Learning is a lifelong process. Kids go to school to be exposed to new topics ranging from history to math to science. Adults need to pick up new knowledge to understand world events and to succeed at new tasks at work.
Sometimes, of course, the things we learn are fairly easy to pick up. Many people watching the political events unfold in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 may not have known much about the governments of countries like Tunisia and Egypt before protests brought down those governments. However, it was fairly straightforward to learn that these countries had leaders who had served for decades and that the people ultimately wanted more influence on the government.
Other information is harder to pick up. Following the devastating earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, the world followed the crisis at the nuclear plant. Understanding why the nuclear fuel was heating up and the various ways that the engineers and emergency workers were trying to deal with the damaged reactors required learning more complex aspects of reactor design and nuclear fuel. These concepts are unfamiliar to most of us, and so they feel hard to learn.
How does the difficulty of learning about something affect your beliefs about how much you can learn about it?
This question was explored by David Miele, Bridgid Finn, and Daniel Molden in a paper in the March, 2011 issue of Psychological Science.
They were interested in the role of people's beliefs about intelligence on learning. I have written a number of entries in this blog about the work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues on beliefs. This work suggests that people believe that aspects of psychology are either talents or skills. When you believe that intelligence is a talent, then you think that you have a particular degree of intelligence that determines how well you think. When you believe that intelligence is a skill, then you assume that anything can be mastered if you work hard enough to get it.
These beliefs can influence what happens when you encounter information that feels hard to learn. Someone who believes intelligence is a talent will feel that they have reached their limit when they encounter something hard, and that should make them feel like they can't learn it. Someone who believes that intelligence is a skill will feel that difficult information is a challenge they can overcome.
To test this possibility, Miele, Finn, and Molden had people learn to relate English words to Indonesian words with the same meaning. Some of those words feel quite obvious (Police-Polisi), while others seem totally arbitrary (Bandage-Pembalut). People studied the words for as long as they wanted and then made judgments of how well they learned the words. At the end of the study, people did a questionnaire to determine whether they think of intelligence as a talent or a skill.
In this study, the pairs that seemed easy were in fact much easier to learn than the ones that seemed hard. The people who believed that intelligence is a talent used that feeling of ease to decide how well they learned the new items. The people who believe that intelligence is a skill actually showed the opposite effect. They were actually overconfident that they would later remember the hard items.
On the surface, it might seem like a bad thing to think that you had done a better job of learning something than you actually did. However, the people who believed that intelligence is a talent believed that when they had to put in a lot of effort on learning, they learned poorly. Those who believed that intelligence is a skill believed that when they had put in a lot of effort on learning, they learned well.
This result is quite important. A mountain of evidence suggests that intelligence really is a skill. That is, the harder you work, the more you learn. So, when you encounter something difficult, it is better to treat that as a challenge than as a sign that you have reached your mental limits. It is also better to believe that studying hard will lead to good learning than to believe that studying hard leads to poor learning. By putting in extra effort on difficult concepts, you come away with more knowledge.
Ultimately, this aspect of learning feeds on itself. The more you learn at any given time, the easier it is to learn new things in the future. The effort you put in to learn is rewarded by making it easier for you to learn more things in the future.
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