Managing academic pressure:

How to manage challenges and learn effectively

As the term progresses you are likely to be working on a number of assignments while deadlines get closer. Probably a time of high expectations and concern regarding your ability to complete tasks well, and in time.

Part of the academic pressure you may be experiencing now is probably due to the accumulated volume of work to do in a short period of time. It is likely to be a frustrating time, and even stressful.
Although it may feel very challenging, you can rely on your brain’s amazing capacity to learn.


Managing pressure
A way to manage the tension is to pay attention to the present moment and  acknowledge that past experiences may have been difficult. However, your current situation is different where you have the opportunity to apply the learning from your experiences.

Facing the uncertainty of how your work will be evaluated may trigger worry thoughts; however, it does not mean that these thoughts are reflecting what will happen. By taking time to reflect on the process of learning you can change the way you think about your capacity to learn.

How we learn best
The concept of ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2006) – the view that we have the capacity to learn and continue to grow – means that we have tremendous possibilities for life long learning. Therefore, contrary to the notion that we have a fixed unchanging brain, we are in fact capable of continuous development provided we maintain an open and flexible attitude. This perspective allows you to reframe old beliefs that may be holding you back, and focus on developing your knowledge and expertise in your chosen field.

By focusing on your capacity to learn you can boost your motivation, particularly when there is uncertainty about  how things will turn out. Sometimes you may wonder about how much effort you should put into your work when you are uncertain of the outcome.  Maintaining a flexible attitude, where you keep open the possibility that things can improve as a result of your efforts, you can make progress and maintain your health while working (Mlodinov, 2018).

A helpful strategy to use when it is hard to make progress with work is the concept of metacognition: the knowledge we have of our cognitive processes as well as of the regulation of them while we focus on learning something  (Flavell, 1979). That is, when we notice that we are thinking about our thinking. Observing and reflecting on how we are learning can enable us to take control of how we work. For example, to bring our attention back to the task when we are distracted.

The more we are aware of our thinking process the more we can control our attention, persevere with our efforts so that we can make progress to achieve our goals. By developing self-awareness we can enhance our emotional regulation as well as strengthen our cognitive capacities. In addition, it helps us to strengthen our commitment to what is important to us. As we become more aware of how we are learning the better able we are to make plans to manage the tasks we need to complete.

Metacognition allows us to develop goals, monitor our progress, evaluate how we are doing and regulate our thinking while we work on a task. As we notice and acknowledge our progress it will boost our motivation to keep going until we complete the task.  By focusing on progress we can then feel that our efforts are worth it, even if at times we make mistakes.

Managing frustration
What can cause frustration, and may manifest in stress symptoms, is the expectation that things should be done quickly, in the first attempt, and that the final product should be very good.

However, the process of producing good work takes time. It requires repeated attempts, where each time you correct or improve on the previous version. This is called deliberate practice (Erickson, A. & Pool, R., 2016).

When things don’t work out the way you would like them to it is important that you give yourself time to acknowledge your feelings. Perhaps you feel frustration, disappointment, and possible worry or doubt about the possibility of completing the task well. Whenever you feel confusion, or perhaps feel stuck momentarily, focus on what you are learning and return to your values – commitment to your studies, responsibility and curiosity about learning (add to this list what is important to you). As you review the work you are doing, rather than thinking it is never going to be completed well, focus on the fact that you are making efforts and view it as something that is not finished…yet.

Focus on developing an optimistic attitude an maintain hope that with your efforts you can make changes to improve the work. As you make progress you will boost your motivation to keep going, and maintain the hope that you will gradually finish the work.

One of the significant pressures in academic life is that we do need results to be able to pass onto the next level. Our brain are wired to produce thoughts about the future because it is part of how we have been designed for survival.

By imagining the future we can anticipate possible negative consequences. This process is helpful so that we can prepare and prevent those things from happening. Therefore, imagining negative scenarios does not mean that these will happen. Instead, imagine that your brain has the ability to function as a simulator where you can rehearse future scenarios so that you can plan and prepare for them. Also, it can be very productive to imagine positive future scenarios to can inspire and provide alternative options.

From these imagined scenarios you can identify what steps to take to make progress with your work. As you reflect on how you are working, at times you may notice that you are distracted. When this happens bring your attention back to the present moment, and keep going.

Introduce short breaks on a regular basis. Take a moment to breathe slowly so that you can restore your balance as well as recharge energy to continue to focus on the task. Doing breathing exercises/mindfulness can help to manage worry thoughts, and this will help to clear your working memory so that you can focus on your task.

Making progress
To make progress pay attention to what you are learning: ask yourself  questions about the topic.For example, how does it fit in with what you have learned so far? Questions help to focus the mind, and serve as filters to identify the relevant material. Next, develop goals and break these down into small steps. Notice the progress you make, including the mistakes along the way, as these will inform the corrections or adaptations that are needed to make progress.

Perhaps this period of high demand might feel as if the work will never be completed.  One way of dealing with this can be to imagine you are completing individual pieces of a puzzle, and that gradually you will have the full picture.this illustrates the idea that the task will be completed piece by piece. Then, acknowledge and reward your progress.

Feedback as information to enhance learning
A very important aspect of learning is making good use of feedback. Perhaps past experiences of feedback may not have not been very helpful, leading to a feeling of anticipating criticism. Generally we do not like to receive negative comments on our work; however, if we view the comments as information that we can use to improve our work it will allow us to make progress.

Viewing feedback as information that is neutral can help to focus our attention on what is relevant. In fact, it is nudging us forwards.  The information that could open up new possibilities for improvement. It can also help to identify actionable steps you can take to move forward with your task.

Becoming unstuck
As you restore balance your concentration will improve. By taking breaks and exercising at regular intervals you can restore essential energy for managing  emotions as well as maintaining concentration. I

f you are finding it difficult to get started, or you do not feel motivated to do the work, experiment with dedicating five minutes to a specific task. This will create a space where you just write your thoughts about the topic that you are working on.

The rule is that there are no rules: no editing, no right or wrong, no expectations of style or brilliance. Just write, get your thoughts on paper (better than on a PC, although if this is your prefer mode of working type away.). If you feel stuck write ‘I don’t know what I need to do right now’. The exercise will help to unlock the brain from the expectation of high standards in the first attempts. It will free the brain to pay attention to what you want to communicate (content). You can also ask yourself questions: what is it that you want to know? what do others need to know to be able to understand?

Moving forward: achieving meaningful goals
Often we feel frustrated because we do not produce the results we want as we hope. So we work harder and increase our determination and efforts, however as we get tired and tense our productivity is likely to decrease.

As we learn the brain switches between a highly focused state and a diffuse mode – a more relaxed resting state. Both modes are very important for learning (Oakley, 2014). The difused mode seems to work quietly in the background, when you’re not actively focusing on it. It allows us to gain new insights on problems that we are finding hard to resolve. When our attention is relaxed were are more likely to identify solutions, or develop insights.

Learning nurtures our curious minds. By building our confidence in our ability to persevere with our efforts, and learning to manage mistakes and failure, we can move forward. We increase our knowledge and experience as we make the most of every learning opportunity available.

Learning includes developing our understanding of ourselves – understanding our feelings and managing our thoughts in a constructive manner. We do this through self-reflection. As we build our strengths we enhance our confidence to develop our abilities. This in turn enables us to take risks and manage failures because we can see them as part of the learning process that will take us to achieving meaningful goals.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
(Albert Einstein).

“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Some fails. Some works. You do more of what works.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

References:

Andreasen,, N.C. (2005) The creating brain. The neuroscience of genius. Washington: The Dana Foundation.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy. The exercise of control. Now York: W.H.Freeman and Company.

Dweck, C. S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Balantine books.

Flavell, J.H. (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring. American Psychologist, 34, pp. 906-911.

Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: The Bodley Head.

Miettinen, R. (2000) The concept of experiential learning and Jown Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International journal of lifelong education, Vol, 19,, No1, pp54-72

Mlodinov,, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Oakley, B. (2014) A mind for numbers. How to excel at math and science. New York: Tarcher/Penguin