The Selfish Benefits of Helping Classmates

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

26 November 2017

We’ve all been rescued day before a deadline by a friend with their seemingly infinite wisdom.

It’s easy to think: “Wow that guy is so smart he always has all the answers”, and pretty quickly you’ll be feeling down on yourself for not being able to understand or articulate as well as your classmates. I’ve definitely been there.

It’s almost chliche to say not to compare yourself to others, and it’s very simple as to why:

We don’t know the whole story.

Yes, there’s a chance that the guy from your class is a genius, but the law of averages tells us it’s much more likely he struggled with it for a few hours, and you’re just seeing the finished product.

But there’s still reason to feel a little bad.

By leaving the problem last minute, you’ve reduced the likelihood of someone else coming to you for help.

Why is that a bad thing? Well hopefully this post will convince you that people coming to you for help is a very very good thing.


The Feynman Technique

If for some reason you’ve never heard of this amazing study technique, there’s a ton of great articles and videos that do a great job of explaining it.

But in short,  physicist Richard Feynman suggested that the best way to learn something was to teach to someone else as simply as possible.

Since there isn’t always someone there to teach, most of the time this gets implemented by “condensing” notes; re-writing the most important points of your notes.

The problem with the self-teaching, and why it doesn’t fully grasp the potential of the Feynman Technique, is that there’s very little feedback.

The most crucial part of the technique is that it forces us to chain our thoughts into a coherent line of reasoning, comprehensible by someone else.

When we simply write to ourselves, it’s easy to over-complicate topics, use similar language to your professor/textbook, and generally just “skip steps” in the process. It’s much easier to passively ingest information than it is to actively recall, process, and output it.

The beauty of teaching, then, is that it’s very clear when someone doesn’t understand. It doesn’t mean they’re dumb and you’re some kind of genius. It’s quite the opposite. It means you didn’t do a good enough job explaining, which means you probably don’t understand the material well enough yourself.

It’s also great to explain it to classmates because it gives them to opportunity to correct you. It happens often that a friend will come to me for help on a question that I thought I had correct, only to find out that I was missing some key points. Together we can come to a much more cohesive and bulletproof solution.

Working in a vacuum leaves room for developing dangerous misunderstandings that will come to bite you on your grade.

Good PR.

Everyone loves getting help.

And although we know deep down that the person helping us probably went to office hours or found it online, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that this person is just plain smarter than us.

Whether true or false, that impression tends to last, so why not leave that good impression? It’s always better to be remembered as “that guy who helped me”, as opposed to “that guy why always mooches off of me”.

It seems manipulative, to be helping people to make yourself look good,  and it is to some extent. But it’s also just how the world works. Our impressions influence how much we like someone, and how much we like someone strongly affects how much we want to interact with them. Being known as the guy with answers is never a bad thing, unless you’re known as the “know it all guy who makes you feel dumb”. Don’t be that guy. As Kendrick says, be Humble.

Sometimes I have trouble finding royalty-free pictures, so here’s a pug representation of me during finals.

Kill Procrastination

If your focus is set to being ready when someone comes to you for help, it’ll do two things:

First, you’ll get your work done early. It’s pretty clear why this is a good thing.

Second, you’ll get more out of the work you did.

It’ll give you more time to review the work and iron out the wrinkles, ensuring the best possible grade. Again, don’t work in a vacuum. (Unless you’ll you’re not allowed otherwise)

It’ll also make sure that (since you’re the first person working on it) you’ll struggle adequately for the answers. Maybe that means going to office hours, or maybe waiting for your friend to catch up and ask them. Either way, it gives you time to make absolutely certain you couldn’t solve it yourself before getting help.

So be the good guy, get your work done early and help others with theirs.

Wrap Up.

A short post for today, since I was out of town all weekend. After arriving home, I only had a few hours to get this done.

Regardless, I really think this stuff is important, and it’s helped me a lot with my own schoolwork over the past semesters.

With finals coming, helping each other is more important than ever.

Keep chugging along 🙂

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