There is No Such Thing as Low-Effort Learning

by Justin Skycak on

No matter what skill is being trained, improving performance is always an effortful process.

Talent development takes work – not just a little work, but a lot of work. There is absolutely no confusion about this in the talent development community. Can you imagine asking an athletic coach to help you become a star player using training methods that don’t tire you out and make you sweat?

A common theme in the science of learning is that effective learning feels like a workout with a personal trainer. It should center around deliberate practice, a type of active learning in which individualized training activities are specially chosen to improve specific aspects of performance through repetition and successive refinement. These practice activities are done entirely for the purpose of pushing one’s limits and improving performance; consequently, they tend to be more effortful and less enjoyable.

Unfortunately, many types of training methods are ineffective, but require little effort, and can therefore seem attractive to even the most well-intentioned, hardworking students because they create an illusion of comprehension. Examples include looking at notes, rereading course materials, and highlighting.

To be clear, this is not to say that passively reading or re-reading material should be completely avoided. It is useful to familiarize oneself with instructional material before engaging in effortful practice, and it is also useful to revisit that material if one runs into issues while attempting to carry out the effortful practice. However, it is not until effortful practice that true learning actually occurs.

Familiarizing oneself with instructional material is similar to warming up before a workout: the warmup does not actually lead to improvements in strength or endurance, but it does help maximize performance and avoid injury during the workout. No matter what skill is being trained, improving performance is always an effortful process.