Assuming the Worst
I recently received an e-mail from a student who was struggling in his calculus class. “I’m out of options,” he told me. “I practice the problems in the book again and again, and I still do poorly on the tests.” He concluded that he just didn’t “get math.”
I told this story because it highlights a common problem. I’m not talking about math difficulties. Instead, the real issue here is the danger of hidden assumptions. This student was confounded by his assumption that reviewing practice problems is the way to study for math. He decided, therefore, that the only way to improve his grades was to spend more time. Not surprisingly, this did little help — leading to his catastrophic conclusion that he simply couldn’t handle the work.
He needed to change the foundation of his study philosophy, but couldn’t see beyond the surface.
Assumptions plague many areas of our lives, but study habits seem unusually prone to entrenchment. Consider your own academic strategies: How many resulted from rigorous thinking about what work best, and how many are the legacy of some random, ad hoc approach you adopted, for no real reason, as a freshman faced with your first test in the subject? For many students, the latter answer is distressingly common.
Fortunately, there’s a simple strategy that can free you from these issues. It might sound radical, but I’ve used it for years and recommend it frequently to students who write me for help.
The advice can be stated as follows:
At least once a year, demolish your current study habits. Force yourself to build a new collection of strategies from scratch.
As you build these new strategies, let these two questions guide you:
- What state of preparation do I need to be in to do really well on the tests in this class?
- What is the most efficient way to get from the raw information presented in lectures and reading assignments to this desired state of preparation?
These questions should sound familiar to disciples of the red book and the straight-A method. The key twist in this post, however, is that the frequent demolition of your strategies forces you to re-ask them again and again.
There are three reasons why this is a good thing:
- It frees you from the grasp of particularly devastating hidden assumptions. Because you start from scratch once or twice a year, there’s no place for entrenched views to hide. They’ll be swept clean by the next demolition.
- It acknowledges the fact that you learn more about studying as you progress through your student career. By rebuilding your habits ofter, you’re taking advantage of this accumulating knowledge.
- It introduces novelty. Let’s be honest, it’s straight-up interesting to tweak new strategies and observe how they work. There are few (academic) pleasures greater than earning an ‘A’ while working significantly less than your peers. This novelty, of course, keeps life interesting and can help stave off deep procrastination.
If we return to the math-impaired student from the opening, we see the potential benefit of this strategies cast into stark relief. If he demolished his current study habits, and started from scratch, he would probably realize that rote reviewing of practice problems might not be the most efficient solution. Forced to build a new system, answering the questions above to help guide his actions, he would likely stumble into something that actually works for him.
You too could be in a similar situation – held back by hidden assumptions that are crippling your potential. Eliminate this possibility by embracing the power of starting fresh.