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Learning Strategy: Think Like a Runner

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Imagine two runners, physically identical, both of whom have 30 days to prepare for a big race, and both of whom are only allowed to practice for 20 hours total during those 30 days.

  • Runner A practices for 30 minutes per day, 6 days a week. She doesn't practice at all the 2 days just before the race, either. All told, she spends about 75% of her allotted training hours.
  • Runner B doesn't practice at all until the final week, during which she puts in every one of her 20 hours.

Who will perform best on race day?

The answer, of course, is Runner A because you can't cram for a race. Even though she didn't use her 20 practice hours, she's in way better running shape on race day than Runner B. On race day, Runner B is tired and grumpy and sore, whereas Runner A is well-rested and alert and fresh. C'mon, Runner B — you can't cram for a race!

While most students would find this a silly story, it's exactly the way that they attempt to prepare another part of their body — their brain — for big assessments, and it's also the way they attempt to get their brains to produce longer essays. Last-minute work, unfortunately, is about as smart in the realm of the brain as it is in the realm of the lungs and legs. My students, and probably yours, could certainly benefit to think more like a runner.

I have not mastered the art of training my students to “think like a runner” when it comes to managing their studies, but I still try to do it. I am partly motivated by Cal Newport's How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. In the book, Newport describes how the types of students he studies — those who achieve top-level success at top-level universities, all while maintaining balanced lives — think like runners when it comes to preparing for exams or writing large essays. If it's something that helps Ivy League kids work smarter not harder, then it's something I want to try teaching my small-town ninth graders to try.

One more thing that's interesting to think about: which of those runners enjoyed their lives more during those 30 days? Runner A had to work to find time to run 6 days a week, and she probably didn't always feel like it. Afterward, though, she did whatever else she had to do without any nagging sense of putting things off. Runner B, on the other hand, did have the nagging sense, and she also had a pretty miserable week prior to race day, putting in grueling practices for several hours a day, 7 days in a row.

This learning strategy doesn't just make our students better at school, it makes them saner, too.

Thank you to Dr. Barbara Oakley, whose A Mind for Numbers uses a similar running analogy.

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