Student eye

Kevin Potoczny standing in a laboratoryWhen you go to university you expect to learn certain things. A math program should teach you mathematics, a biology program should teach you about living things. A degree in philosophy should demonstrate that not every appearance is necessarily true. However, there are things that you may or may not learn that might have no connection to your degree. Each year I learned something new that had nothing to do with my degree. I want to share these new understandings with you in hopes that you can take them and truly take your education to the next level.

Naturally, I will start with the first year. In your first two terms, in the Biomedical Science program at least, on campus you will be overloaded with many science courses. There are three main disciplines — biology, chemistry and physics — and all of them are difficult. I got to experience a huge workload with relatively little time to breathe as there were midterms and assignments back to back. Not to mention that each course has an associated lab component that only adds to the workload. However, not everything is so grim in the first year. The majority of the content is a review of high school and unfortunately it all seems like amalgamation of fact. You will be taught A and be expected to write A on the exam. 

But it is in the midst of this hurricane of information where I learned something completely out of the ordinary. Something that some of my peers still have not truly grasped. When you are studying, focus not on memorizing the lecture slides so that you can regurgitate the material on the final. Instead, work towards understanding the deeper meaning and concepts. Ask why? Why are certain reactions occurring? What drives certain cell behaviours? Why does gravity point down? All of these help you build a fundamental understanding of the material. This fundamental understanding will be the backbone of your education. Nobody cares if you can draw a force body diagram if you don’t understand why gravity is always the “down” arrow. But as with everything, there is give and take. Trying to understand fundamentals instead of memorizing fact is a new learning technique.

Experimenting with new learning techniques, much like all experimentation, comes with failure. You may not get that 4.0 GPA in first year but as long as your average is above a 65% you will be OK. Very few to no professional schools — yes, that includes med school — put much weight on your first-year average. Yes, your grades do matter but by demonstrating improvement over your academic career you can achieve a high GPA for admission and scholarship purposes later in your education. This is the time to try new things and build new habits. Use this time to truly learn the material. Over time you will find that upper-year courses become easier, you will spend less time on assignments and do better on tests because you have built a strong academic base.

Treat your first year not as a race to keep up but instead as a time where you can build the base of your education. Explore the new academic world that you find yourself in. This was the turning point of my education and I only wish I had discovered it earlier.