Monday, November 2, 2009

Cutting Your Losses

There is an art to being a student.

As a freshman you don't yet realize it, but by the time I reached senior year in college I realized I was a homework and test-taking machine. I am GOOD at what I do. I have been trained for school for over 15 years now. That's one of the reasons that I decided to do grad school right away and not take time off - I want to take advantage of the honed studying skills I already have.

I have perfected the art of cutting my losses.

I remember a story my father told me. He said when he was in grad school, he was taking a class on computer modeling (a state-of-the-art class at the time, and a tedious, painful process with the programming techniques of the era). The teacher assigned a homework set that took a hellishly long time to complete. So long, in fact, that the alloted time on the computer for the class was used up (yes, they had to book time to use the computer...). The teacher decided at the last moment to extend the deadline for the assignment, but my father made a judgement call and turned it in incomplete.

There are criteria for when to give up.

My father had already learned the concepts in the homework. No additional information would he gain by completing the assignment. The many extra hours would add only a percentage to that one homework grade, and an even smaller percentage to his overall homework grade, and a nearly insignificant amount to his final class grade. In short, it wasn't worth his time.

You have to be smart about where you put your resources.

If you decide to half-a** it too often - if it becomes a habit - then it's a pattern and you can't escape the consequences. Many, many college students fail because they bank on the fact that each individual piece of work for each class isn't worth much. But they add up to a lot. You have to judge where you put your time and energy. If you are smart about it, you are not slacking off - it's just resource management. You don't spend six hours on one homework when you have a mid-term paper worth half your grade due. You don't spend a hour on one problem in a homework when the other problems are easy and worth just as much. You don't spend ten minutes on a multiple choice-problem on a test when the essays are worth 60%.

You have to accept, sometimes you can't do everything.

Things are going to fall through the cracks. I remember distinctly one evening my senior year of college. I was so tired, and so overwhelmed. I had a homework for numerical methods due the next day that I hadn't even started. I tried to get out a piece of paper and start, but I was so wrung out I just started to cry. I crawled into bed, turned off the lights, and just curled up under the blanket. My last thought before I drifted to sleep was, "I should be working. I should be working. I should be working." I felt so guilty, and really I just needed to give myself a break. I should have just taken a deep breath and said, "I could be working. But I need to be sleeping. And that's okay."

Then your decision becomes, so what do I spend my time on?

I have a homework set due on Wednesday. I tried to work on this yesterday, and I worked more this afternoon and a bit this evening. I got through the first problem, but then realized I don't understand the rest the material. It's going to take me hours to teach myself the concepts that are confusing me. I could work on this all day tomorrow, but:

This is the last homework for this class, and there is no final exam. I have done all the other homework sets and gotten good grades. I will never have to know these concepts again for this class, and I don't need it for my research. In the meantime, I have a conference coming up that I need experimental results for. My professor is expecting me to make research progress this week. I am trying to collaborate with two other students on a really cool research tangent, and I have responsibilities at my dorm this week.

In short, all the criteria for making a judgement call are in place. This homework is not going to be worth the hours it takes me to do it. I'm setting aside my pencil and calling it a night.

Besides, tomorrow is my birthday. 

And with that, a good night!