Gluttons For Punishment

BOB* was getting his teeth cleaned when his dentist found a cavity. He said that it was soEasy way, Hard way far gone that it probably needed a root canal right away. He suggested that Bob make an appointment for it with his secretary on the way out. Bob thought about it under the influence of novocaine and promptly decided to put it off until later. It wasn’t until it was too late and the pain jolted him awake from his deep slumber that he realized the value of his dentist’s counsel. An aching tooth has a way of drilling good sense into our heads in a way incomparable to anything else. Even Shakespeare knew it when he sang (in Much Ado About Nothing):

For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods,
And made a push at chance and sufferance.

I can’t fault Bob for his procrastination. The truth is I have been a procrastinator myself, and still am from time to time. I guess we are gluttons for punishment, all of us. At least I know I am… or was. However, I think experience makes us less likely to procrastinate and save ourselves the pain of doing tomorrow what ought to be done today. I encounter many students with the mindset I used to have during my own early student days. Learning challenging material is hard work, and I’m not going to pretend it becomes no work at all. But it does become surprisingly easy with a very small amount of preparatory work.

I find that a student who’s even skimmed through the topics to be covered during a lecture is immensely better positioned to absorb the content of a lecture than one who hasn’t. But often, many students simply turn up to lectures unprepared. They prefer to wait until after the lecture is over to review the topics covered in class. They believe that lectures are magic capsules that transport knowledge directly into their brains. And some take notes furiously.

Personally, I discourage my students from taking notes. Sometimes I quote my professor from my own student days: “A lecture ought not be a method for transferring notes from the lecturer’s notebook into the student’s without passing through the minds of either”. Instead, I remind them that with a little preparation before the lecture, a hard future task becomes a surprisingly easy one (at least significantly less difficult). I tell them that’s all it takes – No need to master the material, nor even learn chunks of it. All it takes is anticipation – To look briefly at the list of topics that will be covered and put your mind on alert for receiving new ideas. Why impose a harder task on ourselves tomorrow when it could be done a lot easier today?

So I ask them, exaggerating slightly, “Who wants to trade in 5 minutes of their life for 60?” Of course, they’re baffled when they hear that question, so I explain further: “Ifeasy-hard someone were to say they’d extend your life by an entire hour in exchange for 5 minutes
of your time now, AND there’s no catch, would you take it?” The answers invariably come back overwhelmingly affirmative. Then I tell them that an hour’s worth of review after a lecture could be saved if all they did was spend five minutes before it simply skimming the list of topics to be covered.

A few students stopped by a little while ago and thanked me for this suggestion. Apparently this simple insight is not an obvious one to students. A stitch in time saves nine.

It would be great if the psychologists among us could point me at empirical studies done on this front and share data that corroborates this informal suggestion.


*Names are fictitious, of course.


About andatfoothill

I teach at Foothill
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