You Were Born to Learn: It’s a Scientific Fact

No matter how difficult learning a particular subject or skill might be, take heart in this fact: you were born to learn. This is not just a motivational tag line; it’s a scientific fact. Here’s the brainy proof (heads-up: if you don’t like rap, even with positive lyrics, please mute your sound before you watch):

Your natural ability to learn, however, can be inhibited and even sabotaged by a lack of confidence and a feeling of anxiety about a particular subject or skill.

EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING  “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.”  Rita Smilkstein, PhD

                                                          Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007

Thus, it is important to approach learning with confidence. “How can I do that, if I struggle with _______ to begin with?” you might be asking yourself. This question stems from a narrow view of learning confidence. This is understandable because learning is divided into specific subjects and skills, so we tend to compartmentalize our learning perspective–focusing our abilities on specific areas, rather than on our ability to learn in general.

However, to develop learning confidence, we should focus on this general ability to learn, focus on our brain’s natural learning function. Hence, it’s not your confidence in a particular subject or skill that matters. What matters is your confidence in being able to learn. It’s your confidence in your brain’s natural ability to do its job that’s key. Even if you say that you’re not a “math person” or are a “bad writer,” realize that you are hardwired to learn any and everything. Your brain just can’t help itself!

Now this is not to say that you won’t struggle to learn some things and that your ability in certain areas won’t be limited. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But don’t let your weaknesses, or perceived weaknesses, cause you stress and anxiety. These negative feelings create norepinephrines, which make it difficult to think. In other words, these chemicals inhibit brain function. You can begin to ward off feelings of stress and anxiety by keeping these biological truths in mind:

  1. You were born to learn.
  2. Every step toward learning strengthens your brain.

Brain_Born to Learn post

What else can you do to increase your learning confidence?

  1. Focus on learning itself, not on the troublesome subject or skill. You can do this by watching the video above and reminding yourself that every time you attempt something, you literally change your brain (in a good way). This means that every step, no matter how small or “clumsy,” toward learning something creates more synapses in your brain, causing existing connections to strengthen. So even when you struggle with something and feel like you’re not making progress, your brain is progressing.
  2. Leverage your strengths. This will help you approach more difficult subjects and skills with increased confidence because you’re making connections between your areas of strength and areas of weakness. This will cause your brain to produce endorphins, which increases confidence therefore making learning easier.
  3. Reward yourself! Give yourself some positive reinforcement for each stride you make toward overcoming a learning difficulty. Doing so will increase your endorphins, which in turn will increase your ability to learn.


Happy learning–it’s only natural!


Goals, Schmoals–Reach for Values

You may have heard many, many times that to be successful, you must set goals. True (okay, so the impression I give about goals in the title is a tad misleading). But to be intentional and to succeed as a person, not just as a student, you need to first set valuesmasks-827729_1280

Your goals should be determined from desirable values, a process that will make your goals more meaningful and ensure their relevance to your life after college. To be sure, your college experience shouldn’t be just about academics. It should lead you to personal growth, as well.

Let’s Get Valuable!

1. Make a list of the values you would like to achieve. Be sure to leave space beneath each value.

2. From these values, determine what academic and personal goals you would like to achieve. List each under their appropriate value(s).

3. Now brainstorm actions, behaviors, habits, resources (like this website!) needed to achieve your goals.

Now you have a value- and goal-based plan for success and personal growth. If you think you might need a complete overhaul to your approach to college, begin that process here and stay tuned to The Intentional Student.


College: It’s All About Relationships

In a conversation with my husband one evening, he remarked, “Everything revolves around relationships.” He’s absolutely right. And this is especially true of your college experience. The role and function of relationships is obvious in family, social, and work life. It’s college life where this is less obvious–and more complicated.

Before we get into the complicated role of college-life relationships, I would like you to make a quick list of the kind of relationships you currently have, or think you will have, in college. List as many as you can in 2 minutes.

So who’s on your list? Classmates? Check. Professors? Check. Your advisor? Check. Yourself? Ch . . . wait, what?

“What? A relationship with myself?” you ask. Absolutely! Self-awareness and how you relate to yourself is crucial for college success. But first, let’s take a look at the other relationships you have or should have during your college experience.

Your Classmates: Forging mutually helpful and respectful relationships with your classmates is vital to a successful and fulfilling college experience. Such relationships can diversity-1034160_1280benefit you academically, socially and emotionally–especially if you’re away from home for the first time and feel a bit homesick. Hopefully, at least one of your classes is taught by a professor who understands the importance of building community in the classroom and thus provides you with opportunities to get to know your classmates and to work with them during class. If not, you’ll need to take the initiative.

  • Introduce yourself to those sitting around you before class starts.
  • As you’re leaving class, strike up a quick chat with a classmate about the day’s lesson or a university event or organization you’re interested in.
  • After a few classes, ask someone who sits near you to trade contact information in case either of you misses class or loses class notes.
  • Form study groups in each of your classes.

If there’s an older student in class, make it a point to get to know him or her. There’s much to gain from forging a relationship with an older student. As a college professor, I know that many older students are unsure about their place in a classroom full of 18-21 year-olds and appreciate connecting with and learning from their younger classmates. Yes, you, as a traditional college student, have something to offer non-traditional college students. This can be a very mutually rewarding and enlightening classmate relationship.

Your Professors: teacher-702998_1280Taking the first step to establishing a supportive relationship with your professors can be nerve-wracking. But leaving your comfort zone is necessary to growth, and you can’t enjoy college success without changing some core aspects of yourself (more on that later).

  • Introduce yourself: This is a fairly painless way to establish a relationship with your professors.
    • Do this before (if you’re there early) or after class on the first day. Shake their hands as you do this. Also, it’s best to say more than your name by asking about something he/she talked about or making a sincere comment about the class. An insincere comment will be obvious and will ruin the positive impact of your introduction. Don’t worry if you’re too shy to say more than your name. Your professor will likely respond to your introduction with questions that will spark a brief exchange and put you at ease. At the least, he/she will of course say “Nice to meet you.” You will naturally respond and can easily and politely close the interaction with, “see you on [next class day].”
    • This simple act will go far with your professors–I promise. I’ve been teaching college English classes for 16 years and can count on one hand the number of students who have done this. It’s a rare gesture and one that leaves your professors with a very positive impression of you. And don’t worry if your nervousness shows. Your professor will recognize that you stepped out of your comfort zone and will appreciate the gesture even more--I promise.
  • Schedule visits: This is a productive way to maintain this relationship–just make sure you’re aware and respectful of your professors’ office hours. If you’re struggling with the class, scheduling visits is absolutely necessary. If not, schedule a visit to have a brief chat about the class–your interest in it, a class-related concept or skill, etc. Or simply pop in to say “hi” and to wish him/her a good day, weekend, etc. I absolutely love it when a student does this! Sadly, it doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, it’s a welcome interruption.
  • Be respectful of the class: An indirect way to maintain a mutually respectful and supportive relationship with your professors is to attend class regularly, be there on time, stay off your phoneturn in your work on time, and to generally conduct yourself in a way that lets him/her know you’ve read the course syllabus. Always review the syllabus before asking your professor about late work, make-up work, etc. You certainly don’t want to provoke this reaction:

Yes, we get that frustrated with questions that are answered in the syllabus (By the way, I have that shirt.).

Your Advisor: Typically, your advisor instigates this relationship–but you need to nurture it throughout the semester. Don’t wait until things get really bad or until registration begins to visit with your advisor. Maintain contact with him or her regularly throughout the semester–even if it’s just to say “Hi” and “Thank you” for the work they do for you and your fellow students. Advisors were once college students and some not all that long ago, so they can be helpful with a variety of academic and social problems. Not sure how to approach your professor about a particular issue? Talk to your advisor. Wondering how to handle a problem classmate? Talk to your advisor. Need study tips? Talk to your advisor.

Now, advisors are very busy and, in some cases, have overwhelming work loads. Therefore, you should always email or call your advisor to schedule an appointment. If you show up at your advisor’s office unannounced, he or she may not be able to help you right then. This may make you feel like your advisor doesn’t really have time for you and may discourage you from maintaining regular contact with him/her. But your advisor does have time for you–not always immediately though. So be respectful of your advisor’s time by scheduling appointments and keeping them. If you absolutely cannot keep your appointment, contact your advisor ASAP to reschedule. Don’t simply say or write, “I can’t make it.” Offer some potential times to reschedule.

“A healthy relationship with your academic advisor can make your college life more successful and more connected at your university. Your academic advisor wants you to succeed and can provide you with information, resources, and guidance to help you make the best decisions regarding your academic career. ” Ms. Rachel Klauss, Academic Advisor Senior (Lamar University-Beaumont, TX)

You: Yes, you. You must grow and change to make it through college successfully, so there will be a new you to get to know and nurture. Relate to yourself in a way that shows you have self-confidence and self-respect. Interact with yourself through regular moments of self-reflection. These “conversations” should center on your actions, their effects, ways to adjust ineffective/negative behaviors and habits, and ways to capitalize on your effective/positive behaviors and habits. When you experience some successes–no matter how smallcelebrate yourself!

Elvis Presley, celebratory dance move
Woo hoo! I rock!


Developing and maintaining relationships with the key people involved in your college education will ensure a fulfilling, rewarding, and less intimidating experience.

Who would you add to this list and why? Please share your insights!

Qualities of Intention

In “New Semester Reset,” I provide the steps (and access to the step-by-step instructions) for developing an intentional approach to college. What follows complements that post, in that it highlights and defines the qualities at the core of this approach.

  • Awareness: Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the effects of your actions, habits, and attitudes on your learning. Act upon this awareness. You absolutely cannot be intentional if you stumble obliviously through your days. psyche-518161_640Taking the time to honestly reflect on the reasons for your academic successes, struggles, and failures will lead you to this awareness. To act upon your awareness, you need to determine how your strengths, weaknesses, actions, etc. might need to change or be enhanced for the achievement of success. For the same reason you need to change your problem areas, you also need to capitalize on your strengths —> Don’t sacrifice enhancement of your strengths by focusing more or solely on your weaknesses. Both need to be lifted or one will eventually or continue to fall. If you hit a roadblock trying to determine these changes and enhancements, ask your advisor, a favorite professor, or me for help.
  • Reflection: This is crucial to achieving awareness. Develop the habit of self-reflection by keeping a learning log or journal. Spend a little time each day or a few days a week reflecting on the what and why of your successes, struggles, and failures–no matter how small. Write these in your log or journal. While daily reflection is ideal, it may not be realistic for you early in your transformation to an Intentional Student. It’s perfectly okay to develop this gradually as a daily habit.


  • Planning: You must become a planner! Plan your study time, your reflection time, your free time. Get and use a calendar! That hour between classes–what should you do with it? 20160114_194540385_iOSIs it the best time to eat, to study, to reflect, to relax? “Wait, what? Relax? Plan to relax?” you may be asking. Yes, you must be intentional about relaxation and social time. If that time isn’t planned, you will spend either too much time on these or not enough —> Down time is crucial to a successful and healthy approach to college. It will keep you mentally and physically balanced.
      • My Filofax planner:

    week on 2 pages with To-Do page in between

  • Attitude: Maintain a positive attitude by acknowledging every single positive aspect of your days. Express your gratitude to those who grace you with moments of kindness and generosity–no matter how small. Celebrate your daily successes–no matter how small. affirmations-441457_640Psychology– and education-based research proves that a positive mindset leads to a less stressful and more successful life, strengthens confidence, and boosts your brain power making learning easier.


Being aware, reflecting, planning, and maintaining a positive attitude are at the heart of the intentional approach to college. The beauty of these actions is that they will serve you well not only in college but also in the real world.

Harsh-but Conquerable-Truths about College

Belief: College Degree = Life Success

HARSH TRUTH #1: What you learn in the classroom will not be enough for real-world success. Just ask all those college graduates out there flipping burgers and waiting tables. Actually, don’t ask them. They might blame the job market, which is likely not the whole truth. A lack of intention and professional and relational skills usually bears a good portion of the blame. These skills and quality of character, while not needed to earn a college degree, are needed to overcome troubled times. Why might these unfortunate graduates be oblivious to this lack?

HARSH TRUTH #2: Because these skills and qualities of character necessary for success are typically not part of a college education and, again, aren’t necessary to earn a college degree. A traditional college education provides academic knowledge but doesn’t always teach how to leverage that knowledge and to conduct oneself in a purposeful and professional way in the job market.*

HARSH TRUTH #3: The knowledge you obtain in college isn’t always enough to land you a position in your chosen career field or ensure that you’re successful and capable of advancement in that career. You need to supplement your degree with a defined purpose, professional and relational skills and habits of intention.

As you progress through the semester, you must put equal focus on academic success and personal growth. Your academic success will get you through college, but college success is not your ultimate goal. Life success is, and it takes more than a degree to achieve it.

Are you ready to get intentional?

Excellent! This will get you started.

What harsh truths would you add to this list? 

*Fortunately, this is starting to change, as noted here


*HOMESCHOOLERS: I wrote this for my previous website targeted to college students. However the information is relevant also to homelearners who need to evaluate and adjust their approach to learning.  

It’s just about time to head back to college, and you’ll be doing so either confidently, apprehensively, or maybe even begrudgingly. Either way, you’ve already achieved your first win of the semester by going back–congratulations! Why is this a win? Because it shows your dedication, persistence and self-value. You need to recognize these qualities in yourself because they’re vital to your success. And you’ll need them in larger doses throughout the semester.

What’s in Your Backpack?

students-691671_1280Whether you’re returning to college with a backpack full of confidence or apprehension, there’s something useful for you here, so stick with me. Those of you who will start the new semester full of confidence, please help your fellow students by sharing any tips and advice you might have in the Reply section below. Indeed, part of being an Intentional Student is being a helpful member of your student community.

As you head back to class, keep in mind that college success is not just about academics: it’s also about attitude, persistence, and character. When you leverage all of these, you become intentional about your learning, and the habits and mindset gained will be of tremendous advantage to you also in life and work. The actions listed below, when done consistently and sincerely, will be truly transformative for you. Not only will they lead to deep self-awareness and control, they will also transform you into (cue superhero music) an Intentional Student.



Are you ready to . . .   

identify –> focus –> attack 


Get access to this transformative process here.
Please specify “Reset” in the help section.


Wishes-to-Outcomes Part 2: Involving Students in the Process

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ve likely expressed things that you wish your students could do, and if so, undoubtedly expressed them in frustration. While no amount of rubbing will make a teaching-wish genie ascend from that bottle of Frappucino on your desk, there is something you can do to increase the likelihood of your teaching wishes being granted. In a previous post, I outline the process for transforming teaching wishes into learning outcomes for your students and possibly teaching outcomes for yourself.* This process is an instructor-centered one, one that you may complete in the solitary confines of your office or possibly during an informal session with some of your colleagues. Either way, the process outlined in my previous post does not include a student role. So in keeping with the theme of this blog (the reciprocity of teacher and student roles in the classroom), let’s consider how you can give your students a role in this process of transforming your teaching wishes into outcomes.

Let’s transform this into a student-centered process!

On the first day of class, ask your students to list the academic skills and practices they wish they had or expect to gain in your class. Tip: If you plan to implement a healthy amount of group work during the semester, this gives you a great opportunity to set that active and collaborative tone for your class, thereby minimizing later resistance to such teaching methods (speaking from personal experience here). Next, identify the learning goals and outcomes you (or your department) have already established that speak to the students’ own wishes. If there are none. . .rejoice! You’ve learned something! Your students have wishes different from yours (or your department’s), so now you can tailor additional outcomes to needs they perceive for themselves. Work through this process with one or two common and course-appropriate student wishes as a way to add student-generated outcomes to your course.

As a result of engaging in this activity, you should have one or two (maybe three) outcomes in which students feel especially invested (relevance! relevance! relevance!), which will lead to better student engagement and learning but will also lead to a particularly insightful assessment and course evaluation scenario for you. You will also learn the limits of your (or your department’s) perspective and will gain a context for creating teaching outcomes for yourself.

Speaking of teaching outcomes. . .

Include yourself in this exercise. Ask students what they wish about you as their instructor and about the class.** Narrow the list to wishes that are appropriate and reasonable and to a reasonable number, and then work through the wish-to-outcome process again. If time is limited, do so with a wish that you know could quickly be transformed into a teaching outcome. Complete the process for the remainder of the list on your own or during the next class, either as a whole- or small-group assignment. If you complete the list all or in part on your own, then be sure to share your developed outcomes and how you plan to achieve them with your students. If time permits, however, I strongly encourage completing the process for at least one of the student wishes in class, and here’s why. . .

Many, many articles and blog posts tout the value of asking our students what they want and expect from us and our courses. This value is that our students perceive our care and concern for them as learners and individuals and may recognize our own desire to be better teachers. However, the value of this feedback is limited if we do not include students to some degree in the plan to grant their wishes. Once we ask students for such feedback, they recognize that their desires and expectations are important to us. Yet we inadvertently create a perspective of insincerity when we take control of them, thus causing our students to think we’ve forgotten about their wishes or find them insignificant. This happens when we tackle our students’ wishes alone in our offices and neglect to share our plan for fulfilling them. In doing so, we’ve turned what began as a student-centered activity into an instructor-centered one and, if we fail to share our plan, we’ve rendered a sincere gesture of concern insincere lip-service. Giving our students a role in the wish-to-outcome process not only establishes trust but also gives them an opportunity to unpack and discuss their wishes. To be sure, some awesome mind moves happen when students mentally whittle something into a fine point! What better way to practice this type of thinking than with ideas important and relevant to and generated by our students?

So now that you’ve decided to let your students help transform their wishes for you and the course into outcomes (will you permit me this assumption?), consider strongly implementing this activity as a small-group assignment. It may take an entire class period, but the benefits are worth it: immediate student-to-student interaction, active and collaborative tone set for the semester, and insightful results and discussion. To do this, give one wish to each group. Since you’ve already chosen the most common and appropriate wishes, you should have just a few. Depending on the size of your class, more than one group might be assigned the same wish, but this situation will only add to the value of this activity. For, regarding the latter benefit listed above, the various ways a single wish might be interpreted into an outcome will certainly be insightful and, time permitting, will bear quite fruitful class discussion.

I hope you can find room in the first day or two of your classes to build learning and teaching outcomes with your students. This activity can be a part of your course introduction on the first day, or, if you can spare an additional day, it would be a perfect follow up to your first-day discussion of your syllabus and course. If you absolutely cannot spare this time, consider doing this activity as a midsemester “check-up” to determine adjustments that need to be made to ensure the success of your teaching and your students’ learning. It can be done in place of or in conjunction with the midsemester evaluation.

I’m all for involving students as much as possible in the business of teaching. Including students in tasks that directly impact them but that we usually tackle on our own is such a valuable pedagogical change to embrace. But, yes, it is time-consuming. So if you’re interesting in beginning to blur that line between you and your students, to make your roles a bit more shared or reciprocal, then giving your students a role in developing their learning and your teaching outcomes–even just one–is a really effective place to start. For it sets a tone of mutual respect and establishes a mutually relevant foundation for teaching and learning.

What do you think? If you’ve done this, please share your experience!

*Being required to use departmental outcomes may limit this process some, but it doesn’t have to eliminate it. Indeed, your teaching wishes may not align with your departmentally-set course outcomes, so you may find room to create more, even if they must be unofficial outcomes.

**Here is an article that includes an excellent strategy (First-Day Graffiti) for getting this kind of feedback from students. Of course the questions can be changed to suit your needs.