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Essential Conditions for Learning

Mon Feb 15, 2021 at 07:30 AM

 CETL Learning Tips like this are written for a student audience.

There is no reason that any student should suffer alone, and I want them to know, both as president and as a physician, that we have help available for every single student.” - Ora Pescovitz, OU President

Research continually finds that certain conditions and behaviors are essential to learning, such as safety, sleep, peace, planning ahead, and a growth mindset. Make sure these conditions and behaviors are in place so that all of your studying and hard work pays off. This being said, you can’t work with completely depleted bandwidth. If you feel like some of these conditions are out of your control, take advantage of the support offered right here on campus.


We cannot focus on learning if our basic physical and emotional needs are not met. It can be a vicious cycle: If we are suffering physically or emotionally, we may not be able to pass our courses, which can cause financial hardship that worsens our problems. Oakland University is very aware of how physical and mental well-being are essential to being able to learn. If you or a fellow student carries the burden of a significant life issue (housing, food security, unhealthy relationships, illness, trauma), contact campus support to get assistance (listed below).


More than just a wellness luxury, sleep plays an integral role in learning. It is difficult to overstate its power: by clearing toxins it literally solidifies the facts you memorized and applies what you have studied to other life contexts. In some ways, it does your homework for you, with no conscious effort on your part! If you are in a situation where you say you cannot get enough sleep, dig deeper: 

  • Is sleep lost at the expense of less healthy habits, like TV or parties?
  • Are other good but non-essential priorities overshadowing sleep? 
  • Is sleep reduced for other life needs (child care, financial needs)? 

While there can be complicated issues surrounding lack of sleep, do everything in your capacity to get a solid night’s sleep every night, and consider other solutions to ensure you get this sleep. Naps can help compensate for getting less than seven hours at night, but nothing beats a good night’s sleep.

Peace, Not Anxiety

You may be sitting in your PSYC 1000 class trying to take notes, but if you are worried about something else, your notes might not make sense to you the next day. In short, anxiety blocks our brain from learning. Anxiety comes in different forms, such as something temporary around one situation (situational) or a heavy feeling that consumes most of your waking moments (chronic).

Test Jitters: Situational Anxiety

In her MOOC Learning How to Learn, OU professor Barbara Oakley addresses strategies for test-taking, specifically how to address this anxiety. While we usually can’t control our body’s reaction to stress, we can control what to do with stress. Instead of interpreting stress as fear of failure, interpret stress as the opportunity to do your best, to grow, and to achieve. This can also be distinguished as “good worry,” the type that drives motivation and focus (what has been called eustress), as opposed to “bad worry,” which only paralyzes action.

Chronic Anxiety

College life often brings swift and significant life changes, creating prime conditions for anxiety. Anxiety can creep into our lives as stress builds up from relationships, grades, and other responsibilities. If you find that your anxiety stays for long periods of time, regardless of whether you are in class or away from campus, call the Counseling Center to use one of your free visits--let a professional hear you out and provide some support.


Why do we procrastinate? It gives our brain a satisfaction “bump,” almost like a drug, because doing the task ahead makes us wince with pain. But procrastination ultimately leads to more stress, poorer performance, and inability to enjoy the learning experience you’re here for! Even if you manage to eek out a decent grade while procrastinating, the cramming required to procrastinate shows that you remember only a small fraction of what you learned, and what you remember is entirely random.

So how do you beat the bad habit? Think about the challenging work ahead in terms of process rather than product: Instead of telling yourself, “I have to sit down and write four pages,” try “I’ll work on this for 20 minutes.” This has been called the pomodoro technique, named after a “tomato” timer, which makes a dreaded task less daunting and tricks your brain into getting started. What’s likely to happen at the end of 20 minutes? You’re in the groove--no point in stopping now! OU professor Barbara Oakley talks about this strategy and more about procrastination in her fun videos on procrastination (available in her free MOOC on Learning How to Learn).

Failure and Growth Mindset

Failure--why the ugly word? Let’s put it this way: it’s important to get stuff wrong if you want to learn. You don’t have to fail a class, but learning requires trial and error, and a willingness to swing and miss. Learners have to check their understanding early and often if they want to know the material well enough to score high on the exam. This means you

  • Ask and answer questions in class.
  • Do the practice problems in your reading--don’t skip them! The act of reading might make you feel like you know it (called the illusion of competence), but you don’t know until you have to do something with what you have read.
  • Go to supplemental instruction and other practice-based sessions offered with your class.
  • Seek out practice exams and problems online related to what you are learning.
  • Form a study group dedicated to testing your knowledge.

This does not require a lot of extra time! The key is in how you study and what it means to know the course material. It’s better to study for 75 minutes and have a solid understanding of the material instead of spending 40 minutes reading only to forget everything!

We might avoid challenging ourselves because failure is unpleasant. The power of failure depends on how you react to it. People with a growth mindset look at their ability as something that can be cultivated and expanded, while those with a fixed mindset concede that they can never get better. When a student gets a C on a math test, a growth mindset will determine how the next test can earn a B or A while a fixed mindset will make the student accept that they’re simply bad at math. A growth mindset will get you further than you can imagine!

OU Support

OU Resources for Student Immediate Needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has depleted many students’ basic resources, but students at any point should use the support around them if they need access to food, shelter, and other vital resources. This doc lists the range of support offered at OU.

Not sure where to start? Your academic adviser can point you in the right direction. Depending on your major, each school has advisers that help students. 

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

Originally published October 1, 2018. Photo by Alistair MacRobert on UnsplashOthers may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.