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.

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