Mental toughness

A key element in being a college-educated person, especially in mathematics, is what athletes call mental toughness. This term can be a pop-psychological artifact with no real meaning, but if you look here and here and other places on the web, the general idea is that mental toughness is a combination of resilience in the face of minor and major failures; the ability to cope with difficult and numerous demands; confidence; focus; and  determination. Or better yet, it looks like this:

I believe mental toughness is key because, in college, you are preparing yourself for the rest of your life out of school, where the edges are harder and the difficulties far greater than just doing well on the next exam or getting a decent grade in your calculus class. Real people in the real world have to handle adversity, especially the particular adversity that comes from having ideas, thoughts, and proposed solutions shot down in flames.

College is an excellent training ground to develop mental toughness, and in mathematics that development is particularly acute because of the clarity with which right things are right and wrong things are wrong. Math students, especially math majors, ought to have the toughest minds around, because they have been tested and pushed to their utmost, they have summoned the intellectual honesty to admit it when their work has flaws — sometimes major ones — and they have developed the habit of working on through the injuries to finally win the match, so to speak. They should not be the ones who, when confronted with flaws in their performances, simply take it as a personal offense and fold up, unable to summon the will to keep on working.

So, a question:

How can an academic course or program, accomplish this task, when the very thing that catalyzes mental toughness – adversity couple with reality — is seen as offensive and humiliating? I can understand it if the professor is visibly and intentionally acting to humiliate or intimidate students; but if the prof is impassively and objectively pointing out problems in a student’s work, and the student feels that the prof is intimidating and humiliating them, then what is to be done? Does the prof overcompensate and become a sort of Barney-like figure, exuding love and goodwill while at the same time pointing out that (x+2)^2 does not, in fact, equal x^2 + 4? At what point should the student just take his/her lumps and deal with it?



Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

4 responses to “Mental toughness

  1. The phrase “speak the truth in love” comes to mind. Obviously if you fail to point out the truth, you’re not much of a teacher. And just as obviously, some people will be humiliated no matter what if you point out that they’re not inherently brilliant. There are other lessons they need to learn before they work out order of operations, and they have nothing to do with math.

    I honestly think that you could do a whole lot worse than to ask a pastor — it is their job to tell people what they don’t want to hear, but in a way that doesn’t make them give up hope and turn away completely. Part of that lies in their not merely pointing out faults, but what to do about those faults. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you merely tell them that Jesus loves them in spite of their distributing exponentiation like it was multiplication (though he does).

    But it may help to point out that the truth here is objective, not based on your or their emotions, and try to help them see that truth as best you can. That’s what a pastor would do.

    (Also, a LaTEX generator plugin. Wow! When I was in college, it was all about the LaTEX printouts. Now you can display it inline in a blog. Cool.)

  2. @tODD: Good points. And re: the LaTeX, that’s actually built-in functionality in all blogs. See here.

  3. I think the trick to all of this is to… well, trick them a little. It doesn’t have to be a literal smashing up against the difficulty of it all, at every step. There’s room for the struggle to stay under the covers at least part of the time.

    I like to say things like, “Of course, we aren’t fooled in this course by the evils of distributing an exponent.” It’s a way to remind and point out the error, build up some internal culture for the class, keep it light, but also be clear that you’re expecting mastery of that topic. I had a high school teacher who used to ask, upon errors of that nature, if the student was in fact a spy for the cross-town rival high school. In a way, that could be taken as offensive. But something about how he did it made it seem not unfriendly — he somehow exuded the idea that he couldn’t really believe that you, his student that he knew and loved, would actually think in such a mistaken way, and that somehow he must be mistaken in what he saw. It was subtle, and it was indirect, but it was also very powerful.

    I would say to the person getting negative feedback that the best way to help students generate that mental toughness is to give them something to grab on to. Give them some identity and some conceptual place within the world of the course and the subject, a world you invent. We don’t always have to work at the literal, fully-self-aware surface level. Sometimes it’s good to create self-contained worlds, where the rules for emotional engagement and experience are a little different, things are quirky and fun… and math rules all. I think we have to pay careful attention to how we do this, but done correctly it can change lives.

  4. Some Russian poetry?

    Forgive no error
    you recognize,
    it will repeat itself,
    a hundredfold
    and afterward
    our pupils
    will not forgive in us
    what we forgave.

    – Yevtushenko

    (this is on my wall)