The Challenge of New vs. Old

Imagine someone who has never done stand-up paddle boarding (SUPing) before. She decides she wants to give it a try, so she heads down to the water and rents a stand-up paddle board. The first time she gives it a shot, it is an entirely new skill she has to learn. She is experiencing the different components of SUPing: how to kneel, paddle, stand up, turn, and slow down. With each minute she spends on the board, the experience moves further away from a new, novel experience and closer to a more rote, duplicatable movement. The second time she rents a board, she has the feel down. She knows how to balance on the water, and it becomes much easier. But this time, it’s a windier day, and the water is rougher. She needs to learn yet another new skill: the ability to balance and paddle through choppier waters. After an hour of practice out on the water, this is now added to her skillset. The third time out, something new happens. She falls off the board for the first time. She now has to learn how to get back on a board and re-establish herself to keep paddling. Again, a new skill is learned. She falls off two more times that day, requiring her to continue to practice getting on the board in deep water. By the end of the day, although she is soaking wet, she has this skill mastered. These new skills have become old news for her.

This is how our brain works. The frontal lobe is responsible for managing our actions, decision-making, goal-directed behaviors, and regulating our emotions. In this regard, the newer the experience, or skill needed, the more work our frontal lobe has to do. New experiences require more information processing, decision making, and attention in order to learn and work towards mastery. This is even more true the more complex a new experience becomes, such as heading off to college. The new experience will put even more exertion on our frontal lobe. As we continue to practice and develop a skill, our frontal lobe becomes less and less involved as the skill becomes more rote. The skill morphs from a novel experience to learned skill.

In the previous example, I used a physical skill. However, in a college academic setting, students constantly face challenging tasks that require learning new skills. The organization, time management, planning, note-taking, studying, and writing skills that students need require attention, practice, and development just like any physical skill. As in the SUP example, each day brought a new wrinkle and skill to learn that required more work. School is the same way. If a college student has written a couple papers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the writing process down. Each assignment varies and puts pressure on the student to learn new skills.

These new and complex skills can put a lot of demand on a student’s frontal lobe. It is easy to see how college students can be overwhelmed. Not only is the frontal lobe tasked with learning a new skill, but it is also responsible for planning, regulating emotions, processing large amounts of information, and decision making. It is easy to see how this can lead students to crash, hit a wall, avoid schoolwork, or turn to any other coping mechanism they may use.

The key is to treat these skills just like SUPing. Each executive functioning skill needs to be specifically focused on. The goal is to take the difficult and challenging and practice to the point where it becomes rote and autonomic. The difficulty is that it can be a process to see changes in organization, planning, time management, and the other executive function skills. While SUPing can be learned in an hour or two, EF skills take consistent practice in order to develop. Each student needs to understand the extra difficulty new skills present, the process towards building them up, and how it relates to them on a personal level.

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