During a tutoring session last week, I was working with one of my students and could tell that while she could solve most of her homework problems, she still didn't feel confident with the subject. I encouraged her to take some time to dissect the concepts and try to wrap her mind around them until she went from "I can solve this problem" to "this makes sense." During this discussion, I shared with her my view of the learning process.

Preface: This post represents my view on learning based on personal observations. However, I do make an attempt to connect this viewpoint with scientific findings at the end of the post. Moreover, this model of the learning process is based largely on gaining insights. It goes without saying that this is not an entirely holistic view of the learning process.

The learning process

You see, learning is often viewed as a linear activity. The more time you put in, the more progress you make. Spend twice as long studying and you'll know it twice as well!

However, this is not how I've observed learning (specifically, understanding concepts) to take place. In reality, learning is much more accurately represented by a logistic function.

That first section? That's when you struggle. That's the frustrating part because no matter how much time you put in, it doesn't seem to pay off. Then, after struggling with understanding a concept for a period of time, you have this "a ha" moment where you look at the concept in just the right light that you can glean some intuition that puts all the pieces together and all of the sudden it makes sense - you've mastered the concept.

Unfortunately, most of us (including myself) at times view learning as a linear process (as depicted by the green line). And that can be frustrating when you're in the struggle phase, looking forward linearly.

Sadly, it's easy to give in to these frustrations.

But wait a minute, when you look at the big picture that's the worst possible point to walk away! You're so close to making a great deal of progress! That eureka moment would come with just a little more struggling. I can't tell you how frustrating it is from the viewpoint of a teacher to see someone give up at that point. To say, "oh, well I guess I'm just not an (insert subject of study) person."

Alas, struggling is perceived to be a negative thing. We celebrate people in school who progress effortlessly, not realizing that the "struggling" phase is where almost all of the learning takes place. Hell, I've taken classes that were so easy I've walked away not remembering a single thing we talked about. And yet I still am able to remember the intuition behind a logarithmic function because I spent a good 4 days dissecting it (read: struggling) sophomore year of high school.

Moreover, the learning process isn't just one logistic curve- it's a series. After you've mastered one concept, you study it at a deeper level or continue to learn about related concepts.

Intrinsic motivation

In theory, the learning process is a fine-tuned machine where the "a ha" moment from your last concept motivates you to push through the struggle phase of the next concept you're trying to learn.

I urge you to place trust in the learning process, understand that it is perfectly okay to struggle, and even though it doesn't feel like you're making progress, the struggling is beneficial. When you're struggling, whether it's a concept from something you learned about in school or it's learning how to sail a boat, you're taking in a ton of information. Your brain is being inundated with data but it's not always capable of processing this data in real time. This is often why taking a break can be so beneficial. I remember when I was practicing drums in high school and I'd be struggling over a specific pattern for an hour and not be able to play it - but after a short break and five minutes of practice I could play it no problem.

I hope my mental model of the learning process can provide you with the courage to push through times of struggle, and encourages you to fine-tune your own learning process so that the motivation from your "a ha" moments push you through the following period of struggle.

Next time you're struggling, just remind yourself it's part of the process. It's something I frequently remind myself.

Yeah, but where's the science to back this up?

After sharing this post on Facebook, a good friend of mine challenged me to back up this viewpoint with science. I dug up a really interesting paper, The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight, to compare their findings with my observations.

The study compares problem-solving brain activity between an analytical-based approach and an insight-based approach towards developing a solution. The model for learning I presented in this post would be considered an insight-based approach.

So what's going on in your brain during an "a ha!" moment? In short, your brainwaves are in an alpha-state followed by a quick burst of gamma.

"EEG showed that insight solutions were associated with a burst of high-frequency (i.e., 40-Hertz gamma-band) activity starting about 300 milliseconds before the button-press signaling that a solution was derived... Immediately prior to the burst of gamma-band EEG activity was a burst of slower, alpha-band (approximately 10 Hertz), activity measured over right occipital cortex."

Alright, so we can quantify when this "a ha!" moment occurs, but what leads up to this moment? The paper then goes on to talk about "a prepared mind" for an "a ha!" moment.

"One prominent view of creativity is that it is based on the processing of remote or loose associations between ideas (Mednick, 1962). Recent research implicates the brain's right hemisphere in the processing of remote associates and the left hemisphere in the processing of close or tight associations (for a review, Jung-Beeman, 2005). We therefore predicted greater activity in right-hemisphere regions associated with lexical and semantic processing. Second, based on previous findings suggesting that individuals high in creativity habitually deploy their attention in a diffuse rather than a focused manner (Ansburg & Hill, 2003), we predicted greater diffuse activation of the visual system in high-insight participants (corresponding to less posterior alpha-band and beta-band EEG activity). Both of these predictions were supported by the data, demonstrating that task-related problem-solving strategies have their origins in individual differences in resting-state brain activity."

The struggle phase is where diffuse activation and processing of remote or loose associations take place.


Since writing this post I've come across the following video related to this post, it's wonderful!