Behavioural Choices and Learning

Last column, I introduced the learning challenges of Suzi and Simon. Suzi used to perceive learning as fun until that day when she missed the introduction to algebraic equations. Now, she fears that she’s lost that and every future math concept forever. Confidence and fun are replaced by fear and confusion.

This article is one in a series  on learning.
You can find the first article in the series here.

Simon had been happy at work until he was trained on the new database. Now, he’s lost in a forest of unfamiliar screens and menus, terrified of making a mistake.

While the situations and consequences are different, Suzi’s challenge looms as large in her world as Simon’s challenge does in his.

In both situations, the learners have limited control. Suzi can’t control her teacher; Simon can’t control his trainer.  However, Suzi and Simon do have control over their own behaviour, So, what are some of Suzi’s options? Here’s a few:

  • Choose anger. Suzi might try satisfying her need for power by being disruptive, declaring what she hasn’t learned as being stupid and unnecessary. Her angering behaviour might include aggressive inattention—choosing not to try.
  • Choose to criticize. Suzi might criticize the teacher, the textbook, or her classmates. All of us, at any time, can find something to criticize if we look for it.
  • Choose to “frustrate.” Suzi might stay up all night “studying:” drinking coffee, staring at the page, throwing the book at the wall. Her self-talk: “I can’t understand; I’m not smart.“

Can you think of additional behaviours that wouldn’t be very effective in helping Suzi regain a sense of power, confidence, and competence? For example,  choosing to blame others, choosing to complain, or choosing anxiety or depression.

Now, how about some more effective behaviours that could help Suzi regain power and confidence?

  • Choose to respect. Suzi might try respecting the idea that topics in school are generally chosen for their value to her future life. (Really, it’s true!) With that outlook, she may find it more palatable to spend time studying.
  • Choose to engage with others. When she does, Suzi may learn that she is not alone in her confusion. In my experience, it is rare for only one person in a class to have difficulty. It is not rare at all, however, for that person to think they are alone. The action of engaging with others during a challenging time can be very helpful. Suzi could take advantage of a study group, find a study buddy or tutor, or even ask the teacher!
  • Choose action. Ineffective feelings are difficult to control; actions are easier to control.  A change in action can positively change thoughts. So, Suzi could take a 10 minute walk, stand up while studying, read the material aloud. Mind you, spending the afternoon at the mall would be a change in action; however, the goal is to return to the problem with a fresh outlook, not to procrastinate indefinitely.

Next time, we’ll take a look at Simon’s options for behaviour.

Do you recognize any of these behaviours when you try to learn difficult material? Have you found other effective ways to deal with learning challenges?

The next article in this series is here.
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