Have you ever thought about how many of our metaphors for learning have something to do with eating? You consume knowledge. Teachers plant ideas and nurture minds. An interesting concept is food for thought, and a good book feeds the soul. I could keep going, but you get the point. Learning is a lot like eating.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you can also draw some interesting connections between unhealthy eating and unhealthy learning. You should avoid a steady diet of junk food in each, although the occasional treat is just fine. You need to use what you take in or you’ll end up being fat and lazy. And, of course, I recommend avoiding starvation if at all possible.
But the unhealthy analogy I want to focus on is the classic binge and purge approach to learning.
In dietary terms, binge and purge eating, otherwise know as bulimia nervosa, is a serious condition with harmful effects in every area of life. And I don’t in any way want to make light of this condition by using it as an analogy for unhealthy learning. But it’s such an apt metaphor that I couldn’t pass it up.
In bulimia nervosa, of course, the person consumes larges amounts of food in a relatively short period of time and then quickly “purges” by expelling the food in any of several equally unpleasant ways. Similarly, binge and purge studying, what I’m calling bulimia academosa, involves the student cramming unseemly quantities of information into his or her head before spewing that information all over some test or paper. (If you think that’s an unpleasant image, just consider the poor teacher who has to sift through piles of that every semester.)
In both forms, the binge and purge is incredibly unhealthy. It teases the body with what it needs, but never gives the nutrients time to soak in and nourish anything. What should lead to life and growth instead becomes an occasion of stress, anxiety, and (often very real) pain. Nothing healthy lies down that path.
A healthier approach, of course, is to eat reasonably and regularly. That’s how the body (and mind) gets what it needs.
Here are three things that I’d suggest to avoid binge and purge studying.
1. Stop playing the game
I think many students fall into the binge-and-purge trap because they approach school like it’s a game:
- you perform
- if you perform well enough, you score points
- if you score enough points, you win a prize
So the whole point is to score points and win the game. And, as I’m sure you know if you’ve been a student for any length of time, you can score points and win a prize with a binge-and-purge approach to studying. I did it all the way through high school and my BA in theology. It’s not that hard.
But learning shouldn’t be about scoring points. Maybe I’m being idealistic, but learning should be about learning: exploring new ideas, allowing them to bounce off old ones in ways that create weird conceptual hybrids, challenging, questioning, and even rejecting. You know, learning. You may score some points along the way, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. But let the points ride in the back. They don’t get to drive.
And if real learning is your goal, the binge and purge doesn’t work. Bulimia academosa will give you an emaciated mind starved for real nutrition.
2. Hit Your Sweet Spot Regularly
In the last post I encouraged you to find your sweet spot. If you’re lucky, you’ll have more than one. But a sweet spot doesn’t do you any good if you’re not using it. And, if you’re anything like me, you probably won’t use it as much as you should unless you have a plan.
Set a day and time that you’ll be in your sweet spot, and make it regular and consistent. Some people I know like to set aside just a few times a week (2-3), but once they’re in their sweet spot, they stay there for a while. If that rhythm works for you, great. I prefer to work in shorter blocks of time, but to set aside some time every day for studying. I’ve found that if I let more than a day or two slip by without studying, it just makes it that much harder to get back into it the next time.
The point, though, is that whatever you choose, make it regular and realistic. If you space your study times out too far, you’re just planning to binge and purge. Make them more regular than that. But if you plan to study seven days a week for ten hours a day, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Don’t schedule your study sessions during times that you just know you’re going to skip (e.g. Friday night). Know yourself well enough to be realistic.
In short, you just need to find your study rhythm. Once you’ve identified that, you have half of what you’ll need to be a healthy learner.
3. Treat your study time like you’d treat your job
If most students approached a job like they do studying, they’d get fired before the end of the first week.
- “I don’t really feel like it right now.”
- “I’ve been at it for almost 30 minutes. I need a break.”
- “I’ll just skip it today.”
- “I’m sure I can cram it all in at the last second.”
You could have the greatest sweet spot and the most perfect plan for establishing a study rhythm, but if you don’t act on it, you might as well just skip the whole process and go out for pizza now.
Once you’ve picked your study time (e.g. every weekday at 4:00), treat that just like you would your job. If someone invites you out for coffee, tell them that you’d love to (even if that’s not really true, you should say it anyway) but that you’re busy. You wouldn’t skip work to go out for coffee (I hope), so don’t skip here either.
I realize this isn’t easy. Most people don’t view studying like they do work. Studying is optional, something you only do when nothing more interesting presents itself. Tell someone that you can’t do X right now because you’re going to go work on a paper that isn’t due for three weeks is like saying that you’d rather stab yourself repeatedly with a dull toothpick than hang out with them.
Tough. Stick to your guns and they’ll figure out after a while that you mean it. They probably still won’t understand, but they’ll learn that you mean it.
Don’t binge and purge. Your intellectual life matters more than that. And, if nothing else, you’re spending way too much time and money on your education for this to make any sense.
Next: Read the Contract before You Sign
[This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]