A few years ago, a University of Pennsylvania Professor named Erling Boe made a strange discovery.
Every year, countries compete in the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). But before the test, students must complete a lengthy form of 120 questions. This task is so tedious most students never fill the questionnaire in its entirety. Now here’s the interesting part. Boe found he could precisely predict the winners by ranking them based on the number of questions answered in the form.
In other words, the most patient students — those who can tolerate the boredom of filling a lengthy survey — will perform far better in the tests than everyone else. Boe concluded that a person’s ability to sit still and focus for a long time is crucial to be world-class.
As crucial as it is, the ability to focus for a long time is not the only ingredient for Mastery. Scientists are taking a deeper look at what makes someone learn faster and assimilate things quicker. Among their latest findings, three factors stand out.
Do Not Give Up Quickly
“Learning complex and challenging things is not a matter of innate ability but instead of attitude.” — Alan Schoenfeld.
Alan Schoenfeld became obsessed with one question: “What makes knowledge stick and hard concepts easier to grasp for some and not for others?” This UC Berkeley professor is revolutionising the way people learn. With a career spanning more than forty years and 40000 citations, Schoenfeld is a household name in the study of effective learning. His conclusion is clear: those who don’t give up quickly learn best.
In one of his experiments, Schoenfeld videoed over a hundred people from various backgrounds trying to solve math problems. Many of his subjects — such as a nurse who didn’t do math in years — either solved or dramatically improved their reasoning after trying long enough. “Given enough time, anyone can learn to do Math.” Says Schoenfeld.
But what’s the minimum time you should struggle with a problem before giving up? Schoenfeld’s data reveal a magic number: twenty minutes. Yet, when he probed high school students on how long they try before seeking help, Schoenfeld found the average time to be two minutes. “Some try for thirty seconds only; others struggle for five minutes. Too short to learn problem-solving skills.” He says.
The duration of your struggle is what truly makes a difference to your learning ability. When you try hard and fail, you build a sense of what’s going on. Finding the correct answer, as a matter of fact, is just icing on the cake.
Schoenfeld’s experiments send a clear message: don’t look for answers too soon. Because people who stomach frustration and struggle with problems longer do better in life than those who give up quickly.
Make Lots of Errors
“Humans don’t like feelings of frustrations; the few that do will do exceedingly well in whatever they pursue in life, those who don’t, don’t learn much.” — Andrew Huberman.
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University whose short videos took Instagram by storm. His research, which explores neuroplasticity (the mechanism by which we learn and solidify expertise), is often published in top scientific journals. According to Huberman, you can accelerate neuroplasticity by shifting your habits a bit.
Huberman says you should spend seven to thirty minutes a day making errors. Within this time, push your limits and do something really hard. This could be playing a new instrument, conversing in a foreign language, or solving an obscure math problem. The key is to try hard and make mistakes. That’s because when you make errors, the brain signals that something isn’t quite right and seeks to create new neural patterns. “The way to create neuroplasticity is to send signals to the brain that something is wrong. Something isn’t being achieved.” Says Huberman.
Depending on your tolerance, you can do one or more cycles of intense learning each day. But limit each cycle to no more than thirty minutes. That’s because rest and disengagement are vital to strengthening new neural patterns.
But how can you make mistakes and still feel good about them? The answer lies in a molecule known as dopamine. Dopamine is the molecule of anticipation. It is released whenever you’re on the verge of achieving a goal or reaching a reward. Huberman says you should leverage dopamine to accelerate learning. Whenever you’re feeling frustrated or struggling with a problem, tell yourself, “I am growing. This is good for me.”
“That’s because dopamine is highly subjective,” says Huberman. He adds, “you can train your brain to release dopamine to specific cues.” In this case, the cue is to repeatedly make errors and tell yourself, “These failures are good for me. I am on the right path”. Doing so helps your brain associate errors with the anticipation of a reward, thus releasing more dopamine and motivating you to try harder. As a result, this frustration-anticipation feedback loop accelerates neuroplasticity, which in turn speeds up learning.
Feel Hungry for More Information
In his bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell recounts one of Schoenfeld’s math experiments. In a video recording, Schoenfeld asks the subject to try and solve a math problem by intuition only and without extra help. Carefully read this excerpt from the book:
Twenty-two minutes pass from the moment Renee begins playing with the computer program to the moment her face lights up, and she says, “Ahhhh. That means something now. I won’t forget that!”. Schoenfeld says: “If I put the average eighth-grader in the same position as Renee, after the first few attempts, they would have said, ‘I don’t get it. I need you to explain it’….” — Excerpt from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
Schoenfeld says most teaching is problematic because students are given all these tools and techniques — Pythagorean theorem, quadratic equations, C++, and so forth — before they even experience the need for them. However, struggling with problems until your intuition is exhausted makes you appreciate every bit of new information you receive. Once you’re shown a new technique or an additional tool afterwards, you’ll remember it forever.
Struggling with a problem long enough is why project-based learning makes you a fast learner. Projects tend to be complex, with lots of unknowns and hidden issues. To progress, you need to break the whole thing into smaller steps, then hunt for ways and techniques to solve each step. Of course, you might need to learn new things, but only when you genuinely need them. And it is this information hunger that brings you faster to your goal.
“Success is a function of persistence and the willingness to try hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.” — Excerpt from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
Huberman and Schoenfeld agree on the holy grail to learn faster. Making errors, looking for help later than sooner, and exhausting your intuition are the ingredients of effective learning.
So what’s the verdict if you want to master a skill sooner than later? Make mistakes. Try something really hard for twenty minutes a day. If you feel frustrated, tell yourself: “I’m growing. This is good for me. My brain is making new connections.” Follow these steps, and you’ll fast-track your success.