Should Learning Be Hard?

How hard should learning be? This may feel like a silly question, but it’s one of the biggest unanswered questions I have about learning strategy.

One view of the question argues learning should be as intense as is sustainable. The research on deliberate practice suggests that intense practice focused on improving a skill is the road to expertise. Without intense practice, your skills might get “good enough” and you’ll plateau in ability.

Another view of the question argues that learning should be made easier to encourage more of it. A popular view on second language acquisition is that students should focus on extensive, rather than intensive practice. Extensive practice is reading or listening situations where the person understands almost everything being written or said. Make the material too difficult, and it will be hard to reach the sheer volume of material necessary to reach fluency.

So which is it? Should you be making your learning activities as intense as you can maintain? Or should you be making them easy enough to increase exposure?

How Should I Improve My Writing?

The answer to this question has practical consequences. Consider my career as a writer. I would like to improve my writing. While sufficient in many cases, my writing isn’t the beautiful, well-researched prose of New Yorker articles. I’d like to get better.

But how should I get better? The intensive view of learning, as suggested by deliberate practice research, would encourage me to focus on making my writing harder. Attend creative writing workshops. Struggle to get my work placed in publications at the edge of my current writing ability. Do practice which improves selected aspects of my writing (storytelling, research, editing, etc.).

The extensive view, in contrast, would say that the main barrier for writing better is writing lots. That I should focus on writing more, and with greater volume I’ll get better at writing even if I’m not actively struggling to improve my writing.

In this particular situation, I lean towards an intensive view of learning. After having written over a thousand articles, I don’t feel like my writing quality is getting much better just by writing more. I need to be pushed to get to a new level, and that requires intensity.

How Should I Improve My Chinese?

But consider an alternative example: learning Chinese. For the last three years I’ve been practicing Chinese, including a particularly intensive burst for three months in China. I’d like to get to an advanced level of Chinese.

How should I do it? Again, there’s two viewpoints. The intensive viewpoint suggests I should strain myself on hard material, correct my weaknesses and aggressively work to reach a new level of ability.

The extensive viewpoint suggests the opposite: use it in situations I find easy enough to be comfortable. That means reading books I understand almost completely. Watching programs I don’t need to put effort in to listen to. Having conversations with people where I can easily follow along.

In this situation, I side with the extensive view. I feel my Chinese has improved mostly through easy activities, applied in high volume, than taking the intense approach. Even the quick progress I made during my three months in China owed mostly to having large volumes of low-pressure speaking, rather than intense situations.

What are the Principles that Make These Two Situations Different?

My intuitions about the best way to improve my writing and Chinese are very different. My open question is: what is the systematic difference between these two that makes an extensive or intensive strategy more appropriate? Can we use those principles to clarify situations where we don’t have a good intuition about which strategy works best?

Here are some possible explanations for why my intuition is different:

  1. Is practice going to happen anyways? I have to write for my job, so extensive practice is mostly guaranteed. Thus if I’m not satisfied with this growth rate, intensive practice might be the right answer. For Chinese, I could easily make my learning plan so intense that I rarely follow it.
  2. Building habits or breaking bad ones? Presumably, a lot of my writing improvement won’t come from new skills, but from breaking old habits of writing and replacing them with better ones. With Chinese, I’m still early enough that I mostly need to learn more words and phrases. (Side note: this suggests intensity might be the remedy for notorious problems of calcified errors in pronunciation when learning a language)
  3. How much motivation do you have? Intensive learning is a motivationally costly learning approach. It requires more energy, effort and focus. Since writing is my livelihood and Chinese is a side pursuit, I may not be able to focus enough for an intense strategy with Chinese the way I could easily justify with writing.
  4. Frustration barriers and skill plateaus? Perhaps intensive and extensive practice are just different tools for tackling different types of learning obstacles. For frustration barriers—where you are frustrated and don’t want to learn at all—extensive practice can glide you through that initial period. For skill plateaus—where you get locked into “good enough”—intensive practice can break you out of the rhythm.
  5. How much do you enjoy the skill? Another way of looking at it is that intensive practice is like rocket engines and extensive practice is gliding. You want to put a lot of thrust out when the activity has a lot of friction—i.e. you don’t enjoy doing it enough. When things get smoother, you switch to gliding since it can take you further on a fraction of the effort.

Of course, none of these excludes the possibility that my intuition is simply wrong. Maybe extensive works better for both writing and Chinese, or intensive is better for both, or even that extensive is better for writing and intensive is better for my Chinese.

What are you trying to learn? Is your learning mostly intensive or extensive? Why have you adopted that strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Read This Next
Why You Hate Work
  • Right now I’m trying to learn how to get into better habits. I’ve been using the intensive approach, but I’m wondering if extensive would work better. I’ve gone with intensive mainly because I’ve always been a big reader and fan of classes, but maybe doing something like hiring a personal trainer (which I see as extensive) would help better than just reading about working out!

  • Justin Stowe

    Right now I’m trying to learn how to get into better habits. I’ve been using the intensive approach, but I’m wondering if extensive would work better. I’ve gone with intensive mainly because I’ve always been a big reader and fan of classes, but maybe doing something like hiring a personal trainer (which I see as extensive) would help better than just reading about working out!

  • Jason Gallagher

    Hey Scott. I noticed that there is a different component to both of the skills that you didn’t mention: input. For writing, you mentioned that your writing didn’t reach the prose of the New Yorker. Of course you’ve read it at some point, but do you read it regularly? Do you seek out other examples of writing that match the caliber you seek to produce? Similar with Chinese. Besides the opportunity to practice constantly, you are also listening constantly when you are in China. Thousands of examples of colloquial Chinese are mulling around in your subconscious to help mold the words that you choose when you speak. And I don’t think this idea quite fits under intensive, because I don’t believe it’s necessary to scrutinize these countless inputs, though doing it occasionally is probably a good idea. Nor would I consider it extensive since you’re not producing these examples yourself. Maybe I think of this more because I am a professional pianist/teacher. As I listen to other artists play, each artists confirms or challenges my ideas of what “good taste” may be. One interpretation may strike me as beautiful while another strikes me as affected. And I don’t sit down at the piano and think, “Oh, Horowitz does this here, and Rubinstein does that there,” but I do think these listening experiences shape my own output.

    What’s interesting about the examples you chose is that there is some sort of listening aspect. Listening is an experience, often of the final project. Language, even written language, is so rooted in sound. (As an aside, I’d argue that if you want to write beautiful prose as seen in The New Yorker, speed reading should be out of the question). In what ways do we learn by example, and does example always need to be dissected to provide a learning experience? In teaching, sometimes it is appropriate simply to demonstrate. Actions and example can cut to the heart of a problem better than words. Yet we also hope our students will play with understanding and be able to learn without our help during the week. So we explain and sequence and write directions (that almost never get read). But I can tell you every pedagogy teacher has emphasized the importance of teaching by example, such that there should be some form of demonstration in every lesson. So, on the converse, perhaps as learners it is important to seek out and experience as many exemplary examples of what we wish to learn as possible. We hope that by osmosis (and dissection, where possible) we might come to produce outputs that more closely match these inputs.

  • Jason Gallagher

    Hey Scott. I noticed that there is a different component to both of the skills that you didn’t mention: input. For writing, you mentioned that your writing didn’t reach the prose of the New Yorker. Of course you’ve read it at some point, but do you read it regularly? Do you seek out other examples of writing that match the caliber you seek to produce? Similar with Chinese. Besides the opportunity to practice constantly, you are also listening constantly when you are in China. Thousands of examples of colloquial Chinese are mulling around in your subconscious to help mold the words that you choose when you speak. And I don’t think this idea quite fits under intensive, because I don’t believe it’s necessary to scrutinize these countless inputs, though doing it occasionally is probably a good idea. Nor would I consider it extensive since you’re not producing these examples yourself. (Edit: I read again, and you do consider this possibility regarding Chinese, but I get the impression that you emphasize the speaking element over the listening). Maybe I think of this more because I am a professional pianist/teacher. As I listen to other artists play, each artists confirms or challenges my ideas of what “good taste” may be. One interpretation may strike me as beautiful while another strikes me as affected. And I don’t sit down at the piano and think, “Oh, Horowitz does this here, and Rubinstein does that there,” but I do think these listening experiences shape my own output.

    What’s interesting about the examples you chose is that there is some sort of listening aspect. Listening is an experience, often of the final project. Language, even written language, is so rooted in sound. (As an aside, I’d argue that if you want to write beautiful prose as seen in The New Yorker, speed reading should be out of the question). In what ways do we learn by example, and does example always need to be dissected to provide a learning experience? In teaching, sometimes it is appropriate simply to demonstrate. Actions and example can cut to the heart of a problem better than words. Yet we also hope our students will play with understanding and be able to learn without our help during the week. So we explain and sequence and write directions (that almost never get read). But I can tell you every pedagogy teacher has emphasized the importance of teaching by example, such that there should be some form of demonstration in every lesson. So, on the converse, perhaps as learners it is important to seek out and experience as many exemplary examples of what we wish to learn as possible. We hope that by osmosis (and dissection, where possible) we might come to produce outputs that more closely match these inputs.

  • Scott Young

    My writing goals are to aspire to meet the standards of my reading list.

  • Scott Young

    Habits should almost be extensive by definition. Intensive is almost an anti-habitual approach, choosing a threshold of activity way higher than you can easily make automatic.

  • Scott Young

    My writing goals are to aspire to meet the standards of my reading list.

  • Scott Young

    Habits should almost be extensive by definition. Intensive is almost an anti-habitual approach, choosing a threshold of activity way higher than you can easily make automatic.

  • Joe

    Hi Scott — Great article! Actually I don’t come here for New Yorker style writing or thinking. I come here for useful information, usable information, expressed clearly and concisely. And that is what you regularly provide. That said, one other aspect of writing that’s common also to spoken language is the analysis/feedback part. Any improvements to my regular writing have come from having the self-discipline to read my own work analytically. I also have one writer friend who gives me probably the best advice I could get anywhere. She knows she can’t hurt my feelings unless it gets ad hominem, so it never goes there.
    With spoken language you get your words reflected back from your listener, in their verbal responses and in their facial expressions. In writing, you have to do a lot of that work yourself, or with the help of someone who knows you well enough to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve been in writing groups, and it took a long, long time before any of us knew each other that well.
    So: write, re-read, and re-write and repeat. As you know, being able to identify for yourself what isn’t working is probably the greatest possible skill for attaining fluency in any activity. As a musician, I’ve found that playing to a tape recorder is fine, but being able to listen critically to my own performance cuts my practice time more than hours of repetition ever could.
    Keep up the fine articles — I like your style!

  • Joe

    Hi Scott — Great article! Actually I don’t come here for New Yorker style writing or thinking. I come here for useful information, usable information, expressed clearly and concisely. And that is what you regularly provide. That said, one other aspect of writing that’s common also to spoken language is the analysis/feedback part. Any improvements to my regular writing have come from having the self-discipline to read my own work analytically. I also have one writer friend who gives me probably the best advice I could get anywhere. She knows she can’t hurt my feelings unless it gets ad hominem, so it never goes there.
    With spoken language you get your words reflected back from your listener, in their verbal responses and in their facial expressions. In writing, you have to do a lot of that work yourself, or with the help of someone who knows you well enough to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve been in writing groups, and it took a long, long time before any of us knew each other that well.
    So: write, re-read, and re-write and repeat. As you know, being able to identify for yourself what isn’t working is probably the greatest possible skill for attaining fluency in any activity. As a musician, I’ve found that playing to a tape recorder is fine, but being able to listen critically to my own performance cuts my practice time more than hours of repetition ever could.
    Keep up the fine articles — I like your style!

  • bobango

    This is an excellent article, Scott. It reminds me of an earlier one you wrote on the distinction between exponential and logarithmic learning curves. Based on my own past experience, it may require both extensive and intensive learning to achieve a level of mastery. There are two superficially very different things I do that require a lot of practice to become competent–one is a highly technical martial art (aikido) and the other is a card game (bridge). I have made the most progress in both when I engaged intensively, often and either practiced or competed with or against people more talented than I was. However, intensity takes both a physical and emotional toll. It can also lead to periods of what I call neural fading or neural exhaustion. Do something long and hard enough and your motivation to do it again tomorrow will decline rapidly. So, as a result, I have developed a pattern of engaging these activities in both ways. i schedule periodic intense events, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a weekend. But I also practice these skills somewhat casually in between the intense engagements. I have found that the more relaxed environment brings out opportunities for me to display mastery or competency at tasks that previously required intense focus and ongoing trial-and-error. That’s my perspective.

  • bobango

    This is an excellent article, Scott. It reminds me of an earlier one you wrote on the distinction between exponential and logarithmic learning curves. Based on my own past experience, it may require both extensive and intensive learning to achieve a level of mastery. There are two superficially very different things I do that require a lot of practice to become competent–one is a highly technical martial art (aikido) and the other is a card game (bridge). I have made the most progress in both when I engaged intensively, often and either practiced or competed with or against people more talented than I was. However, intensity takes both a physical and emotional toll. It can also lead to periods of what I call neural fading or neural exhaustion. Do something long and hard enough and your motivation to do it again tomorrow will decline rapidly. So, as a result, I have developed a pattern of engaging these activities in both ways. i schedule periodic intense events, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a weekend. But I also practice these skills somewhat casually in between the intense engagements. I have found that the more relaxed environment brings out opportunities for me to display mastery or competency at tasks that previously required intense focus and ongoing trial-and-error. That’s my perspective.

  • Le Uyen

    Your article conceptualizes the experiences I’ve had for a while now in the learning process. When I needed a breakthrough, an advance from the state of being only so-so, I found it most effective to set aside a month or two and attacked relentlessly the problem I deemed having the largest marginal impact. Getting better in writing belongs to this category. Obviously, this practice is emotionally taxing, not to mention the excessive use of mental power. It is almost certain to guarantee a collapse after that big burst of energy. But truly, it is fun and satisfying. On the other hand, there are tasks needs not brutal force, but automation or the Flow. In this case, I found repetitive practices did a great job. It creates and imprints the patterns on your mind. Speak fluently is the perfect example. If you can not weave words together effortlessly, then no amount of grammar can help. In short, to make sustainable growth, we needs both types of practice, in the right amount and the right time.

  • Le Uyen

    Your article conceptualizes the experiences I’ve had for a while now in the learning process. When I needed a breakthrough, an advance from the state of being only so-so, I found it most effective to set aside a month or two and attacked relentlessly the problem I deemed having the largest marginal impact. Getting better in writing belongs to this category. Obviously, this practice is emotionally taxing, not to mention the excessive use of mental power. It is almost certain to guarantee a collapse after that big burst of energy. But truly, it is fun and satisfying. On the other hand, there are tasks needs not brutal force, but automation or the Flow. In this case, I found repetitive practices did a great job. It creates and imprints the patterns on your mind. Speak fluently is the perfect example. If you can not weave words together effortlessly, then no amount of grammar can help. In short, to make sustainable growth, we needs both types of practice, in the right amount and the right time.

  • Visserman

    In my experience acquiring new skills follows the pattern of learn => consolidate => learn => consolidate (ie intensive => extensive). The question is not which type of learning is appropriate for a particular skill, but rather when you should switch between modes.

    Typically you would spend most of your time consolidating and when you get stuck at a point where either you are making no new progress or repeatedly make the same mistakes, it’s usually time to switch to a (short) intensive learning period.

  • Visserman

    In my experience acquiring new skills follows the pattern of learn => consolidate => learn => consolidate (ie intensive => extensive). The question is not which type of learning is appropriate for a particular skill, but rather when you should switch between modes.

    Typically you would spend most of your time consolidating and when you get stuck at a point where either you are making no new progress or repeatedly make the same mistakes, it’s usually time to switch to a (short) intensive learning period.

  • Scott Young

    I have that same intuition as well, but I’ve often had challenges where there was an extensive phase at the beginning as I dabbled followed by an intensive phase to make serious progress. So extensive -> intensive -> extensive. But you might be correct.

  • Scott Young

    I have that same intuition as well, but I’ve often had challenges where there was an extensive phase at the beginning as I dabbled followed by an intensive phase to make serious progress. So extensive -> intensive -> extensive. But you might be correct.

  • Scott Young

    It’s interesting to see so many people converging on a similar approach (intensive bursts mixed with extensive habits)

  • Scott Young

    It’s interesting to see so many people converging on a similar approach (intensive bursts mixed with extensive habits)

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think my goal is to emulate the New Yorker style. But I think there’s always aspects of writing that can be improved. That’s one of the challenges of improving creative tasks–separating style from skill–trying to understand what’s worth improving and what’s worth maintaining as you go on.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think my goal is to emulate the New Yorker style. But I think there’s always aspects of writing that can be improved. That’s one of the challenges of improving creative tasks–separating style from skill–trying to understand what’s worth improving and what’s worth maintaining as you go on.

  • bobango

    It may be that this convergence is an evolved adaptation to the demands of every day life for ancestral humans. In any case, I doubt that it is coincidental.

  • bobango

    It may be that this convergence is an evolved adaptation to the demands of every day life for ancestral humans. In any case, I doubt that it is coincidental.

  • Sebastian Seed

    This was an interesting read, it made me think quite a bit.

    In my opinion extensive practice is about building new cues to information I already know e.g. reinforcing vocab in a foreign language – each new exposure to a word strengthens my understanding and cues for that word. After seeing it in many different contexts it becomes easier to recognise and use it a new situation. This is important as if we don’t build enough cues to get to the information it is useless as we can’t use the information when we need it.

    I think this is why extensive practice is important in learning a language – languages require quick responses in a wide variety of contexts to use fluently. To get this we need both extensive knowledge and cues to reach those facts quickly. It’s also why more intensive practice like going through a dictionary and creating flashcards for the first 500 most common words that you don’t know (directly targetting your weakness with practice that gives feedback) would not work all that well in isolation – it gives you the raw facts but not the right cues to use them.
    Another example of this would be doing lots of grammar drills but never reading/writing in a real life scenario trying to communicate something.

    Intensive practice on the other hand is for problems where I don’t have an understanding of an idea e.g. a new word , a concept etc. Typically it is very focused – you will have one or a few cues and your focus is on strengthening the idea they link to. Continuing the language example this might be learning how to conjugate a verb to the future tense. I would study that and then go get some extensive practice to create the cues I need to use this idea in different contexts.

    There might be several cycles of intensive – extensive with one idea because often extensive can reveal gaps in my understanding. I think the point where extensive learning stops giving progress is when you have plenty of cues for your ideas and need new material to work with or you found gaps in your understanding and need to refine your idea. Both require looping back to intensive learning for awhile.

    I think this is why Scott thinks he would benefit from some intensive practice for his writing – he has practiced enough to reach the cue saturation point. Chinese on the other hand I am guessing still exposes him to new words and ideas in extensive practice and allows him to link those new words to the context he hears/reads it quickly and easily. If he read something way above his level then new words would be almost impossible to learn in a practical way as he would have no cues to tie them to (too many unknown words – you can’t link your new word to any cue/context if you don’t understand the context 🙂 ).

    Basically I agree with most of the posts about mixing intensive burst -> extensive consolidation. I am just curious as to the ‘why’ behind it.

    If anyone made it this far – thanks for reading my somewhat long response 😀

  • Sebastian Seed

    This was an interesting read, it made me think quite a bit.

    In my opinion extensive practice is about building new cues to information I already know e.g. reinforcing vocab in a foreign language – each new exposure to a word strengthens my understanding and cues for that word. After seeing it in many different contexts it becomes easier to recognise and use it a new situation. This is important as if we don’t build enough cues to get to the information it is useless as we can’t use the information when we need it.

    I think this is why extensive practice is important in learning a language – languages require quick responses in a wide variety of contexts to use fluently. To get this we need both extensive knowledge and cues to reach those facts quickly. It’s also why more intensive practice like going through a dictionary and creating flashcards for the first 500 most common words that you don’t know (directly targetting your weakness with practice that gives feedback) would not work all that well in isolation – it gives you the raw facts but not the right cues to use them.
    Another example of this would be doing lots of grammar drills but never reading/writing in a real life scenario trying to communicate something.

    Intensive practice on the other hand is for problems where I don’t have an understanding of an idea e.g. a new word , a concept etc. Typically it is very focused – you will have one or a few cues and your focus is on strengthening the idea they link to. Continuing the language example this might be learning how to conjugate a verb to the future tense. I would study that and then go get some extensive practice to create the cues I need to use this idea in different contexts.

    There might be several cycles of intensive – extensive with one idea because often extensive can reveal gaps in my understanding. I think the point where extensive learning stops giving progress is when you have plenty of cues for your ideas and need new material to work with or you found gaps in your understanding and need to refine your idea. Both require looping back to intensive learning for awhile.

    I think this is why Scott thinks he would benefit from some intensive practice for his writing – he has practiced enough to reach the cue saturation point. Chinese on the other hand I am guessing still exposes him to new words and ideas in extensive practice and allows him to link those new words to the context he hears/reads it quickly and easily. If he read something way above his level then new words would be almost impossible to learn in a practical way as he would have no cues to tie them to (too many unknown words – you can’t link your new word to any cue/context if you don’t understand the context 🙂 ).

    Basically I agree with most of the posts about mixing intensive burst -> extensive consolidation. I am just curious as to the ‘why’ behind it.

    If anyone made it this far – thanks for reading my somewhat long response 😀

  • Igor Gimenes Cesca

    Excellent explanation!

AS SEEN IN