Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Learning is Hard No Matter How Hard You Try to Make it Easy

Let’s All Admit It: Learning is Just Plain Hard

As a learning professional, I am trained to believe that using proper instructional systems design processes and the appropriate mix of learning modalities, I can help make the learning process easier for my audience. And it’s not just me. Plenty of research has demonstrated that well-designed instruction improves learning outcomes.

As a learner, I know that learning is just plain hard. When I was in the finance business, I passed the Series 7, 63, 4, 24, and CFA Level 1 examinations. These are not easy exams, and I look back on the effort I spent learning the material and wonder how I did it.

It’s Not That Easy

So when I read Kate Ray’s piece on TechCrunch titled, Don’t Believe Anyone Who Tells You Learning to Code is Easy, I could immediately relate, even though I do not write code for a living.

Whereas learning to code is particularly difficult, I am not sure learning to be a registered options principle, a doctor, or even a decent manager, is any less difficult. After all, anything worth learning well is difficult.

My point is this: No matter how good the method, trainer, or content is, learning is a task that requires deliberate effort and can be extremely frustrating, no matter what you are learning.

Learning How to Learn

Learning professionals should perhaps focus not on making learning easier with proper pedagogy and ingenious instructional design, but help people understand that it will be hard, ensuring them that it is OK for it to be hard.

When I taught classes on the FINRA Series 7 exam, my students had to take between 10 and 20 practice exams of 125 questions each at a level of difficulty similar to the real exam. Before the first practice test, I had a serious conversation with my students, “You will do poorly on this practice exam. You will fail. You will feel like you don’t know anything. There will be moments in the exam when you will miss 15 questions in a row. You will want to give up. You will want to change careers. You will curse me for making you take this exam. I am preparing you now, so you can say to yourself, ‘Who cares? I am not supposed to know everything yet anyway.’ So relax. After we take this practice exam, we will review the ones we missed and learn from it.”

Most of my students scored in the 50-65% range on that first practice exam (passing score is 70%). Most appreciated being told is was ok to accept how difficult it would be. Over an 18 month period…consistently…78% of people who took my classes passed the real exam. At the time, the national average pass rate was about 65%.

Learning is just plain hard. Learning designers should stop trying to make learning easy, and start helping learners embrace the hard.

What is the hardest thing you ever had to learn? How frustrating was it? How did you get past the frustration?

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