Understanding a new subject is frustrating. There is almost no way around it when you’re really covering a new subject. This site repeatedly gets questions related to frustration when trying to understand something for school. Students regularly ask questions like, “how can I stop feeling like I’m banging my head against a wall when I’m trying to get a new subject?” These questions are usually really interesting but they often misinterpret one of the most important points.
Frustration is a part of the learning process.
Sure… this blog can teach you about stress free (or low stress) memorization and test taking skills (for that you might want to start here.) That’s a huge chunk of the point of this blog. That being said, understanding a subject is not the same as passing a test on the subject.
You do not have to understand a subject to pass most tests. You usually can get away with good test prep, a little memorization, and a little common sense. Passing a test is not understanding. Passing tests without the stress is definitely within the realm of possibility. Understanding new subjects with low stress is a much different beast to slay.
Learning And Frustration
One of the go-to methods of teaching a child to swim in sitcoms a few decades ago was as simple as pushing the child in the water and letting them figure out how not to drown. While I can’t say I like that strategy for a number of different reasons, it does work.
When someone is put in a desperate situation they usually figure out how to solve their problem. It may be unnecessarily stressful but it can work.
Imagine you’re trying to learn through this technique but instead of having your parent push you into the water, you’re just going to jump. Imagine you jump in the water at a point where your feet can still touch bottom. How well do you think that will force you to learn to swim? Well… if you can touch bottom, it’s pretty hard to believe you’d be forced to learn anything. You could just stand up instead of swim.
Many students, when trying to dig into a new subject, are expecting their learning process to be as simple as jumping into shallow water. While it may be uncomfortable, it can hardly be considered stressful. Learning a new subject is rarely ever that simple (particularly in a school environment.) The problem is that jumping into the shallow water doesn’t guarantee you’ll learn what you need to learn. You might… but you’re certainly not getting pushed too hard to learn.
The more uncomfortable the learning process is, the more likely you’re going to be able to understand the subject. Understanding something can be a seriously draining process. If you try to pick too much up too fast (jump in a shark infested ocean with raw meat attached to your body perhaps) then you’re not going to be able to get the motivation to continue trying to learn. The key is finding the right amount of frustration for understanding.
The Right Amount Of Frustration
Frustration is usually a required ingredient (to some extent) in learning anything difficult enough to be worth learning. It would be nice to think there was some measurable and repeatable strategy that would ensure learning takes place in the most efficient way possible but it’s just not possible. Some of the major reasons come from the quantification problems and individual preferences.
There is no great way to quantify frustration. You can’t just say “study until you put your face is in your hands because you’re frustrated.” Sure, that may be my typical pleasure study strategy (not for test studying, I always limit that to strict time limits to keep stress low,) but it won’t work for everyone. I’ve met plenty of students that could study hours straight before putting their head down in frustration. I know plenty of students that can barely open their book without banging their head shut in it. Frustration is a personal problem.
This is a fundamental aspect of studying that inevitably ends up beyond the control of anyone except the person actually doing the studying. A tolerance for the things that cause frustration is one of the number of strengths of the average “good” student. They can study for long periods of time without banging their head. This may be a negative when the student isn’t particularly motivated but it’s a positive when the student is genuinely curious. It gives them the tolerance to get to the answer without needing breaks for stress reduction.
Think about frustration in this way.
Imagine frustration is just weakness in your discipline muscle. If you work out that muscle a little bit then that muscle will get stronger. You can use that increased strength to study better in the future.
That being said, there is such thing as overtraining. If a bodybuilder were to work the same muscle day after day, they’d eventually start weakening the muscle instead of strengthening it. Your “discipline muscle” can get the same way. If you study too far past your frustration breaking point, you will just make it more difficult to study so hard in the future. If you study just right then you’ll be able to study longer next time.
The Real Prize
The amazing thing about study frustration is that it’s usually a good thing. Despite the suffering it causes, it’s usually a sign that a student is reasonably well motivated to study. If a student wasn’t getting frustrated when trying to learn something, it can easily be a sign that they don’t really care whether they learn it or not. (Sure… they’d say they’re trying to learn it but subconsciously they might not really care.)
When you push through study frustration you’re often inexplicably close to everything clicking. Students that are being exposed to information they’re nowhere near learning don’t tend to get frustrated. They might go blank stare or aka deer in the headlights but they rarely get frustrated.
When a student is getting frustrated it usually means they’re getting close to learning exactly what they need to learn. They’re just at a point of understanding that needs a few hard to find links to close the gap. Just missing those few links makes the information look hopeless but when those links are found, everything will change dramatically faster than the student predicts.
This often comes down to an epiphany. When you find yourself getting frustrated, start getting excited. Your mind is working on putting the final pieces of the puzzle together. You may not immediately notice how close you are to understanding the information but your brain wouldn’t be getting frustrated if it weren’t reasonably close to figuring it out.
Frustration is a sign that you almost have it figured out. When you do figure it out, it often will come down to a split second solution (potentially when you wake up in the middle of the night or take a shower.)
Frustration when studying for enjoyment is not a problem. It’s a sign that you’re getting where you need to go.
Of course, frustration when you’re just trying to pass the test is completely unnecessary. If you’re looking to pass the test without the stress and while studying less than 15 minutes a night, that’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to follow allow to see all the details. There are tons of articles in the archives to get you started. Also, be sure to check out the ebooks in the sidebar for a crash course.
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