As we enter our 5th week of the fall semester, many of us already have or will soon take our dreaded first major exams in our classes. Whether we like it or not, a majority of us will be studying for long hours every day, sometimes pulling our first all-nighters, or slowly converting back to nocturnalism and hearing the steady chirping of the early morning birds as they get their worms. In order to pass these exams, however, one must do more than study—we need to learn whatever we are studying. The problem, though, is how we define our studying—are we learning when we study? Or are we simply just remembering?

One of the definitions for "learning," according to dictionary.com, is "the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill." Back in the day when I had to take psychology classes to satisfy my general education requirements, I was taught a slightly different definition: learning is "the modification of behavior through practice, training, or experience," also courtesy of dictionary.com. When a friend asks you if you're studying, it should really mean "Are you actually learning?".

It bothers me when I hear someone complain after an exam, "I studied so hard, but I still didn't get a good grade." Even though I say this after my exams too, I know that I'm wrong. That person and I may have indeed studied, but not in the sense of learning the topic or subject that was tested. Instead, it would more likely be classified as "remembering," a very big problem for some people who don't really know how to study or decide not to study correctly.
Being a science major, I cannot study and remember what my textbook says and expect to excel. I also have to learn the concepts behind the problem. For example, in my Organic Chemistry lab, I can't get by just knowing that a particular compound has two forms, or reacts in this method—I have to know why and how it happens. For example, if a compound has different isomers, I have to know why it exists in one isomer for a majority of time instead of the other. Is it because of steric effects? If so, is it because of steric hindrance or steric shielding? Can I explain a similar problem, but with different compounds? Organic chemistry is much more than simply reading and memorizing compounds and trends—it is heavily based in concepts and principles that each explain why something exists in this form, and one must learn these in order to be successful.

There is a fundamental difference in the connotation of studying in the sense of learning, and studying in the sense of "remembering," or, as my amazing psychology professor from my high school used to say, "brain-vomiting." By knowing the concepts that explain why something is the way it is, and being able to utilize those concepts to explain other topics, only then are you fulfilling the definition of learning.

Every major, ranging from theoretical physics and engineering to international relations and even business, all have roots in concepts. For international relations, one example would be knowing about why one country's culture might not like another country's culture. Is it because of a massive disagreement, which might've resulted in the separation of the countries? Does this explain another pair of countries' attitudes towards each other? If there's anything that a professor would love to test students on, seeing whether or not you can apply a concept to problems you haven't seen before is a definite must. Can I apply what I learned from this example to another problem? If you can't learn these concepts and use them to explain similarly related problems with different examples or constants, then you will not succeed.

Next time you're studying, don't say you're studying unless you mean to learn. Otherwise, not only are you wasting your breath and lying to others, you're also hurting yourself by not admitting it.

— Jan Urbano is a junior in biochemistry and molecular biology. He can be buzzed at jurbano@utk.edu.