Science of Learning Blog

Let's think about going to the gym and getting in shape as an analogy for learning...

You first have to be motivated: You have to want to get into better physical shape, for example, to even get your butt to the gym. But once you get to the gym, you have to know how to use the equipment in an effective and efficient way. If you choose to lift half-pound weights, it doesn't matter how motivated you are or how long you spend lifting these half-pound weights, your progress will be very limited. Choosing to do a form of exercise that is more appropriately and productively challenging, on the other hand, will lead to much bigger gains in physical fitness. And, as long as you use the correct techniques for the right amount of time, your muscles are working and will strengthen, regardless of how motivated you feel.

Analogously, when it comes to learning, there obviously has to be some component of motivation to learn to even get yourself in front of your learning materials. But motivation is not the whole story: You also have to know how to use your mind, what activities to do, and how to structure your learning so that the time you put in is used effectively and efficiently.

How We Learn (the "Toolset")...

Just as with physical fitness where we understand, "No Pain, No Gain", it turns out that the most effective learning strategies are the ones that engage learners more actively and more deeply in the learning process, can lead to learners making more mistakes or make learning feel like it is progressing more slowly. These strategies, collectively, are often referred to as "Desirable Difficulties", and are ones that have been demonstrated over and over again by research to be effective for long-term learning, and which we will turn our attention to in more detail in the following posts.

...versus How We THINK We Learn (the "Mindset")

For the very same reason that desirable difficulties are good for learning, learners think that they are not good for learning. All too often, learners subscribe to the misconception that, "If I only figure out the right way for me to learn, learning will come easy" and "If it feels difficult, it must not be possible for me and I should try something else". These beliefs are antithetical to the reality: that difficulty, that active engagement, begets learning.

Therefore, to be an effective learner, one has to have both the Right Toolset and the Right Mindset