This is a time of the year when students often encounter multiple learning challenges. Past experiences, assumptions about their capabilities, and beliefs about their learning can hinder their academic success. As a result, they may stumble and struggle to stay focused and move forward.
Of course, we need to ensure students have access to instruction and other learning resources necessary to ensure their success. However, students can be held back by patterns of thinking and assumptions about how learning occurs and can be unaware of what power they possess to overcome some of the most common learning challenges. Fortunately, our timely and strategic coaching can help students find their way through to success. Let’s explore six of the most common thinking traps and how we can coach students to escape them.
The first thinking trap is availability of time. Students can become trapped into thinking they’ve no time for anything else because of their full schedules. They fail to see they’ve a choice regarding what they do with their time. They don’t have more or less time than anyone on earth. Everyone has a 24-hour day each day throughout the year. They must thoughtfully choose how to fill their schedules to increase their chances for success. Success in a changing world requires them to prioritize what they need to do and learn. They can free up time, but they can’t create more of it.
The second trap is feeling overwhelmed. When students feel overwhelmed, they’re often preoccupied with the volume of work, size, and complexity of the challenges they face. The result too often is they become paralyzed. A key counter strategy is to help students focus on where they are and what initial steps they can take. Often the metaphor of a journey can be useful. While a journey may be long and has an ultimate destination, it begins with a single step. There’ll be opportunities to adjust, arrive at decisions, and mark progress along the way, but success begins with that first step. Further, each step taken often reveals the next step to take.
A third thinking trap is experiencing failure. Students often feel as though failure reflects who they are, not actions they’ve taken. They may see a failed attempt as evidence of a lack of intelligence or talent. The trap is seeing failure as a permanent condition, not as a temporary state, relevant only until subsequent action moves them forward. A key strategy in the face of failure is to focus on what can be learned. Learning gives value to the experience and can prepare students to move forward and become successful. Failure is nothing more than evidence that there’s more to be learned and an invitation to try again.
A fourth thinking trap is feeling stuck, leading to the inability to see a solution or path forward. Students can feel as though they’re “spinning their wheels” and not making progress regardless of the effort they’re giving. Here, the key strategy is to think of being stuck as actually a threshold for learning something new. Feeling stuck likely means the student has exhausted the strategies they know and now are ready to learn more. In some cases, becoming unstuck can be as simple as reframing the challenge to help them view the situation from another perspective. At other times, an effective counter is to coach students to step back and consider what strategies they’ve tried, what other strategies might be employed, what effort they’ve given, how they might adjust their approach, what resources they’ve tapped, and what additional resources they might consider.
A fifth thinking trap is that productivity is a function of time given to a task. In fact, focus and the presence of supportive conditions can be more determinative than the number of minutes or hours students invest in studying or completing a project. The coaching strategy is to help students understand that removing distractions, such as social media, technology unrelated to the task at hand, and other competitors for their attention often contributes more to their productivity than the actual time they spend. As a strategy, short “learning sprints” featuring intense focus and effort followed by brief breaks for reflection and relaxation commonly result in more learning than long periods of study plagued by distractions and a wandering focus.
A sixth thinking trap is that creativity is best generated by focusing on a task, problem, or challenge, and pressing for ideas. Too often, pressing in a direction or pursuing a single focus gets in the way of creativity. Unlike productivity that rewards concentration, creativity often thrives with task-switching, attention shifting, and exploring a variety of approaches. We might coach students to step back and explore, engage in other tasks, and allow their thinking to wander. As they do, their minds are freer to make connections, see possibilities. and generate ideas that’ll feed their creativity.
Our knowledge of and experience with our students at this time of the year can position us to predict many of the thinking traps they’ll encounter. Our anticipation, reassurance, and coaching can help students avoid many of the most common and distressing thinking traps. Of course, avoiding these thinking traps is preferable and more productive than having students try to extricate themselves once they’re caught.