Discomfort and Academic Success

Talking with college students about their academic work is a fascinating leap into the familiar and the unknown. “What is your favorite class and why?” opens up discussions about preference, engagement, challenge, and the strengths and weaknesses of faculty. It reveals a forest of shifting variables. As educators, administrators, and advisors, we recognize the format but know little about the how, what, and why of individual students.

Students often find it useful, in my experience, to engage in a collaborative re-framing of their academic work. It is rarely enough to talk about what this or that means, what someone likes, or how it is going. It is not about judgment, either. Instead, context can shape meaning and give a way to measure, evaluate, and assess. An assignment is nested within a course; a course helps with a program or fulfilling a requirement. Establishing a better shared understanding of context is often essential to any meaningful dialogue about academic work. It also can be particularly helpful when students are struggling or face an important decision.

What is the right level of work and stress for any one student? Definitive answers are impossible but well worth pursuing through conversation and reflection. I have had productive discussions with students along these lines using the language of the gym. It often seems particularly effective with young men. Learning is a deviation from the status quo. It involves a change – and change usually makes us uncomfortable. We don’t get stronger being still and we don’t run faster by sitting on the couch. We build muscles by exercising. Running and lifting weights can be uncomfortable, if not downright painful. But they are how we change and grow. Learning is very much like this.

Expanding the metaphor, we don’t get stronger lifting just a little weight. We also don’t get stronger trying to lift massive amounts – we simply cannot get too much weight off a rack. Effective training, like effective learning, comes from knowing the right level of weight and the right degree of discomfort. For that to happen, students have to know themselves – and they have to know about the nature of work and faculty expectations. When there is good knowledge across these arenas, students are in a solid position to assess their goals, their progress, and the value of their education.

I know students are doing well when they can talk about their classes with this level of understanding. And I know students are excelling when they have comprehension and can also describe how they are being challenged and how they are coping with high expectations. The best kind of learning comes with the best kind of discomfort.

David Potash

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