Episode 74: Boiling Frogs: on Overcoming Monotony

Episode 74: Boiling Frogs: on Overcoming Monotony

Date of Publication/发布日期
April 8, 2022
Curtis Westbay
Files & media
Volume 2 2021-2022

There’s an old metaphor about boiling frogs

It is said that if a frog is in a pot of water and the water is heated gradually enough, it won’t jump out. Even as the water reaches a boiling point and the ectothermic frog is dying, it won’t realize this until it’s too late. It’s a parable about the dangers of complacency, to some. To others, it’s a morbid lesson— change must be gradual enough within an organization to be accepted. When I think about our students, I think there’s a message in this macabre cautionary tale (however it is that you take it) about the creeping danger of monotony. A school year is really long for BIPH students, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll wake up one day in a major rut. You’ll fall into an exhausting procedural cycle of reaction and compliance, leaving little space for inspiration and creativity. The heat will get turned up and you’ll still be in the pot.

Our students take challenging coursework, and it’s not uncommon for them to have 4 or more AP courses in at least one year of high school. In all of these classes, students may get the impression that it’s meant to be their top priority— the workload is intense, the burden of preparation is heavy, and the standard for success is high. It’s impossible to treat everything as top priority, so students have to manage their time well to fit everything in and stay well organized to keep track of everything they need to do. Day after day, schoolwork takes hours and hours, and daily schedules are already so long. Students might be in class from 8:00AM to 5:00PM, and they can’t really start working on their homework until instruction is done. When I contemplate the schedule that our students have and juxtapose it with my life in high school, it seems totally unfair. Of course, I didn’t aspire to gain admission to highly selective universities. Far from it: I was interested in local colleges and affordability was my first priority. The lives our students lead are challenging, but that’s the path to admission for highly selective universities.

Back to the frog: lost in the monotony

So, let’s say a student is “succeeding” in their classes. They might go to class for 8 hours a day, give a little more time to activities or sport teams, and do hours of homework every day. In this struggle to succeed, it’s easy to get bogged down. The school year winds down, but the work expectation gets turned up. Students are tired, but even more is expected of them than before. Family is telling them that they just need to add oil, but they feel like their lamp is already empty. Teachers are telling them that the hard part is over and that it’s time for review, but review packets, extra sessions, and mock exams get stacked on top of one another. Day after day, you’re still sitting in the pot, oblivious to the heat.

If getting the great grades in the hard classes was the only consideration and it would lead them to their desired college destination, then maybe the toil would be worth it. But we’ve talked about it before, grades and strength of curriculum are just two elements of the college application. There’s also exam scores, English fluency, activities, portfolios, etc. There’s so much to do, but they feel like they can’t even get through the day as it is... who has time for all of those other things?

There is no time for fatalistic thinking— it doesn’t change the fact that the bar is terribly high for highly selective admission, so if that’s what our students aspire to, then we have to accept this challenge as our reality. We can cope with this reality better if we become purposeful with our time. Students might feel like they’re doing all they can, studying for hours and hours late into the night. But there’s a better way. Here’s some advice for your student on overcoming this creeping pressure.

Realize that there will be diminishing returns on AP coursework.

This advice is mostly for students who already take more AP coursework than is required. Some students try to maximize the rigor of their schedule— sometimes 5 AP courses a year, on average! Usually, the goal for students like these is admission to the most selective of the highly selective colleges (i.e. top 10 US admission). In an applicant pool like this, there is certainly little difference between 10 AP scores and 14. AP scores are ubiquitous, and the consideration of those scores by application readers is probably just a glance. If AP scores are the core of your college application and you want to get into top 20 universities, then you’ve done a lot of work to not stand out. Instead, choose your classes purposefully to leave space for the things that will help you stand out: academic activities, preparation for standardized testing, leadership, and service.

Study smarter, not harder.

Don’t study for hours by reading a textbook. Passive studying is ineffective. Here is some advice you may have seen before from Episode 49— Getting it Right: Study Skills:

  • If you are reading and highlighting, try highlighting only names (of people, places, events) and dates. If the purpose of highlighting is to make it easy to find key information, then doing this (for example, in an AP history class) will make a second or third reading of material easier.
  • Ask for additional practice or find it online. Try to determine what is difficult for you and how you can improve, first. Then, collect additional practice problems.
  • Find a reliable study partner. Find someone focused and committed to improvement. Then quiz each other, race each other, and challenge each other to explain things. Take a study guide for a test and make practice problems for each other, then critique the other's solutions. If you're working on something that can be memorized by rote, then make a game or race out of it.
  • Make your own study guide. In advance of a quiz or a test, first understand what will be assessed. Make a list of key items. Then, first from your memory, write down what you know. Then fill in gaps and correct with your notes.
  • Use flashcards, if they fit the subject. Flashcards are one of the best tools for vocabulary acquisition or memorization of key events. Don't limit yourself to only paper flashcards, however. You can make flashcards using online tools (e.g. Anki, Quizlet, Remnote) or even with a PPT. If using a PPT, pose a question on one slide and answer it on the next. This format is super flexible, and even permits different types of answers (e.g. illustration of the parts of a cell).
  • Rewrite your notes. If a class seems to go fast, you're probably not taking great notes. If you are taking great notes, you're probably not listening closely. Rewriting your notes is a great way to reexamine the lecture and its contents, and make succinct, clear study materials for later on.

And if your student doesn’t know how to study effectively, ask them to come see a college counselor or dean.

Give yourself something to look forward to, now.

...not months from now. Sometimes, students will tell themselves that, this summer, they will have time for fun and play. That’s not necessarily helping them stay positive and overcome monotony now. I’m talking right now, that’s when students need incentives to maintain their momentum.

Personally, I will tell myself that, once I read 15 pages, I can watch a 5-minute basketball highlight video. This is what I did in college, and it made hours of studying fly by. Besides, 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted studying should be the maximum— after this length of time, our brains need a break. For me, those breaks needed to be scheduled. Otherwise, I would take too long a break, telling myself that I needed it. So for me, 15 pages of reading (about 30 minutes), then a 5-minute video, then a 5-minute stretch was the most effective plan.

Leave space for your passion and reduce study to the essentials.

Don’t let your student quit a sports team because you want another hour to study three days a week. That activity enriches your student’s life, contributes to their activity list, and helps them make friends. Instead, students must learn to understand that studying for a history course for 3 hours may be just as effective as studying for 2 hours— if they can reduce their preparation to the essential ideas. This involves understanding the scope of what you want to study, the major ideas that need to be covered, and the nature of the assessment of their learning. It looks like this: if I am studying for a US history exam and I know that it will center on the antebellum Civil War period of American history, I might first try to make a list of the major events during this time period. Then, after writing a brief description of each event in my own words, then I will try to articulate how each event was caused (or not) by the others. Finally, I would take my study guide and quiz my partner, and vice versa. Once we had mastered the foundational knowledge, then we could get into the minutiae, cracking open the textbook to quiz each other on the more granular detail of each event.

This is a lot more effective than reading and re-reading a textbook in silence for 3 hours, mind wandering all over the place. The first type of studying is dynamic, effective, active, and collaborative. The second is passive, boring, and crushingly monotonous.

Get help.

Your student says they don’t have a study plan? We can help with that.

Your student says they don’t have great time management? We can help with that.

Your student is feeling overwhelmed? We can help with that.

Don’t let your student become like the boiled frog. In the doldrums of a long school year, we are happy to partner with you and your student so that they can lead a happy, productive, and inspired life at BIPH.