Understanding the Game of School

By Max Li | Published: August 11, 2013

I’ve noticed that many students flounder in school due to poor planning and decision making (well duh Max, tell me something new). I think that many people don’t know how to properly fix this (maybe even me!). But I’ve found an approach that might just work for me - approaching school (and life) as an optimization problem. Doing this has helped me understand the challenge at hand and approach it in the proper way.

Every optimization problem is characterized by an objective function, that is, the function that needs to be optimized. So the first step in doing well in school is knowing what “doing well” actually means. There are obvious objective functions that you can use, like trying to maximize one’s overall average. This is a relatively common goal, since it is typically one of the only metrics the school itself provides. But you can of course choose something more unorthodox, like minimizing your overall average or completing your degree as fast and/or cheaply as possible.

There is another more restrictive side to an optimization problem: the constraints. Generally, there are some restrictions one has to abide by when solving a problem. For example, any objective function that involves actually obtaining a degree presumably requires passing some minimum number of courses. These constraints together with the objective function form the optimization problem you’re trying to solve.

Now that you have explicitly laid out the problem at hand, you can then solve it. Essentially, while you’re at school (or more generally, while you’re alive), you have to make a bunch of decisions as to how you should spend your time. Since you have a perfectly clear model of your goals and restrictions, it becomes a lot simpler to decide on the best course of action. For example, if your goal is to maximize your overall average (subject to passing all your courses), it would probably be more prudent to study for an important midterm that’s happening in a couple of days and completely skip a tiny assignment due tomorrow.

So perhaps now you’re thinking, Max, you’ve built up this relatively complicated framework and you’re telling me what I would have come up with using common sense. And yes, that is true. But take that same example again. Using the same framework we may instead conclude that we should work on the assignment first because it is due earlier and forgoing that is a sure loss. The takeaway point is that this framework provides a clear idea of the problem from which decision making is easier.

I find that this general way of thinking is a good basis for planning and deciding on your actions in both school and life. It is, dare I say, optimal.