Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Favorite Subjects

I watched Taare Zammen Par the other day. The movie made me think back to my school days, the subjects I studied and how I fared in them. Thankfully, I did not have any learning difficulty like the protagonist in the film. In fact, I was more like his elder brother who used to do well in class. Watching the film took me back to a variety of thoughts that floated in my mind as a student. 

Every student has a different approach to learning. Some like to understand each and every concept in depth. Such students score very well in some areas (in topics they understood completely) and very poorly in other areas (where they could not grasp the topic completely). Some others like to cram the content in each subject till they memorize it by heart. Such students usually score highly in exams, since they can reproduce pages after pages of content as it is from textbooks to exam answer sheets. My method of learning was based on maximizing the return of investment. Based on the analysis of several factors like type of questions to be asked in the exams (descriptive or objective), the likely examiner, the amount of content to be covered for the particular exam, I used to formulate what and how much to study. Instead of spending hours trying to understand each and every concept, or trying to memorize pages after pages of content, I preferred to develop a deep enough understanding of the subject matter that was sufficient enough to write a good answer in the exam; nothing more or nothing less. I also placed a great emphasis on revision of studied matter. I made it a point to revise the content at least twice before the exam, preferably once on the morning of the exam, in order to ensure that all ideas are fresh in my mind. This approach helped ensure that I had countered the two most basic pitfalls in learning for an exam, not covering the entire course and forgetting what one has studied.  And when it came to actually writing the exam, I followed another simple strategy to overcome one of the most common mistakes students make in an exam, i.e. taking too much time to finish the initial answers and ending up short of time to answer all questions. I divided the time alloted for the exam into the number of sections in the question paper, leaving some buffer at the end for revision. For example, in a 3 hour exam with a question paper having 5 sections, I allocated 30 minutes to each section, leaving the last 30 minutes as buffer. I tried to complete answering each section within 30 minutes. If I took longer in one section, I tried to make it up in the next. And the last 30 minutes where used up in either finishing up on some incomplete sections and / or reading through the answers to avoid any silly mistakes like wrong numbering, attaching supplements in wrong order etc. These approaches served me well all through my student life. But each student has his own way of learning, and one size does not fit all.

The protagonist in "Taare Zammen Par" had great difficulty in remembering spellings, but was exceptionally good in arts. This made me think back to the subjects I liked in school. Though I did well in almost all subjects, like every student, I had a few favorites. Here is a list of my favorite subjects in school (and college subsequently), starting from the most favorite to the least.

  1. Mathematics - No surprises here. Given the fact that I ultimately ended up being an engineer indicates by preference for logic, and hence for Math. Though I loved all disciplines within Math, I had a greater affinity towards topics like Geometry (2D and 3D), Trigonometry and Calculus, as compared to others like Algebra, Probability etc. In fact, I could never figure out the intricacies of Probability till the last day. I can still remember the joy I derived from solving sums in school (and college subsequently). Perhaps one day, when I am retired and have plenty to spare time, I would open some school books and solve a few sums again, just to bring all my school memories back. 
  2. Sanskrit - A surprise at the number 2 position. What is a language doing at the second place in the favorite subjects list of a person who turned out to be an engineer? Well the answer lies in the question itself. I found Sanskrit to be the most logical language I studied. Words, phrases and sentences followed a more logical structure in Sanskrit than in any other language. The only tough part was memorizing some of the tongue twisting words. But as I used to have a pretty good memory in my childhood, I never faced any problems on that front.Plus the decent handle I had on Hindi spellings (refer point 4) helped out in making fewer mistakes in writing Sanskrit words.
  3. Physics - This one is a bit tricky. Physics (along with Chemistry) branched out to be a separate subject from 11th standard onwards. I was not too font of some of the initial topics that I studied in 11th and 12th standard like Oscillations, Gravity, Fluid Motion etc. But by the time I reached the higher topics like Relativity in college, I was truly fascinated. This was perhaps due to 2 reasons. One, I had always had a fascination for topics like Relativity, Space, Time etc from an early age, due to some of the scientific concepts my father had embedded in me as bed time stories. And I just could not wait to have the opportunity to learn these topics in class. Two, I was fascinated by how complex mathematical equations came together to explain some of the most intricate laws in Physics.
  4. Hindi- Another strange entry. Hindi was not a subject that I particularly liked; it is just one that I was quite good at. The story of my proficiency in Hindi is an interesting one. In primary school, I started off being very very poor in the subject. I could some how never get all the "maatraas" right. Till date, I have never been able to remember all alphabets in the Hindi language in their defined order. Then one fine day, my mother decided to subscribe the Hindi children's magazine "Paraag" for me. And that did wonders for my knowledge of the language. Soon, I got rid of all the spelling errors I used to make and began scoring consistently high marks in Hindi. In fact, I still remember that my marks in Hindi used to be almost at par with subjects like Math and Science, which was a surprise since people generally do not score as highly in Language as they do in Math and Science. One of the reasons for my scoring highly in Hindi was also the fact that the same teacher (Madam Tiwari) taught us Hindi for 7 years in school (6th to 12th standard). And as I have written before, one of the keys to getting good marks is being able to figure out the type of answers your teacher likes. I got so used to her way of teaching and examining papers, that I began to understand the way in which she liked answers to be composed. She had a preference for a particular logical ordering of content. I began to tailor my answers in order to match the same year after year, and reaped the benefits handsomely.
  5. Social Studies (History, Civics, Geography) - I was quite ambivalent towards this subject. I neither liked or disliked it. It did not provide me with any specific point of interest like Math or Physics. Since I used to have a sharp memory in those days, I did not find it too difficult to memorize the long pieces of content that were required. Perhaps my lack of interest in this subject was also due to the fact that it was taught be one of the most soporific teacher in school, and that the textbooks in those days used to be very bland, unlike ones today that contain a lot of pictures and other interesting tit bits of information.
  6. English - Another ambivalent subject for me. Though I performed above average in this one too, but it never captured my imagination. One of the reasons could be that the English curriculum in our Board was pretty rudimentary. Hence the subject matter did not arouse much interest in students. But the logical mind in me did like English Grammar, much like Sanskrit Grammar.
  7. Chemistry - Now to the category of subjects that I disliked. I somehow never got the hand of Chemistry. I have no idea why. Ideally, a person who liked Math and Physics should like Chemistry too, after all it is quite a logical and interesting subject. Our school Chemistry teacher was a good lady was pretty good as well, but I somehow never got to liking the subject. As a result, my Chemistry grades usually lagged behind other subjects.
  8. Biology - I disliked biology because one had to remember everything. There was no way of logically deducing anything. That too when most of the stuff was pretty cryptic. Chloroplast, Epidermis, Protozoa, Hermaphrodites were not for me. And what's more, unlike Social Studies where you could memorize the crux of the content and then right it in your own words, one needed to remember each and every detail in Biology. My dislike for the extensive amount of cramming one had to do in Biology was one of the core reasons why I decided to pursue Engineering as against Medicine.

No comments: