The Known. The Frustration. The Support

I absolutely love this quote from A Plethora of Technology:

“Psychologists tell us that a student learns only when the task is a little too hard for that student. When a student can do work with little effort, and virtually independently, that student is NOT learning, but rather REHEARSING THE KNOWN. When a student finds a task beyond his or her reach, FRUSTRATION, not learning, is the result. Only when a task is a bit beyond the student’s comfort level, and the student finds a SUPPORT SYSTEM to bridge the gap, does learning occur.”

– Based on the work of Tomlinson, C.A. (2003)

I think there’s a great deal in that:

  • Finding a task easy isn’t always a reason to celebrate. It may actually waste your time.
  • Finding a task difficult can often be overcome with a bit of a push and the right help.
  • Finding a task overly frustrating even begin can often end in no learning at all. Just as much of a waste as the simple task.

That’s why people can be productive when they face a challenge.

Let’s look at the three possibilities in more detail:

Easy tasks (The Known)

This is where the major danger lies. For many of us, we feel slightly smug and very pleased when a piece of work can be rushed off expertly in no time at all. Even if we don’t admit it to others, we like to give ourselves a pat on the back, breathing a sigh of relief that no hard work was needed. In a way, it can even boost our confidence when we realise our skill is sufficient to get good grades with little effort.

But because of these seemingly positive thoughts, the trap is in wanting more of this easy work. As soon as a task becomes more difficult, the blinkers tend to come on and even a relatively small challenge is treated like a mountain of impossibility. Sometimes it’s just an excuse for laziness.

Change the outlook. You may be happy to find a task easy, but don’t dwell on it. Just get it out of the way and move on. Of course, if you imagine a particular task will be difficult and then surprise yourself at the ease in which you tackled it, you’re bound to be happy. So enjoy a brief celebration and then crack on with the rest of your work. Let your success act as a reason to push you forward further, rather than basking in the same position!

Overly troubling tasks (The Frustration)

Situations can arise in which an individual genuinely tries to reach a conclusion and fails, no matter how hard they try to crack it.  This is not to be confused with the frustration at having to do a bit of old-fashioned hard work.  Don’t kid yourself.

If the difficulty lies more with you than the task itself, generate a sense of urgency about the matter.  With this mentality, you can push yourself a lot further than you ever would.

But when attempts fail, despite giving it your all, the first thing to do is to admit defeat.  Don’t give up, but do allow yourself the admission that you can’t complete this particular task under current circumstances.

A couple of times in the past, I carried on breaking my back with aggravating study.  But it just made matters worse, because I stopped focusing on the task itself and simply got annoyed with both myself and the situation.  I learned the hard way, but at least I learned.  All too often, this is a regular unproductive way of approaching work.  It must be hell to drive yourself barmy for no useful reason whatsoever.  I wouldn’t recommend it!

Generally, the problem will either be due to a set task or from an overall problem/misunderstanding with a broad subject.  Either way, speak to your relevant tutor about it.  Ask for direct help, as well as books and websites that could help you on your way.  Try to pinpoint what you’re missing out on.  Maybe you’ve been looking at the problem from the wrong angle, or you’ve missed the point.  Maybe a tutor has made a mistake or misquoted something.  There may actually be a reason why you can’t continue with the work…all the more reason to get help as soon as you can.

While this can be doubly frustrating when a problem looks like it should have a clear answer.  It’s still wise to admit defeat when the options have dried out.  You may find that there is no answer.  It goes to show that you can revisit every last resource, but it may not get you any closer to a result.

Difficult tasks (The Support)

A lot of what you do should rest in this category.  A difficult task involves you, but doesn’t overwhelm you.  It’s the reason why so many productivity tips are out there.  It’s what makes your degree a source of learning.

A ‘support system’ is not necessarily about getting support from people.  The support system is about you understanding how to make the most of a task and building up to an answer.  With all the right mental tools, time-management, research skills, people networking, and so on, you can take these difficult – but manageable – issues, and turn them into solutions.

You can work creatively, emotionally, through analysis, or in any way you choose.  So long as you have the right tools in place to support your moves from initial task to final draft, this is where the main bulk of learning will take place.  A challenge is there to be devoured.

So may I be the first to hope that, from now on, all your study is difficult…

Just not too difficult.