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2.6 Learning About Learning

Before continuing, we’d like you to reflect for a moment on your experiences with the textbook.

By now you’ve acquired some experience at active learning. It can be exhausting but also fun.

We are hoping that you haven’t gotten every question right the first time you tried it.

That might sound like an odd thing to say. Don’t we want students to always get everything right?

No, actually. In the science of learning there is an amazing concept called a desirable difficulty.

Our brain learns in response to challenges. If something is too easy, the brain can’t be bothered to reorganize. If something is too hard, the brain can’t figure out how to reorganize.

Desirable difficulty: a problem that requires effort but is surmountable.

A desirable difficulty is a challenge that is hard but learnable if we work at it. It creates puzzlement and curiosity, and can even lead to productive confusion.

How can causing confusion help learning? Becoming a great learner is hard because effective learning strategies can seem paradoxical.

For example, consider this thought.

When we say we hope you will get some questions in this book wrong, it’s not because we are mean, or like to trick you. It’s because that’s how you will learn it well. The road to mastery is paved with effort.

Students often find the concept of desirable difficulties counterintuitive. A good teacher or textbook, you might think, should lay out new information with such clarity that the mind just absorbs it all up with hardly any effort at all.

But that’s not how the brain works. Though attractive, that idea relies on a passive conception of learning which is refuted by scientific evidence.

Let’s give that idea a name: the ideal of the passive teacher, a teacher so good you can just learn passively from them. That ideal is an illusion, and recognizing and naming it can help dispel it.

There is a twin ideal about students that is just as problematic. Students should be smart enough, you might think, that they can just passively absorb information. Students who are smart enough can learn anything without any effort (which has a corollary: if you put in effort, then you are not smart enough). This is the ideal of the passive student.

This ideal is just as wrong as the first. Some people can learn faster than others, but that isn’t because they are so smart they can passively absorb information. That thought is a cognitive illusion.

Recognizing the errors behind the ideals of the passive teacher and student can help dispel the illusions.

Great learners are so good at actively using their minds, connecting new information with things they already know, that you don’t realize how much their brains are working.

The beauty of the scientific picture of learning is that people aren’t born being great learners or not. You can change your practices and study habits and embrace actively using your brain.

Some people seem like such good learners because there is a snowball effect: the more you work at active learning, the better your brain gets at it and the more prior knowledge you have to connect new learning to.

When you learn new information or skills in long-term memory, your brain literally reorganizes itself: it creates and strengthens synapses between neurons.

Most college students don’t realize the implications this has for studying. Empirical work has found that students prefer and use some of the least effective study strategies.

The most preferred method among students for learning or reviewing material is rereading the textbook and their notes, combined with more highlighting.

That is not the most effective approach if you have a limited amount of time. Yes, we want you to read and reread the textbook, but if you don’t actually think through the problems, you are doing yourself little good.

You might feel like you’re passively absorbing the material, but that is an illusion. It is going into short-term memory at best.

Every practice problem in this book is like a mini-quiz, and quizzing yourself is far more effective than rereading.

When you do a problem, you force your brain to recall information and skills–that is what actually strengthens the synapses in your brain and builds long-term learning.

Paradoxically, the more effort you have to put into the struggle, the more you will learn from it.

That’s why we hope you won’t just put up with the questions we keep posing you in this textbook. We hope you’ll embrace active learning and the desirable difficulties it involves.

Great work–you are almost done with Chapter 2.

Bonus Lesson: You learned above that the more that you challenge yourself to retrieve information from memory, the greater the benefit to learning that exercise is. Think of it like the amount of weight you use in strength training.

Forcing you to select options from a list like we just did can be difficult, but that is not as difficult as asking you to come up with the items yourself.

So if you are really committed to learning the material, you should now take out a piece of paper and list all the skills you’ve learned so far (no peeking). Then check your answers against this list. You might even come up with some ideas that we didn’t mention!

That extra work is hard and sort of annoying–which is why students tend to be averse to it or fail to find the motivation. The difficulty involved in that task is precisely what makes it so valuable for learning.

Students tend to prefer rereading and other passive strategies because they are easier and provide a “feeling” like you are learning, since the text becomes more familiar each time you read it.

Now you know, though, that that feeling is a cognitive illusion. We can’t always make you have the motivation to learn the material, but at least now you know what to do if you are inspired to master it.