Student Adversity

This is my first post this year, and it comes at a time when things look very gloomy in the world. The recession appears deep, and students are struggling with finding jobs or even paying for their education. I still think investing in human capital remains the best investment.

However, the real investment in human capital is not monetary (paying fees) but instead, it is sweat equity. Students often imagine that their mere existence on campus after paying their fees goes directly to their human capital bottom line. Wrong. Human capital accretion comes from investing time and energy into really learning. And more, from learning how to learn.

An undergraduate education is intense. It takes students time to settle down, by which time they may even have missed many important concepts, all of which needed to be deeply understood, so that the student can move on to the next level. But students wing it, thinking they will pick it all up later, or worse, convince themselves that it is not really important anyway. That puts a students on a slippery slope to real ignorance, and leads to deep erosion in human capital. Sooner or later you get found out, the evidence starkly staring back from the grade sheet, or if you are unlucky, you get caught in the workplace, when there is even less chance of taking remedial action. So my advice to all undergrads is: pay attention, do not slack off, and the harder something is, make an even bigger effort to master the material. It will pay off handsomely.

Here is an interesting way to think about why you need to pay attention every day and work hard to make sure you get the concepts now. Doing so will lay a solid foundation for the subsequent classes. Many courses are sequential in learning, especially the math and science ones. An excellent analogy to college classes is a video game. These games are extremely structured and sequential. And they are utterly unforgiving. You can never proceed to the next level until you have mastered the prior one. My advice to students is to treat your classes in the same way. Do not assume you can proceed to the next course in the sequence without mastering the ones that come before. Even though you clearly can move on without mastery, it still pays to treat it like a video game. That way you will get much more out of your education. Young adults, especially boys, know how willing they are to put in hour after hour into mastering a video game, especially one in which they compete against multiple players. So why not put the same effort into classes? Your course work is the same, its a multi-player game in which some win and some lose.

As I write this, I am trying to put myself in the shoes of a struggling student, one who has seen his grades drop off, cannot get organized, finds it hard to concentrate and focus in class, feels like nothing is going right, is suffering from low self esteem, and feels like he/she may never recover. Almost every term, there is a student in my office who is in academic difficulty, and is going through a great deal of emotional stress. It has been so for the past fifteen years I have been a university professor. What advice do I give? I always listen and then try to find a constructive solution to the problem, but until now, I had never thought about putting it all together into a constructive set of suggestions. I do not know if this is feasible, but I intend to try. So here goes.

  1. All is not lost. Thats the first thing to realize. No matter how difficult the situation is, universities are remarkably good environments in which you get lots of chances. And even when you think there are no more chances, a creative professor/mentor will always be able to find some way to help you out. Remember, college drop-outs are those who gave up themselves, not those on whom the system gave up. So the first step is to realize that there is always a way to betterment, provided you realize two things: (a) Take responsibility, (b) Work very hard. Lets talk about each in turn.
  2. Take responsibility. Remember, by the time you are in college, you are an adult. You are independent. No one can better help you than yourself. Every so often I have a student in my office who insists on blaming his/her predicament on the system, the adviser, the teacher, parents, etc. This is a huge mistake. Sure, we are often put in difficult situations by ending up in situations that we had no choice over, and it is easy to blame the circumstances. But no matter how justified your external problem, its better to realize that it pales in significance to your internal responsibility. Everyone ends up in situations beyond their control. How you handle these situations is what matters more. And the first step is to take full responsibility for your own success, learning and condition. It is very easy to blame your professor if he gives you a C in class, but instead you should thank him. He is nothing but the video game, saying “game over”, but he is also saying “try again, I know you can do it, do better next time”. In fact, you should be saying to your self, “try harder”. I promise you, just Keep Trying and things will suddenly start to get much better.
  3. Work very hard. College is a wonderful time, if you work hard. I know of nothing else that pays such huge rewards for hard work. In real life, there is often a lot of luck involved. Not so in college – work hard and success is pretty much guaranteed. If you do not work, you will also do poorly. Again, it is so video game-like. Get a little distracted and you never get to the next level, nor do you score well on the current one.
  4. Less is more. Okay you are saying, I take responsibility and I wok hard, it seems so simple, but I have already been trying to do both these things and it just does not seem to be working, and I am frustrated and troubled, what am I to do? I am amazed at how many students just seem to be unable to dig themselves out of a hole, and there is a simple reason for this. They have poor habits. If you get up late most days, spend a lot of time watching TV, find it takes a long time to settle down to work, cannot find things when you need them, spend way to much time talking with friends, etc., then you need some urgent streamlining. Just remember one thing: “Less is More”. Make a list of things you do on an average day. Then simply knock off half the items and commit to not doing them for a month. You will feel less overwhelmed by all the things you try to do (they are now halved after all). You will feel more in control. You will actually start getting things done.
  5. Sequence better. Every night before going to bed, take out a piece of paper and make a list of things you need to get done the next day. It has been shown that doing this calms the mind, and enables better sleep. This means you get up refreshed the next day with a clear mind, and perform better in class. More important, you are committing to completing tasks the next day, and can plan your time accordingly. The next day, keep the list with you as you go to class, study group, mess, gym, etc. After each activity take out your list and cross of a completed item, and also scan it to see what you have left to do that day. Steadily and calmly work through your list.
  6. Manage distractions. Today’s undergrad has huge distractions. There are friends always coaxing you to join them in leisure activity. TV beckons. The internet is a constant craving. Your cell phone keeps ringing, and you keep responding to text messages in class. How can you ever get anything done? There is no easy way to deal with distractions, but to exorcise them ruthlessly. Stay away from technology as much as you can. When you use the computer keep the browser closed. Do not look at email. These are “filler” activities, to be done when there is nothing better to accomplish, or when an “earned” break is availed of. An earned break is one that is only taken after completion of an important task. Note also that it becomes easier to manage distractions when operating under the “less is more” assumption. If you are trying to do too much, then nothing gets done properly. But more important, less gets done, because less bandwidth is applied to each task, and all tasks ends up taking longer. Yes, it is hard to give up many of those fun things in life. But remember, that fun stuff is a distraction and it is not even real. It loses its appeal quickly, unlike real accomplishment. Real results from hard work are the most self-reinforcing things we can ask for.
  7. Be honest. To yourself. This means taking a long hard look in the mirror and being truthful about who you think you are. Do you want to do better? Just when you are feeling tired and lazy and do not want to work, even though it is critical you do so, you might hear a small voice in your head saying – “Heck! No worries, its all fine. Nothing will go wrong, the exam will be easy, you already know more than you need”. When this happens, stop it immediately. Don’t lie to yourself. Be honest to others as well, especially teachers and parents. It never pays to hide something no matter how ugly you think things will get when you come clean. By not being honest you pay several costs. First, you feel uncomfortable because you are lying, either to others or to yourself. Second, you are lying to yourself, and whats the point in cheating on your self?
  8. Communicate with your elders. When things are not going well, students have a tendency to withdraw and not talk to the very people who can help them. Sometimes they do not want the advice they know they will get. These are the wiser ones. They know what to do to solve their problems, but are in denial, and don’t want to hear of it. So they withdraw from speaking to elders. Bad mistake. Find at least one if not more than one elder person to talk to every day, and if possible many times a day. This could be a professor, parent or senior student. It will definitely take the sting out of the emotional distress you feel as a struggling student. Once you feel calmer, you will be able to work better.
  9. Report on your day’s activities. One of the biggest problems I have noticed is that students in academic difficulties have low self-esteem. And it does take some time to dig oneself out of the mire. In the interim it is important to begin to feel better about your situation. One very useful device is to commit to making a daily report to an elder. It also helps communicate with your elder but just telling someone else that you planned a list of items for the day and got many of them done will immediately bring a feeling of accomplishment, even if in very small doses. To validate your accomplishments, it is important to speak to someone older, else you do not get a sense of validation. A daily verbal report also motivates you to make sure that you have something to report, and incentivizes you to work hard to have something by the end of the day.
  10. Give yourself plenty of time. One of the reasons students get into difficulty is that they do things at the last moment. This never works, trust me. And it only makes things worse, because last minute preparation for exams infuses great panic. In such a state you can never perform well. The same applies to daily work as well. If you get into the habit of waking up early you will find yourself automatically getting a lot more done. Why? Because there are far fewer distractions in the early morning. Most others are asleep and you can get started and almost finished by the time anything else gets started. By giving yourself time, you can work calmly and steadily to reaching your planned goals for the day. If on the other hand, you plan to get your class preparation done by going to the library after dinner, there is a good chance nothing will get done properly. You are tired after a long day, will get sleepy and most problematic, if the task takes longer than you expected, you have left no slack to make sure you will get things done. Thats a huge risk. Many students and adults too, just do not get this at all. They are perpetually ill-prepared. I don’t advocate getting up at 4am or something, but I also don’t advise getting up past 10am. The main idea here is to get up early enough to get some decent work done before the big distractions of the day kick in. Also, by getting a few things done early in the day, you set yourself up for a better subsequent part of the day too. You feel happy and calm to have got some work under your belt already and this reflects in the work you get done subsequently. Nothing breeds on success like success! So give yourself time to get things done. Again, remember that less is more. Do less and give yourself more time to do it by getting started early in the day, and eliminate distractions. Do this, and you will be a powerhouse of accomplishment.
  11. Be self-aware. This is really nothing else but being honest with yourself. Do not convince yourself that you are a real genius by talking like one. Sooner or later people come to know you are full of it. But being self-aware also means recognizing your weaknesses and working harder to overcome them. Some students fail to perform adequately because they don’t study enough. Somewhere along the line they erroneously convince themselves that they have mastered the material or worse, that it does not to be mastered. There is only one antidote, work harder (Harder subsumes smarter as well). Recognizing you are below average is the first step in working your way to becoming above average.

So, if school is proving to be hard, and you are struggling with classes, try to commit to the practices I described above. I assure you I myself used these ideas with my students and it seems to help them. I use them myself too. In short, if you want to turn things around, do less, do it differently, do without distractions, and work very hard. Just do it!

It is often said – “Nothing changes until you do”.


2 Responses to Student Adversity

  1. […] Student Adversity « Thromigal’s Weblog Share and Enjoy: […]

  2. Teflypell says:

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