College Learning : WAYS & WHYS

Frank A. Logan

Personal Problems

On Getting Started
Useful Tidbits
Sexual Behavior
Addictive Drugs -- Alcohol
The Primacy Principal
On "Moderation"
Some people with adequate learning skills do poorly in college for other reasons.  The most common example is the person who has to carry another full-time job.  Most students can handle a part-time job, especially one that is somehow related to school, but heavy outside commitments inevitably interfere with studies.  I have no solution for financial problems, but there are some helpful things to say about the more personal problems that often trouble students.

The range of personal problems is surprisingly large.  Indeed, almost every aspect of a person's existence is a potential source of problems.  You may feel that this or that part of your body is too big or too little, or you may think that you engage in one or another type of behavior too seldom or too often.  Many things that may seem trivial to you may trouble someone else.  For this reason, I can only illustrate some of the more common student problems and can only give general approaches toward how to deal with them.

Whatever the problem, a person naturally worries about it.  We worry when we know that worrying won't solve the problem, and the more personal the problem, the more likely we are to keep it to ourselves.  Which is more, otherwise intelligent people tend to be very stupid in the context of their problem.  For example, people who think that they "worry too much" may believe that worrying can cause insanity.  So they not only worry about their problems, they also worry about worrying so much.

Now worrying will not drive you crazy, but it does preoccupy your mind with non-academic thoughts.  Everybody has a one-track mind, so you can't concentrate on your studies and worry about something else at the same time.  Yet many students automatically start to worry any time they try to study.  Worrying can become a mental habit that obstructs study habits.

To understand why this is true, you need to know about the basic principle of learning, namely association by contiguity:

Principle of Habit Formation (Contiguity)
An activity becomes associated with any
situation(s) in which it repeatedly occurs.

To be "associated" means that the occurrence of one tends to call forth the other.  If you brush your teeth when you get up in the morning, you will develop the habit; if you follow some particular route to school each day, that route will become habitual; if you regularly buckle your seat belt when you get into a car, the act of buckling your seat belt will be associated with getting into a car.  Habits tend to occur automatically, without any conscious thought.  Indeed, you are likely to become aware of your habits only if they are blocked for some reason.  In sum, practice is all that is needed to form strong habits.

I used the word "activity" in stating the Principle of Habit Formation, and the examples I have given so far all involve physical acts.  Actions that are openly observable to other people are called overt.  But the principle also applies to covert activities that are private.  Hence, a special case of the principle, which we call a theorem, is this:

Theorem of Mental Habits
States of mind become associated with
situations in which they occur frequently.

"States of mind" include being sleepy or awake, being attentive or distracted, and the wide range of moods that we all experience from time to time. . .fearful, excited, blue, lonely, happy, sad, sexy, etc.  These are all normal states of mind that occur in various situations.  What the theorem adds to common knowledge is that mental states are learnable:  You can learn to feel sleepy not only at your usual bed-time, but also whenever you start to read a textbook.  You can learn to feel anxious when taking exams, alert when attending lectures, relaxed when listening to music.  Habits include how you feel as well as what you do.

Coping with Personal Problems

How should one deal with personal problems?  One approach is to dig into one's past in search of the cause of the problem.  Perhaps the chronic worrier felt unwanted as a child and developed the worrying habit over fear of being abandoned.  Or perhaps some sickness led to worrying about death.  I have two objections to this historical approach to solving problems: In the first place, it usually takes a long time to ascertain the cause of the problem, and in the second place, finding the cause rarely solves the problem anyway.  More often than not, people just go right on living with the problem once they find out that its not their fault that they have it.

I prefer the pragmatic approach in dealing with problems.  You may have heard the expression, "If it ain't broken, don't fix it."  The pragmatic approach is:  "If it's broken, fix it!"  Never mind why it's broken or who broke it...never mind why you have a problem or whose fault it is...fix it.  The goal is to get results, to solve problems, or at least to confine them to restricted parts of your life.

When the problem involves an undesirable habit of any kind, the pragmatic approach is to change one's behavior to something that is more desirable.

Principle of Behavior Modification
Practicing new behavior in a familiar
situation replaces old habits with new ones.

The Principle of Behavior Modification should NOT be interpreted to mean that the old habits are actually erased from memory.  On the contrary, the biological changes that comprise learning are essentially permanent. But a new habit can, with enough practice, become stronger than the old one and hence replace it.

If you're a worrier, you need to develop mind control.  Because our minds have only one track, we can't feel sad while smiling or singing happy songs, we can't be afraid while whistling carefree tunes, we can't have a negative, pessimistic attitude while reciting positive, optimistic words.  Some people call it the "power of positive thinking," but mind-control is simply a matter of doing something or saying something to yourself that produces the desired mood.  Of course, that may be easier said than done. . .until you've learned how to do it.

Hence, mind-control is the pragmatic solution to excessive worrying and it also applies to other self-destructive mental habits.  Loneliness, self-pity, anxiety, and mild depression are some of the moods that are perfectly normal in moderation, but that may become so habitual that they interfere with studying.  In every case, the trick is to find words that create, for you, the desired mood.   For example when you feel depressed, force yourself to remember happy events; when you feel anxious, try to imagine a relaxing scene.  It takes practice to develop mind control, but the ability to stop an undesirable train of thought by replacing it with the desired one is a skill that will serve you well the rest of your life.

On Getting Started

The popularity of the saying "The longest journey begins with the first step," reflects a truism:  The hardest part of almost any job is getting started.  Very much like swimming in cold water, most jobs are not so bad once you get into them, and I have found that just knowing that fact is usually enough to help me get started.  Whether it is painting a room in my home or writing a paper, I usually have to remind myself of this principle:

Principle of Behavioral Inertia
It is harder to start a chain of behavior
than to sustain the chain once it is started.

For many students, this first hurdle is getting out of bed.  The temptation to roll over and catch a few more winks of sleep is often so great that they miss a morning class.  The first prerequisite to the pragmatic approach to problems is: get the true facts. If you're too embarrassed to ask someone, the college library is functionally a reservoir of information.  It is sometimes the case that the true facts show that what you are so worried about is actually not much of a problem after all.  In other cases, the true facts point directly toward the pragmatic solution.  In any case, you must replace hearsay,  superstition, myths, faulty reasoning, and ignorance with true empirical knowledge about the matter.

One reason people have difficulty getting up in the morning is that they want to avoid the aversive realities of life--the work, the tests, the conflicts.  Another very common reason is that the person simply does not plan enough time for sleeping.  Let me first share a few facts about the need for sleep.

There are several stages of sleep, one of which is REM (for Rapid Eye Movement) or "paradoxical" sleep.  It is paradoxical because the body is in very deep sleep but the brain is very active.  If a person is awakened during REM sleep, s/he will likely say that s/he was dreaming and perhaps the eye movements indicate watching the dream unfold.  This REM stage of sleep usually lasts about 20 minutes and occurs about every 90 minutes during a normal night's sleep.

REM sleep is vital for mental health.  People who are allowed to sleep as much as they want, but who are awakened every time they begin to enter the REM stage, soon become irritable, nervous, moody, and generally distressed.  Most important for our purpose, a person who has been deprived of REM sleep finds it very difficult to learn even simple new material, and is likely not to remember it later.  It is possible that the biological material for learning is produced during REM sleep, but whatever the reason, you cannot do your best as a student without adequate sleep.

The best evidence suggests that five REM cycles each night are normally required for good mental health.  Thus, the traditional eight hours sleep turns out to have a solid scientific basis.  Therefore, a very important rule is to set a regular bedtime that allows for a full night's sleep.  You may be able to get by on less, but you're probably short-changing yourself in terms of your full learning potential.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of regularity in setting one's bedtime and get-up time.  Time-of-day/night is a "situation" to which states of mind, such as feeling sleepy or awake, can become associated.  If you go to bed at about the same time most nights, and get up at about the same time most mornings, your biological clock will become adjusted to that schedule.

Useful Tid-bits

Many personal problems can be reduced to one of these causes:
  1. The Ima fallacy.  Labels like:  "I'm a dumb¬bell," "I'm a weak person," "I'm a failure," etc., can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If every-one who has taken something that was not rightfully his/hers were a crook, we would probably all be crooks.  Instead of labels, use action words:  "I'm acting stupid," "I'm learning to...", "I'm going to...", etc.
  2. The S-isa fallacy.   No tangible object has intrinsic value. Value is something people place on objects, and not everyone values every thing equally.  This is true of properties like pretty, delicious, and even pornographic.  Always add "to me" when describing your subjective feelings about an object.
  3. The R-isa fallacy.  Ethical and moral judgments are not really intrinsic properties of behavior.  Whether an action is good/bad, or right/wrong depends on current social conventions, not on any absolute truth.  It is appropriate to adopt standards for your own behavior but not to judge others by them.
  4. The either-or fallacy.  Our language habits are such that we tend to think in terms of opposites: white-black, up-down, big-little, etc.  This tendency often leads to false dichotomies:  Either I'm happy or I'm unhappy, either I'm popular or I'm unpopular, either I'm a success or I'm a failure.  Most such factors actually fall on a continuum, with many intermediate shades of grey.
  5. The constancy illusion.  We naturally tend to see ourselves and the world around us as being the same from one day to the next.  Actually, however, everything is always changing.  Learn to accept the fact that "you can't step into the same river twice."
  6. The size illusion.   Things appear smaller when we look up or down at them compared with when we look out horizontally at them.  This illusion applies to the moon, to an automobile from the top of a tall building, and to parts of the body.
  7. The completion complex.  Although the hardest part of a difficult job is usually getting started, the next hardest part is usually finishing.  This is because it is when you finish that your work is judged by others.  It is easier to complete a number of small jobs than one large one.
  8. The inferiority complex.   We all spent many childhood years being inferior to adults.  Although there are a few designated ages when one is old enough to vote/drink/be-president, the transition to adult-hood is so gradual that few of us ever really shed the feeling of being inadequate.  But most of us learn to act self-confident.
  9. The insuperiority complex.  For some people,  there is only one acceptable outcome, namely winning, being best, earning the top prize.  Most such people are doomed to failure because there are not very many openings at the very top.  It is best to set some realistic criteria for success, and raise them from time to time.
Sexual Behavior

We are all sexual organisms.  The very fact that we exist proves that our parents, our grandparents, and indeed, all of our ancestors were motivated by sexual needs.  But even though our sexual nature is normal and natural, sex is a problem for many young people.  They may not yet have learned the difference between lust, which is the natural desire for intense physical pleasure, and love, which is the equally natural desire to give pleasure to another person.  The difficulty, of course, is that most young people do not yet have a loving relationship and also do not have many approved outlets for their sexual needs.

Sexual Solitaire.  Had Mark Twain written about sexual self-stimulation, he probably would have said just the opposite of what he said about the weather:  "Nobody talks about masturbation, but everybody does it."  Actually that is as it should be provided one accepts the practice as a private means of satisfying the sex drive.  However many people have been misled by hearsay, myth, superstition, or false advice.  None of the widespread misconceptions about bad effects of masturbation...insanity, weakness, wasting oneself, going blind, true.  You can abuse any part of your body, including your genitals, but reasonable practices are normal, natural, and healthy.

To understand why students should maintain sexual balance, you need to know how motivation affects perception (how we see things). If a word or an object is ambiguous, so that it can be interpreted in two ways, motivation biases the way we interpret it.  A hungry person may hear the word, "stake," and think of a "steak."  A fearful person may hear "dye" and think "die."  In like fashion, a sexually deprived student may be distracted by words used in a text or lecture that could be given an erotic meaning.  Be it "date" in a history course, "arousal" in a psychology course, or "climax" in a music appreciation course, our language contains many words that tempt the mind toward non-academic trains of thought.  It is harder to study if any of the biological drives (hunger, thirst, sex, pain) is very strong.

In order to avoid controversy, health officials are reluctant to recommend masturbation as the safest way to satisfy one's biological need for sex.  However it should be clear that those who favor abstinence as the best way to prevent venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy are advising you to abstain from social, not from solitary sex.  In like manner, advice to those who choose to be "sexually active" is intended for those who engage in heterosexual or homosexual acts.  In sum, do not be driven to seek other kinds of non-marital sexual behavior because of a mistaken belief that sexual solitaire is less acceptable.

Heterosexual behavior. In a sermon given at many colleges, the Reverend Martin Luther King said that the most frequent question asked of him by students was, "How far should I go on a date?"   He added that he was disappointed that students had to ask that question because he believed that they should have long since made a decision about what was "right" for them.  Actually, in many cases, the intent of the question was not quite what the Reverend King thought.  It was whether a person should be expected to go further than s/he wanted.  But the answer is the same: Set your own standards according to your conscience, and behave accordingly.

There is a useful strategy for controlling one's behavior in a wide range of contexts.  Imagine the types of situations in which you may find yourself, and decide in advance what you intend to do.  For example, the best way to avoid "impulse buying" when shopping is to have a list of what you need and never buy anything not on that list.  In a gambling situation, set a limit on how much you are willing to bet; in an "all-you-can-eat" situation, set a limit on how much you should eat; and in an inter-personal situation, set a limit on how intimate you will become.  It is the spur-of-the-moment decision that is most likely to be one that you will later regret.

One point about sexual behavior is seldom mentioned:  Sex is sometimes used as a form of aggression to express dominance over another person.  This is obvious in the case of rape, but it is true whenever one person uses another to satisfy his/her lusty desires.  I mention this point because either or both people may fail to distinguish between aggression and love.  In loving sex, one focuses more on what you can give than on what you can get.

Homosexual behavior.  Science has not yet answered the complex question about the origin of a person's sexual preference.  There may be a genetic factor, or some very early experience may determine one's orientation.  Three facts are reasonably clear:  A few homosexual encounters neither cause nor reflect a preference for members of same sex, homosexual orientation is very resistant to change, and one's sexual preference does not affect one's performance in other contexts.  The gay/lesbian life style is being accepted by society.

Addictive Drugs. . .Alcohol

I shall focus on alcohol for two reasons:  It is the most widely-used problem drug, and I am an alcoholic.  Because of the first fact, some problem that is related to alcohol abuse is likely to affect almost everyone in our society.  Because of the second fact, I can fully appreciate the power of addictive drugs.  This does not mean that I preach abstinence. . .nor that I encourage drinking.  The pragmatic approach to drugs is the same as any other potential problem area:  Make an informed decision based on the true facts.

Alcohol is not a stimulant; it is a neural depressant.  Alcohol slows down the nerve signals that control both the mind and the body.  If the nervous system is sufficiently depressed, you lose consciousness (pass out); otherwise, you could drink enough to die then and there.  Short of that, the depressing action of alcohol is selective.  It acts first on the part of the nervous system that produces fear.  This is why alcohol appears to be a stimulant; if it decreases one's inhibitions (fears), it may increase  performance.  However, it  concurrently decreases one's judgment leading to a false feeling of doing better when actually doing worse.  In any case, alcohol destroys brain cells which can never be replaced.

The loss of inhibition is the most destructive feature of  alcohol from a social point of view.  When drunk, people may say or do things of which they are very ashamed when sober.  Date rape is one example.  If you are intent on "tying one on," best you do it in a safe context.   Or if you're with someone who is so inclined, either get away before it's too late or be prepared for the consequences.  It is not just the driving drunk who is dangerous.

The most insidious feature of alcohol is that it is addicting. One can become dependent on alcohol as a psychological habit and as a physiological need.  Let me briefly explain both of these effects. If you are feeling anxious about something, say an impending exam, you can reduce your anxiety by drinking alcohol.  When you feel anxious about something else, say an argument with your girl/boy friend, you can reduce that anxiety by drinking alcohol.  In sum, alcohol can be the way you learn to cope with anxiety.  Usually, drinking alcohol actually makes matters worse. . .the time you spent drinking is time you didn't spend studying for the exam, and the loss of inhibitions may turn a squabble into a real fight.  This leads to greater anxiety and greater use of alcohol.  It can become a vicious circle of fear then alcohol, more fear then more alcohol, still more fear, and still more alcohol, etc.  Psychological dependence is habitual use as a way to cope with problems.

Regardless of one's reason for drinking, one's body responds by compensating.  As with any toxic substance, alcohol causes the body to develop greater tolerance to it.  What this means is that it takes more and more alcohol to reach the same degree of ecstasy.  A person who "can hold his/her liquor" may be admired but is actually well on the way to physiological addiction.  This is because tolerance also implies dependence on alcohol.  I can assure you that there's no fun in drinking when you have to drink to satisfy your body's needs. Alcoholic withdrawal is painful, and the addict does not drink to achieve ecstasy, s/he drinks to relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction is a long-term effect of excessive use of alcohol, and it is easy to buttress the argument with short-term effects.  For example, alcohol interferes with REM sleep which is important to consolidate that day's learning and to prepare the brain for new learning.  Abstinence from mind-altering drugs is clearly ideal, in principle.  In practice, prohibition doesn't work for many people. For them, responsible use is the realistic goal.  Sound knowledge of the dangers of alcohol should lead to moderation.

The Primacy Principle

Old habits never die, they get suppressed.  The habits that are the hardest to suppress are the ones that were learned first in a situation:

Principle of Primacy
The first response learned in a
situation is especially persistent.

Please note that the Primacy Principle applies to the first response, which can occur at any age.  In the normal course of events, people encounter situations for the first time during childhood.  This means that many of our persistent habits were acquired when we were children.  Indeed, we may have long since forgotten the specific episodes, and we only know that we like some things and don't like others.  But as long as you are being exposed to new situations, be it a new field of study or a different style of cooking, your first reactions shape your future attitudes.

The Primacy Principle is indifferent in regard to the desirability of the response.  A person who had happy first experiences in learning how to swim can endure many later discomforts and still love to swim.  However, if those first experiences were fearful, the person is likely to avoid water even after some pleasant times.  The person who "hates math," "loves rock-and-roll," "can't stand fish," "can't get enough T.V." etc., illustrates primacy in action.

There are two morals to the Primacy Principle. First, you'll have to be constantly alert to keep old bad habits in check.  Second, always try to learn the right way first.  Start very new venture with a positive attitude and a commitment to make it work.


Everybody is troubled by something from time to time.  Some people are always worrying about their troubles, while others usually appear to be carefree most of the time.  Any time personal problems occupy some of your cognitive capacity, they necessarily interfere with academic pursuits.  Hence, the purpose of this chapter is to urge you to deal realistically with problems when they arise.  The philosophical basis for this pragmatic approach is the saying:

Grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The first step in solving personal problems is to get the facts so that you know that there really is a problem, how big it is, and whether it can be solved.  Because it is unlikely that you have invented a new problem, it is likely that the college library will contain a wealth of relevant information.  Replacing fallacies with knowledge often suffices to bring a problem down to a size that can be managed.

A brief introduction to logic and problem solving is given in Appendix D.   The same strategies apply to personal problems as apply to more practical ones.  In every case, you need to identify the alternative courses of action and follow the one most likely to succeed.  Occasionally, the best solution to a problem depends on what caused it, in which case, you have to discover why the problem arose.  But in most cases, the best approach is simply to deal with the problem.

There are two classes of solutions to personal problems:  change the environment or change your behavior.  For example, if you have a neighbor whose loud music disturbs your studies, you have to convince the neighbor to lower the volume or you have to change your own study habits.  As a rule, the environment is less susceptible to change and hence problem solution usually requires behavior modification.  Note that "behavior" includes your private thoughts as well as your public actions.  To change your behavior, you need to practice new behavior.

Do not be misled, however.  Old habits are never "broken" in the sense of being completely eradicated; they persist as potential problems in the future.  You can keep old habits suppressed by new, better habits.  If your undesirable habits are strong, you may need help in overcoming them.  Do not be too proud or too shy to seek professional help.  Student Health Center and other agencies are available to help you deal with depression, addiction, and eating disorders.  There are suicide, rape, and crisis centers to help you survive long enough to regain your own cognitive powers.

Similarly, professors, department chairs, deans and counselors will help with academic problems.  Don't miss out on your education because of personal problems.  You can sometimes rely on self-help methods if you understand the nature of a problem but you may need a trained person to help you get started.

On "Moderation"

Conventional wisdom is to enjoy "everything in moderation." Is that really good advice?  And if it is, how much (or how often) is "moderate?"  Let me try to answer both questions with an illustration based on my experiences when I was a cigarette smoker.

Treating "10" as the value of the most intense pleasures that I have known, the very best cigarette would rate a value of about 5. That would be the first cigarette of a day with a cup of coffee.  If I then smoked a cigarette every  15 minutes for the 16-hour day, the value of each one was very small, about .2 at the most.   But if I waited 30 minutes between cigarettes, the pleasure from each cigarette increased to about 1.  The pleasure was still greater, 3, if I let an hour go by between cigarettes, and up to 4 by smoking a cigarette every two hours.  Now let's put these values into a table
Interval Between Smokes
Number of cigarettes per day
Pleasure value of cigarettes
Total amount of daily pleasure derived from smoking
15 min
30 min
1 hr
2 hr
Table showing how the amount of pleasure I got from smoking cigarettes  depended on how long I waited between cigarettes.

Please understand that I am not, repeat NOT recommending that people smoke.  The evidence is clear that the long-term detriment to health far outweighs the short-term  pleasure to be derived from smoking.   If it makes the example more meaningful, you can substitute other activities such as eating a candy bar, drinking a soft drink, or listening to a record.  Of course, the time frame will be quite different for some activities, such as going to the movies, eating your favorite dinner, or engaging in sex.  But the same basic picture applies to them all. A high frequency results in less total pleasure than a moderate frequency, which in turn is better than a very low frequency.

So how do you know what is a "moderate" amount?   There is no single answer that applies to everything.  As a rule-of-thumb, the optimal rate is to do something less frequently than your natural tendency to do it. That is to say, self-imposing a tolerable amount of deprivation between episodes increases the pleasure more than enough to make up for the lower frequency.   The only way to find out what is best for you is to try out different schedules.

This chapter concerned some
S T E P S  to
    S U C C E S S  in
        C O L L E G E
              Personal       impulsive action
1. . .               Pre-occupation with personal problems
Right Attitude:
  Commitment +
  Optimism +
               vs                               P I T F A L L S
                Doing aimless/hopeless time

 [ HOME ] [ CONTENTS ] [ BACK ] [ NEXT ]