Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

A Little Reinvention, Please, Rather Than Resolutions

Why not reinvent rather than resolve?

I was out for a run the other day and a neighbor yelled to me, "Is that your New Year's resolution?" Sigh. No and Yes. No, I already run and been running for several years. And yes, I'd like to run more this new year, but why bind me with the dispiriting "resolution," a catch-all term for plans that sputter and fade before February arrives. (And have you noticed fewer gym membership commercials on television than usual the past week-what do you think that means? Is that a good sign or a bad one?)

I prefer the term "reinvention," the one I routinely share with students who want to improve their work in a course, their grade point average, or even the course of their lives. Academic life, whether one is a teacher or a student, allows for reinvention all the time-not just when January 1st rolls around. Some people choose the start of a new semester, while others will rally at mid-term or some other time. The point is that you can always begin something new or different at sometime, and not necessarily with all the other baggage and trappings linked with the drama of calendar change.

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I like to think most of us are perpetual psychology students of one sort or another, so that reinventing ourselves a bit shouldn't be that difficult. Sticking to anything new takes time, whether it's dieting, getting more exercise, or pledging to study more or be a more organized student. Smaller, less dramatic changes are more likely to succeed and become routine than big changes (at least at the start). People also often make a mistake by starting with too many changes at once instead of integrating one new behavior before adding another and then other changes. These are by no means original or insightful points-anyone who has spent anytime in a psychology class with a review of learning principles is probably familiar with them.

What are some ways you might reinvent yourself as a student (broadly defined) now and in the coming months?

Read more challenging material. Let's face facts: Facebook is not challenging to read--it's more like a checkout line tabloid tailored (somewhat, anyway) to your interests. I think online living is reducing people's capacities to read challenging material, whether it is technical, literary, or scientific. I admit that reading anything is something, but why not pick one challenging thing to read over the next few months-say, a novel you've always wanted to tackle or some rigorous non-fiction work? A special note to college students: You should always be reading something that has nothing whatsoever to do with psychology or whatever classes you are taking. I recommend poetry.

Listen to some new music. We like what we know. While true, it's nice to learn new things, especially where music is concerned. Pandora panders a bit, don't you think? Why not try something radical like testing the waters of a new musical genre or sub-genre? If you've always liked classic rock (or classical music), try alternative or techno or jazz (big band sound, progressive) or something else that is new. If you live on or near a college or university campus, go to a concert, for example. You might surprise your ears and mind.

Watch challenging films more often. This should be easy for most people, but may not be. I am not suggesting you limit yourself to Indie or foreign films, let alone celluloid classics (not everyone will resonate to Key Largo), but I would avoid the usual blockbusters. I think many people now struggle with being able to maintain interest in most garden-variety documentaries that are longer than 30 minutes. Reclaim your attention span before it's too late and remember, as one of Sondheim's songs says, "Art isn't easy." And it shouldn't be.

Work ahead. Overcome your inclination to procrastinate or to do last minute work. Do a little each day on a given project (a paper, a report). Stop each session at a place where it will be easy to pick up at the next session. Most students and professionals would increase their definition of success (grades, salary, self-esteem) if they simply learned the rather simple skill of starting early, working consistently, and finishing on time (or even a little ahead). If you want to amaze your family and friends (and dazzle your co-workers or fellow students), give it a try.

Write more. The recipe here is a paraphrase of that found in the previous paragraph. Write ahead rather than at the last minute. Draft, revise, edit, draft again, etc., until the prose is simple and clear. This takes practice but is well worth the time and energy given the paucity of people who write well.

Regulate your sleep. Many of us suffer from sleep debt, which means we get too little and then try to catch up on weekends, holidays, and the like, which is not healthy or effective. Why not work to get close to 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night regularly? I think this one is tough because many people believe they work best late at night (and at the last minute) but they never bother to entertain the alternative. Try it for a week or two.

Spread work out rather than cramming at the last minute. This suggestion requires no elaboration.

Socialize regularly. Get out of your ivory tower, lab, office cubical, dorm room, or cave and spend some time having meaningful conversation with friends and loved ones. And no, Facebook, despite its ability to reconnect you with people from your past lives (a good thing) is not a substitute for face-to-face communication.

Happy Reinvention!

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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