be relevant.

Soft skills
Among the diverse term of soft skills are personal traits and approaches that basically help us to interact. While this could be associated to group work (see above), I think it is good to make a mind map that you keep updating and exchange about with others. This is nothing that you need to obsess about, but more like a conscious and reflexive diary of your own personal development. Actually, a research diary can be a good first step. Also, if you witness others that excel at a certain soft skill, approach them and ask them how they learned their respective skills. It is also quite helpful -surprise- to practice. Presentations are something that are often not right the first time, and constructive feedback from critical people that you trust goes a long way. Much of the literature and other resources on soft skills are often over-enthusiastic, and promise the one and only best approach. Do not let yourself be fooled by such simple fixes, some of the soft skill literature is rather fringe. Still, new approaches to knowledge and interaction await, much can be gained, and only a bit of time may be lost. Why not giving another soft skill a go? The most important step is then to try it really out. Doing meditation once will tell you nothing about it, yet after some weeks you may perceive some changes. Your first World Café was a failure? Well, try it again, several times, in different settings. For soft skills you need to stay open minded.

Digital natives?
We are awash with information to the brim, and continuously on the edge of drowning in it. Mastering all things digital may be one of the most important skills in this age and place. I think the most important rule to this end is: Less is more. Evidence how bad too much exposure to the digital world seems to be is mounting. Social media made many promises, yet I am not sure how many were kept. I can acknowledge that it can create meaningful linkages, build capacity, and even be a lifeline to your distant friend. Nevertheless, I would propose to be very reflexive which emotions are triggered by social media within you. This may lead to the conclusion to detox. The same holds true for all things extreme, namely binge watching, youtube or Spiegel Online. Instead you need to become versatile in a word processor, Powerpoint, maybe a graphical software, and get a hold of your direct digital communication. E-mail is still a thing, and writing a good e-mail is a skill that is equally admirable and often missed out on by students. I have been there. Again, practice goes a long way. Also, be conscious about data structure, backups, and online plans. You should be able to impress others with you digital skills. This will open many doors, and tilt many opinions towards your direction. Get at it!

Work-life-balance and motivation
Curb your enthusiasm. There are no simple answers here. Work-life-balance became a pretty big thing lately, and we all hope that the prices we paid as long as it was ignored will now not become the flip-side of the coin, since we basically talk non-stop about work-life-balance these days. Personally, I never really quite understood this hype. It is undeniable that having a balanced work-life dynamic is central and often overseen. However, having a filled curriculum after hours that is supposed to relax you by adding to your already busy schedule further to the brink may not be doing the trick. Having a nine to five schedule is no guarantee for a happy life, just like long working hours can be ok if you are ok with this. It is currently 21:36 when I write this text, and I do that because I want to do this. The danger is -I believe- if we let the system dictate us what we should do, and when. It does not matter wether it is about work or about relaxation. After all, it is really hard to relax on command, especially when you are hyped, and have still energy. All in all, I still give a note of caution. I overworked myself in the past, not only because of societal expectations, but also because I basically had no radar about my own balance, and how easy it can be thrown off. It took me a long time to figure this one out for myself, and I think in the spirit of being better safe than sorry, go easy on yourself. We are currently in an epidemic of psychological challenges, especially among the younger generation. We cannot go on like this. Being motivated is like the worst pressure point we ever discovered. If I can only put one piece of advise here, then I would suggest that you should always try to establish a path, and not goals. Being on a way and establishing the associated mindset is the most fundamental change we need. If we keep rushing towards goals, and keep changing these goals like all the time, and never acknowledge when we reach these goals, then all is lost. I much prefer to just be on a path, even if I am not clear in all points where it will lead me. You may write this one down on a teabag.

Studying is a privilege, and a challenge. Practice reading, talk to other students, and start writing a learning diary. Being an academic to me means committing to lifelong learning, because neither the world nor knowledge stands still. It took me a while to figure learning against my other commitments in life, and I am still learning to this end as well. I am very glad for this.


Christopher (B.Sc. Biogeowissenschaften, M.Sc. Sustainability Science)

Being overwhelmed
Welcome to university! If you've come straight from school, you might be overwhelmed by your first semester. I certainly was - after all, each semester requires at least as much studying as your school finals. Every semester! It is natural to be challenged by this initially. I struggled with my first and third semester, then my bachelor thesis, then the first master semester. However, as cheesy as it may sound: you'll grow with these challenges. It is alright to skip a class if you cannot spend the proper time on it, or aren't quite feeling yourself. Not a question. Still, you won't be doing yourself a favor by postponing everything to eternity just because you can. Take on the challenge: You'll become more efficient and pragmatic by going through those three months, and next time, you'll better know how to deal with what awaits you. Cherish this process. I guess it's part of getting older.

The right path
Picking a study program is hard. There is an incredible diversity nowadays, so how can you choose the right path for your future? You'll likely feel at some point like you didn't. Someone said to me in my first semester, "if you've never doubted your study program, you haven't really studied". I think there's truth in this. Few people will enjoy 100% of their study program. Maybe it's the professor of that one class, maybe the topic, maybe your assignment. However, this shouldn't let you doubt the general decision. There is a reason why you chose this exact study program. Don't get me wrong, there is no shame in starting new if things really don't feel right after some time still. And for some people, university just isn't right, and it's good to realize that and pursue one's real interests. At the same time however, you don't decide your life's fate with your bachelor's. Life isn't like an RPG game where you choose the wrong path and now you're a pickpocket in a close-combat situation. Oops. At university, you can choose a class from time to time that you are interested in, even if it doesn't seem to fit into your 'profile'. No one will care about your first semester grades once you graduated. Other things will be more important, like practical experience, and proving that you are passionate about things may outweigh the name of a study program.

Studying early
I made good experiences being that guy who studies early-ish. I mean, every professor will tell you to start writing that essay, or start learning for exam, early, like TODAY, and not just the night before. Some eager students will accept this advice and start studying right away, and I guess that's good for them. You don't need to do that. I think it's already sufficient to just start a month or two early. Like, be prepared for the February exam by Christmas. Refresh and update your knowledge once more close to the exam, and enjoy the relaxation of not having to binge-study three days up to the exam. Essays, too, age like fine wine: draft something early after receiving the instructions, and give yourself some to think about it before continuing again and again. There are students who will do totally fine grade-wise with last minute all-nighters, and will claim that this was way more efficient. What they don't tell you about is the agony of these nights. Spare yourself that.

Self-care
My final advice may sound contradictory to what I wrote before, but hear me out. Take off time now and then. Yes, I recommend preparation, and I appreciate challenges, but only now that I finished studying, I have also come to cherish weekends. During my studies, I barely had any weekends, at least mentally. By this I mean that as a student, you are never really 'off' work. There's always something you could be writing, studying, or preparing. Especially during my later semesters this took a bit of a toll on me, so I'd recommend not doing that. There is a limit to everything, so let weekends be weekends. Or at least take a day off per week, where you actively divert your thoughts. You'll be fine if that assignment doesn't receive another five hours of care. Maybe it's rather you who needs these hours for yourself this time. This might come off cynical to anyone who's working next to studying, but if you can make it possible in any way, remember: Studying is not a sprint but a marathon. You'll need that breath. And now enough with the metaphors.


Ollie (Bachelor in Linguistics, B.Sc. Environmental Sciences, 5th semester)

Moving to study in a foreign country can be crazy intimidating. Everything around is strange and you are on your own. At least that is what I thought, but Germany surprised me. You don’t have to be alone, if you need help, the most important thing is just to reach out and ask for it. University staff and your peers can make your life and first months in the new country so much easier. Go around the campus, explore what it has to offer, check out initiatives and different events. I know it can all be quite overwhelming at first, but you do not have to have it all figured out right away. No one really has after all. Get a couple of people on your radar who you could ask for some assistance in case needed, make some friends if lucky. First buffer-months are necessary for acclimatisation and it is natural to question your choice of study. Pleasant surprise, professors and teachers are also very happy to advise you on your studying path! Check out when their consultation hours are and go speak to them: they might approach your question from a new perspective. With more experience and knowledge about the way things at the University are they could thus guide you towards your answer.

So, as we say in Russia, two heads are better than one: you do learn much better in groups, because you get an opportunity to reflect. I first experienced it here in Germany and I was amazed. This does not only make studying easier, it also gives more diversity to the way you learn a subject, as well as sometimes puts you in a position of learning by teaching. If you have a subject to learn on your own, do the same thing: explain it to yourself step by step, ask yourself questions. Do not make learning too much of a routine, the aspect of novelty can be crucial for our brains to stay focused and excited. Go to a new place from time to time, study in a cafe, at a different table in the library, at home on the sofa, or outside if the weather is good. And never forget to take breaks. Slow and steady is your key, be aware of the mighty burn out – it is the saddest thing not to be able to want to do things that you know you genuinely love. So pace yourself, start learning early and do active recall!

The world worships the original, so stay true to yourself. However, mind the difference between anxious competition with the others and gaining inspiration from the people whose success you find admirable. Learn from them, talk to them, and believe in yourself: stay open-minded and keep trying, and don’t take your mistakes too seriously. There is no way you can grow a muscle without slightly tearing it up now and then.

Last but not least, this is your journey, at the end. Ask yourself if it is what you want to do, there is no right or wrong way, there is only you and your life. Coming from a country where thinking outside the box was not encouraged, your skill of critical thinking might feel quite rusty in a European university, but eventually you catch up on that. Nothing is more refreshing than breaking the paradigms and generating new ideas.

So, you go, pal! And good luck!


Linda (B.Sc. Environmental Sciences, 3rd semester)

Before I say anything about studying, I should begin with a short disclaimer: I started my studies in COVID 19-times and gained my first experiences mainly in two full online semesters. Nonetheless, I already learned a lot about myself, universities and studying during this time.

You'll often hear: "My time at university was the best time of my life." But what exactly do parents, other relatives, acquaintances or graduated students even mean by this, especially when sometimes studying just feels hard, overwhelming and never-ending? I suppose that life at university just offers so much that you can dive into, try out and learn. And this broad field of possibility, like-minded people, motivation and freedom is what makes studying great. What I want to say with this is, that studying has more to it than sitting through lectures. Try out engaging in an initiative and try to take advantage of the university's infrastructure (groups, clubs, organizations etc.).

Moving on to more practical stuff, studying to me, up until now, has been a lot about learning to learn and also learning to criticize.

Firstly, learning to learn: By being constantly overwhelmed by what you could do, you ideally start to see what you have to do and which things can wait or don't even help you learn at all. Sometimes, this may seem hard or there just isn't anything that isn't important. In this case, try asking peers to work together or spilt some work: When there are for example 6 important papers, then it could be helpful to assign 2 papers each (in a group of 3). Then everyone shares their notes and summarizes key messages - et voilà, less work load for each of you individually. When you don't see advantages in working together with peers, this might not be it for you, but maybe just give it a try.

Secondly, learning to criticize: Many of the concepts, approaches, ideas and facts taught in the first semesters were completely new to me. Don't let yourself be too caught up in this amazement and try to always think a step further. What could be strengths or weaknesses? Can this be combined with something else that I learned? This approach may help understanding some of the seemingly indisputable, abstract concepts. The knowledge you gain through studying shouldn't just stay in your notebook or laptop. It should wander through your brains, be discussed and differentiated. You'll see that many things make more sense along the way and even more so, when you develop an opinion on them.


Elli (B.Sc. Environmental Sciences, 7th semester)

Relax!
You may be overwhelmed in your first semester especially during your first weeks. Certainly I was. There is a new city to explore (and Lüneburg offers you just very much!), new people that you live with and not to mention a university where you have to arrive and to figure out how to study. But I can tell you, you will get used to it. Do not stress yourselfs in the beginning. You don't have to be everywhere, meet everyone and read and study everything. Your bachelor will take at least three years. You have plenty of time to explore the beautiful city of Lüneburg, engage yourself in clubs, meet your friends, go to parties and of course study. So my advice for you would be: Take it easy and don't forget to rest in between all your busy and full packed days!

You'll change, and that's ok
I chose Lüneburg and especially Environmental Sciences because it interested me the most back in 2017. First I thought that I would apply for the Envi-Program and go to Sweden for one year but in the end I didn't. Today I would say that I am a truly different person than I was when I started my studies here in Lüneburg. I came here and thought that I would end in the natural sciences, doing something with chemistry or even climate physics and generate new data that would be needed to understand climate change. Today that sounds really far away for me. Today my interests, wishes and goals have completely changed. That does not mean that everyone of you will have experience the same. But I want to encourage you to stay open minded and to find your way. To find a field that truly interests and inspires you. I think university can be the best place for that.

Self-organization
Sometimes people ask me how I manage to do so many different things at the same time and never forget something. I would say the big mystery behind that is: being organized. The only solution to get university, work, engagement and social time under one roof for me is having a planner in which I write down all my appointments, all my to-dos and all the small important things that I need to remember. Again find the solution that suits you best. I know many that use notion as their key tool to organize their lifes. Not for me. I am old-school. I have to write things down to remember them.

How to study: an easy recipe
I know many of you wish that there would be an easy-peasy recipe on how to study that I hand you right now and then you are done. I don't think this is possible. That is actually why we wrote this article. To show you the diversity of formats and options that you have. Try them out and find the best way for yourself. My usual day for example is structures into sessions of 1.5-2 hours. In this time I am doin something. Reading a text and making notes, doing something for work, watch a lecture etc. Then I will take a digital break. Means I will do some house work (laundry, dishes, whatever you like) or run some errands (fresh air is the key!). The most important thing is for me that I will allow my mind to rest and not overload it with new content in my break.

There is nothing more for me to say than this is your study time here at Leuphana. Find your own way, make the best of it and do not pressure you!


The authors of this entry are Henrik von Wehrden, Christopher Franz, Olga Kuznetsova, Elisabeth Franke, Linda von Heydebreck.