Shooting Azimuths

As a linguist, I find certain words fascinating. Azimuth is one of those fabulous words. Although I had come across this word as a student, I had parked it at the back of my mind for the best part of 20 years. I was recently reminded of azimuth. It looks exotic, it sounds exciting and its meaning is of great consequence, especially if you’re trying to navigate your way from A to B in the wild with just a compass and your life depends on it.

Azimuth is the horizontal angle or direction of a compass bearing, usually calculated in relation to a celestial object or a static feature in the landscape. Like many other astronomical terms — such as zenith, nadir, and even some of the best known stars in the night sky, like Betelgeuse, Aldebaran or Vega — the word azimuth came to English from the Arabic. We shouldn’t be surprised, many common English words, especially in maths and science, trace their roots back to Arabic: admiral, ambassador, algebra, alchemy, algorithm… and that’s just a few of the ones beginning with ‘a’.

In overland navigation shooting an azimuth means climbing to a height, sighting an object on the horizon in the direction you’re travelling, and adjusting your compass heading to make sure you’re still moving in the right direction.

Great teachers and successful learners know that metacognition, which is the ability to evaluate and make decisions about your own learning, and self-regulation, which is the ability to manage your own motivation towards learning, are two of the most important factors in ensuring academic success. But there are no shortcuts to success and the best way to ensure you get there is to put yourself in the driving seat. The elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. Ultimately, the responsibility for learning rests with every individual.

Becoming self-aware to your learning needs, thinking about what you know and don’t yet know; recalibrating your compass by taking stock of where you are, where you need to be and how to get there turn out to be the hallmark predictors of successful learning. This works as well for teachers as it does for students. Knowing how to shoot an azimuth may save your life in the wild, but it can also be an essential tool to help guide your continuing learning.

Remember. Azimuth, what a fabulous word.


Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel (2014) Make It Stick. London: Harvard University Press

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