• Ian Gibbs

Why Learning is counterintuitive

Updated: Apr 15


If you give a class of students (let’s call them Class A) a chapter to study for three days in a row, by the end of Day 3, their attitude will be ‘We’ve read it 3 times, can we move on to the next chapter?’


If you give a different class (Class B) the same chapter to study on Day 1, but on Days 2 and 3 give them a couple of merciless mock tests, they will complain they only had Day 1 to study.


Group A tend to be confident about how much they’ve learnt of the chapter.


Group B tend to be insecure having suffered two tough tests.


It’s interesting to note that if both classes were given a test on Day 4, Group B would outperform Group A every time.


Or in other words, the under-confident group would outperform the overconfident group.

Our self evaluation of our ability to learn is heavily affected by factors which, on the whole, don’t have much to do with how well we’re doing.


By Day 3, Group A are very familiar with the chapter. They’ve been reading and rereading. It’s an activity well within their comfort zone.


Group B on the other hand, spent two days out of their comfort zones by having to answer two nasty tests. Nevertheless, in spite of their difficulties, they learnt more.


We learn more when we move (to a reasonable distance) out of our comfort zone. By doing this we are stretching ourselves. It feels uncomfortable. It feels a little stressful. But that’s how learning works.


When a person stretches themselves by moving out of their comfort zone, the likelihood of them making mistakes increases. They will very probably get something wrong and make a mess of it. This is perfectly normal and only to be expected. Imagine how many times a juggler drops their balls when they first start.


But dropping them isn’t a negative sign that they’re doing badly. It’s a positive sign that they’re trying to do something which, for the moment, is beyond their ability.


Mistakes are therefore good things. They’re proof you’re making the effort and moving up the learning curve. Essentially, mistakes in this context are something to be proud of and certainly not a sign you should give up.


Unfortunately, unless you’ve been through a more modern one, our current educational system ingrains in us that mistakes are bad, undesirable and should be avoided at all costs. We are judged positively for getting the right result and judged negatively if we get it wrong. Thus, our incentive for going through the obligatory ‘mistake’ period is very small.


This is why learning is counterintuitive. We have a natural tendency to avoid precisely that which we need to do.


So the next time you can’t remember what you studied only yesterday or say something wrong in your new language, don’t feel bad about it. Celebrate it! Recognise that it’s part of the learning process and feel good that you’re on the right track.


That’s what Learnability is about.

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