Building a Mental Toolbox

Most students come to college with a few tools already developed in high school, but probably not enough to breeze through their university career. Students should be conscious of their current toolbox and always look to expand, refine, and improve it.

By Xavier Royer — November 21, 2022


Building a Mental Toolbox

Imagine building a house. The hammer is great. With every nail driven into a piece of wood, one more part of the building is complete. You may come to love the hammer. So far, it is an excellent tool for what you've needed. It has brought a lot of success, and you've come pretty far with it.

One day, wood planks arrive, and they are too long. You need to hammer the pieces into the right size. Now we need another tool. With the new saw, you're building again. Time to add horizontal supports, and it's hard to eyeball if they are positioned straight across. To address this challenge, we add a level to our tool kit. Over time, we continue adding more tools to our collection as we encounter more problems. We may always return to our hammer, but we need to add a new tool with every new challenge. Eventually, we can finish building our house.

A university student's "toolbox" is the skills they use to solve problems. This article intends to get students to think about their toolboxes consciously. Part of the bene fit of college is the opportunity to grow the student's mental toolbox. This is accomplished by not simply providing students with the tools but by creating the challenges requiring more extensive toolboxes.

Know Your Strengths

Most students come to college with a few tools already developed in high school, but probably not enough to breeze through their university career. Not only this, but every student comes with a different combination. One student may have excellent writing and interpersonal skills, while another can understand numbers and patterns intuitively. Each student's "hammer," their favorite tool, will also differ. Students should take a second to consider how they approach complex problems. Some may want to tinker by trying different solutions to see what will happen. Others may find themselves making lists and charts and neatly categorizing the various components of an issue before solving it. Others may think collaboratively and try to bring others to help with the problem.

The hammer is a double-edged sword; for every solution that it can be applied to be made more accessible, there are many others the skill can't be used for. The tinkerer may need help on a research paper, which does not lend itself to trial-and-error. The organizer will need help with creative projects.

Thankfully, tools can always be added to overcome new challenges. Adding can often be intimidating and requires work. One does not transform into a master public speaker overnight or suddenly know calculus. Most students have developed the skills they have before college because they came quite naturally and were able to be used often. Universities look to push students out of their comfort zone. This should be embraced, not avoided. Public speaking courses, for example, are most helpful for students who are bad at public speaking because they have the most room for growth. Good public speakers already have that skill, and thus the class would not serve to add anything to their toolbox.

Start With Course Selection...

When it comes to course selection, I recommend students take one course each semester that is out of their comfort zone. This course should be introductory. If STEM courses are not a student's strong suit, quantum mechanics may not be the best place to start. "Physics of Everyday Life," however, will add some version of that STEM skill to a student's toolbox. Familiarity should be the goal before mastery. As a proud "Physics of Everyday Life" student, I can say that while I still have no idea how a rocket gets to space, knowing about simple machines and momentum has been helpful in my daily life.

Refine Your Craft

Some may wonder, "hammer? In 2022?" I challenge students to find courses to help them develop their best tools. If STEM fields are a student's jam, dive into that quantum mechanics course. Not only are we looking to add more tools, we want to upgrade the ones we already have. Turn the hammer into a nail gun and the handheld screwdriver into a powered one.

Not only should students look to become more well-rounded, but they should also find a specialization or two. Specialization is something a student can do better than (almost) everybody else. If good courses are not available for a tool a student wishes to develop, extracurriculars are often even better options. Not only do they incentivize development, but they also add a bonus social and sometimes competitive (for those of us who are into that) aspect.

Regardless of the medium, students should be conscious of their current toolbox and always look to expand, refine, and improve it.

Xavier Royer

Xavier Royer

I am currently a full time instructor at a William Penn University, a small private university in Iowa. I am the lone political science faculty member there. In my time teaching, I have already connected with an incredible cohort of students in ways I could never have expected. Partnering with SAGE will allow me the opportunity to help even more students across the globe navigate those tricky questions.
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