Please help me make school more bearable
August 10, 2009 5:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn intimidating material without making myself miserable?

I am in a mathematical/logical course this summer. Perfecting the material requires extended practice more than anything else - knowing how to solve a problem correctly is more of a "skill knowledge" thing than a "fact knowledge" thing. Because it is 13 weeks of material (in the regular year) being squeezed into 6 (half a summer credit), the course moves veeeery quickly, so there isn't really very much time for all that practice you need. When I study for this course, the following sequence occurs, pretty much always:

1) Do some problems.
2) Inevitably, make some mistakes (because otherwise you wouldn't need to learn, right?)
3a) Become despondent and insecure, cry: I'm stupid, I'll never pass the course, etc.
3b) Become frustrated and angry, scribble out the whole page, crumple up my paper, hit the table, etc.

I am acutely aware that this behavior is self-defeating and ridiculous. Studying becomes so emotionally intense that it makes me strongly disinclined to study, and less effective when I do manage to make myself study. (Nonetheless, I work on this class for 4-8 hours every day.) And I do not know how to turn it off: By the time I've made my second or third mistake, the tears are welling up, by my third or fourth, I'm crying. On bad days, it takes less than that.

It's worth noting that I've always harbored extreme intellectual insecurities (I can remember feeling this way as far back as kindergarten), and I've always resorted to coasting/not trying when they threatened me: If you don't try, you can't really fail. The alternative is to face your own limitations, which is scary. Because I've been able to successfully progress through my entire education up until now, in my last year of undergrad, while coasting, I haven't had a very strong incentive to work on this problem. This is the first time I've ever really tackled it, which itself constitutes progress. But it's really, really hard. It's horrible and draining. I hate it. And I've been at it for a while, and it's not getting any better.

I think I've always held a strong but implicit belief that smart people do not have to try - they understand things immediately, and they don't make mistakes. I've seen the literature (e.g. Carol Dweck's work) that makes clear what a destructive attitude this is toward learning.

I'm asking for two kinds of coping strategies here:

1) Short-term ones that will allow me to get through the last week or so of the course while enduring a minimum of misery. (Do such things exist? Is there any way I can reduce the intensity of this problem in the short term by even, say, 10%?)
2) Long-term ones that will allow me to tackle this problem the next time I encounter it (and, given what an enduring issue this is for me, and that I want to continue in academia, I will encounter it again.)

More specifically, I'm looking for concrete practices I can implement when my emotions begin to overwhelm me, ways I can intervene in this emotional progression that feels very much outside the control of my conscious, rational mind (which knows I'm being ridiculous.) Just telling myself (or hearing other people tell me) that I'm being absurd is not enough.

Before anyone brings it up: I'm in CBT. I have long-standing and documented, diagnosed issues with depression and anxiety. Picking up meditation is on my "to-do" list, but it's not something I have time for right now, in the midst of this crazy, fast-paced course.
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This is one of the things that T.A.'s are for. so ask your professor about that. Or try to study with another student from the class.

Search online for alternative approaches to the same material. People learn in different ways, and your prof might have a limited set of instructional themes/models, compared to what's out there. Simple example: to some people, a geometric explanation makes more sense than an algebraic one. Perversely, my father understood a lot of math better once he learned binary/boolean algebra.

As far as your stress reaction goes, when you feel it coming on, stop. Take a break, then come back in 5 or 10 minutes. You need to stick something else in between steps 2 and 3 in your explanation. Try to identify exactly where in the process of solving these problems you start to get stressed, then figure out as precisely as possible what is causing the trouble. Somewhere between "I get this" at the beginning of solving a problem, and "I don't get this" at the end, there is a point at which you went off the rails. Find that derail point.

But seriously, your school should have TA-kind of resources to help you.
posted by yesster at 6:02 AM on August 10, 2009

I have a bunch of friends who are mathematicians. They're really smart guys, and sometimes I hang out with them and watch as they do math on this big blackboard. Inevitably, one of them covers the board with complicated looking equations, and then another walks by, makes some three-word comment, and the original scribbler sighs, erases everything on the blackboard, and starts all over again.

Math is especially frustrating, but here are some things you can try.
- Do a problem up to the point where you don't know anymore, and then just leave. Come back to it the next day with a refreshed mind.
- Start off each study session with some review problems that you know you can solve.
- When you start getting emotional, stop, take a deep breath, walk around, and consciously remind yourself that math is a process of discovery.
- Every time you make a mistake, jot down what the issue was. When you're solving a new problem, take a look at your issue list and try to find the same mistakes in your new work. If you do, congratulate yourself! It means you're learning to approach problem-solving logically.

You're discovering this branch of math, and a necessary part of the process is the stumbling and the mistakes you make.
posted by snoogles at 6:52 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

As someone who's had similar problems, I would suggest trying to find a supportive tutor or something, someone who can tell you "No, you're not stupid, you just skipped a part in this step over here..." someone who can both help you with the material and snap you out of anxious catastrophizing.
posted by phoenixy at 7:00 AM on August 10, 2009

Fellow crier/table hitter here. In your CBT, are you getting new tools for dealing with anxiety? Use those when you start to feel yourself slip into anxious behaviors. This kind of breathing technique seems to be the standard first step. If nothing else, it will distract you from the source of stress so you don't let it build up and out of control. It's a kind of emotional triage that seems to work for me.

"If you don't try, you can't really fail" is classic perfectionist thinking. This is not something you'll change about yourself in the next week, but in the long term, you might want to specifically address your learning-related anxiety with your therapist (if you haven't already). I'm guessing you have as many (or more) successful attempts at these problems as you do failures. Maybe you could spend some of your study time reviewing what you did right. Do those problems again. And again. Then tackle the ones that are more difficult for you. It's a cheeky way to increase your right:wrong ratio, which will go a long way toward building your confidence. (on preview, what snoogles said)

Finally, yesster is right about TAs. We nerdy, perfectionist types are the ones who go to grad school and earn Assistantships. If there is not a TA for this summer course, go back to one you know from another course in the same department (I'm guessing this class is related to your major, because you're in the last year, so you should know someone). Not only will she know the material you are struggling with, but she may well understand the anxiety problems you are having and how to address them in the very specific context of the course. (unrelated datum point - I didn't really figure out how to deal with my own learning anxieties until I had to help one of my undergrad students through hers) Know that you are not alone with these feelings/reactions, and they can certainly be overcome.
posted by Eumachia L F at 7:22 AM on August 10, 2009

Oddly, the solution to this problem is to learn to tolerate feeling stupid.

From a CBT point of view, one would be told to face the reality of ones limitations, but (and this is what IMHO is wrong with CBT) the algorithm to do that is never specified other than to apply free will.

From a medication standpoint, one would be given pills to allow one to make it through the necessary study/practice until one got good enough to no longer feel stupid.

From my standpoint (and I have one, because I am, oddly, both a mathematician and a psychotherapist, as well as a fellow sufferer) one has to detach from a point of view in which being smart is supremely important. There are various ways to go about this detaching process. Psychoanalytically, one could explore how this point of view developed historically. In my case, I felt excluded from my father's and older brother's conversations (and thus their relationship) because I was the stupid (thus rejected) little kid. In my family, smartness ranked higher than most other values, e.g. kindness, and I internalized those values. But enough about me.

Detaching, from a Buddhist standpoint--attachment being the cause of suffering, requires more than just knowing the history but by seeing how ones point of view develops, one can realize that what now seems so much part of who one is was at one point not part of one at all. The real difficulty in the detaching is that any point of view becomes integrated/entangled with a whole bunch of others and so cannot be surgically removed without these others unravelling, which feels like ones self unraveling.

That, and facing the feelings of stupidity (we were all born stupid after all) and rejection.

I understand it's not obvious how to implement this sort of change, but this is the general direction in which to travel.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:34 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can definitely relate. While it's tough for me to transform despair at my own "stupidity" and "inadequacy" directly into determination, I've had decent luck with sitting back, taking a few deep breaths, and transforming my despair into a deep sense of how unfair it is that I have to take this class at super-speed over the summer. I let the whiny 7-year-old in me come out in full force, briefly: "It's not faaaaaaiiiiir!!!!" Then I turn the sense of unfairness into a general anger at the universe for putting me in such a position: "Stupid school, making me take this stupid class, with this stupid professor, and this stupid textbook!" Then I turn that anger into a sense of "Oh yeah, universe/professor/textbook? I'll show you! Just watch me kick ass on this homework!!!" - which then turns into a sense of determination, and hopefully I can leave all the other negative emotions behind. It only takes a minute or two. I aspire to someday cut out all the angry middlemen in this process, but who knows whether it will ever happen. For now, I figure it's transitory and I'm not taking it out on anybody else, so it's not the end of the world.

Along with that process... Are you the type who can study with music on? Do you have any great mixes that motivate you during a workout? A little "Eye of the Tiger" or whatever can definitely help inspire determination, or at least make you giggle enough to short-circuit the defeated feeling.

Also, I try to be aware of the tiniest beginnings of frustration, and take that opportunity to remind myself that the most successful people in life are NOT usually the smartest, but rather the ones who are willing to work hard. Coming from a background like yours, where I was considered smart in school and rarely had to work hard, I need constant reminders that hard work is a sign of strength, not weakness. Thinking about this when I have just little hints of frustration can help prevent the full-blown crisis of inadequacy that might otherwise result if I let my thoughts spiral in that direction. I've been doing this for a couple years, and it's starting to sink in.

Hang in there!
posted by vytae at 7:46 AM on August 10, 2009

Man do I identify with this question.

I don't have a short-term solution for your issue, but I have found that what's helped me a lot as I have gotten older is doing things that I enjoyed as I felt stupid. Dancing, learning to juggle, etc. Can't say I have eradicated all pointless pride but it's made it a lot easier to tolerate those moments where I was frustrated and feeling stupid.
posted by phearlez at 8:37 AM on August 10, 2009

I had this in one of my grad school classes last year. The professor was upfront about the fact that she was expecting us to take gigantic cognitive leaps with the material, and that it would hurt our brains very much at first.

Her advice was to read the texts in a single setting and not worry about not grokking the concepts the first time. On a second reading, little bits and pieces started to make sense; I made notes of those. On a third reading, I started seeing a bit more of the concept, although I was still very much at the head-banging-on-desk stage.

Telling yourself, "Okay, I'm going to read xx pages and finish xx problems, and then I'll have a snack and a soda" will give you a framework. You know the horribleness will end in 30 minutes and you can rest and turn your brain off for a little while. Keep doing this, and hopefully some of the problem-solving will start to flow for you and won't be so painful.
posted by vickyverky at 10:51 AM on August 10, 2009

Try working on the problems in set chunks of time (say, 30 minutes) instead of a problem at a time. When the time is up, go do something else for 5-10 minutes. If you have lots of little things on your To-Do list, the break is a good time to do so. Feeling productive (even if it's not directly related to studying) may help.

During these initial chunks of time, play a bit of "What do you know?" Determine as best you can what the question is asking. Then look at what information you know from the course or textbook. What are the definitions of the terms in the question? What formulas do you know related to the terms in the question? Have you seen any similar problems? If possible, draw a picture or build a model. If you can't get far with one question, write down as much as you can and the move to the next one.

In fact, I had a professor suggest that, upon getting an assignment, we should spend 5-10 minutes looking over the whole thing and thinking how we might first approach each question. If we had any ideas that we thought might pan out, we were to write them down. If not, we were to just get a better grasp of the question and move on. It doesn't always work, but sometimes looking at all of the questions sparks an idea for one or two of them.

If you can work with other students, do so. Sometimes group discussion provides a lot of insight.

Also, if you can get your hands on a whiteboard, I'd suggest doing your work on the board at first. If you make a mistake, you can always erase it and don't have to worry about lots of crumpled pieces of paper. I've found one very helpful for classes where I need to do a lot of sitting and staring before I could move forward with the problem. When you have something you like, you can always copy it down onto paper.

For mathematics classes in particular, you might want to look at G. Polya's book How to Solve It. It's a great book on problem solving.

Good luck!
posted by wiskunde at 12:39 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I went through this with a math course, I learned a problem solving technique that helped a lot, for what its worth:

1) Write down what you know about how to solve the problem (including any formulas, etc.)
2) Write down what you need to figure out
3) Go step by step to get from 1 to 2

This saved me from a lot of throwing things at the walls and, as a side note, can also be useful outside of mathematics.
posted by eleanna at 8:08 AM on August 11, 2009

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