in Miscellaneous

Why is learning still hard and what can we do about it?

How many people truly understand general relativity? Or quantum field theory? Or any other challenging subject?

If you spend enough time in academia you slowly but steadily realize that the number is tiny. Even most students and professors of physics don’t understand the best fundamental theories of nature that we have.

And what about the billions of people who never studied physics at a university? There might be a few autodidacts here and there but the number remains tiny.

This is puzzling if you think about it. Many people have a deep interest in understanding fundamental ideas that explain how the world works. Yet hardly anyone reaches an understanding beyond a superficial level. Many would love to contribute to our communal quest to decipher the source code of the universe. Yet an incredibly large talent pool is locked out from participating.

The only possible explanation is that it’s still incredibly hard to learn challenging subjects.

But why? And how can we improve the situation?

Let’s start by talking about three observations that answer the first questions.

1.) To some extent, learning has to be challenging. However, this idea has been fetishized.

To quote Sönke Ahrens:

“Learning requires effort, because we have to think to understand and we need to actively retrieve old knowledge to convince our brains to connect it with new ideas as cues.”

Unfortunately, lots of teachers (especially at the university level) take this whole idea to a level that I can only as absurd. They leave out crucial details and tell the students they should figure it out themselves knowing fully well that this is too difficult of a problem and the students don’t have time for it. They select homework problems solely under the aspect that they’re sufficiently difficult irrespective of how much students can learn from them. They don’t follow any grand plan that cumulates in a series of “aha”-moments. They don’t even try to design the lectures in a way that makes them enjoyable. The mantra seems to be “the more I confuse the students the better”.

Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it isn’t. There are many facets of this problem:

  • If you confuse the students they are less likely to ask questions. Each questions potentially challenges your status and hence it’s a good strategy to avoid them.
  • Most university professors are too busy with other obligations to have sufficient time to prepare for their lectures.
  • Professors don’t get selected for their teaching skills. Metrics like the number of citations are far more important.

These observations lead us directly to the next point.

2. Current educational institutions are mostly about signalling.

Institutions focus on metrics (grades, citations) that primarily select people who are conscientious and conformist and tells us little about understanding. (If you doubt this, just try take a slightly non-standard position in an oral exam.)

Or as Sanjoy Mahajan puts it:

“Traditionally taught science and mathematics teach little except obedience.”

This point has been elaborated on by many much more gifted writers, so I’ll just refer you to them in case this is a new idea for you. Good starting points are:

One often overlooked aspect I want to emphasize is that this also affects textbooks. Most textbooks are not written to help the reader understand. Instead, they’re written to signal how smart the author is. That’s why most textbooks are impossible to understand. And to make matters worse, these textbooks get recommended over and over again because if you recommend a book that’s difficult to understand, you signal how smart you are.

The problems of the traditional learning institutions lead us to the next observation.

3. There hasn’t been a revolution in learning despite the internet

Despite all the possibilities offered by the internet, no one has yet come up with a framework that actually puts them to use to make it dramatically easier to learn challenging subjects.

Yes, there are a few nice lectures freely available online. But this was never the bottlenecks and thus hasn’t improved the situation in any significant way. Excellent textbooks have been available since ages and are superior to lectures anyway.

A book allows you to go jump around and move through the information on your own pace. This is extremely cumbersome in video lectures. And if anything, online lectures are worse than real world lectures (which are already an awful medium) since it’s much easier to get distracted. Funny cat videos are always just one click away. (And no, there aren’t different learning types.)

Moreover, the flexibility to start the course whenever you want and to pick from lots of different lectures usually leads to analysis paralysis and hinders learning.

For quite a while I thought that there is nothing we can do about it. I was convinced that there are some intrinsic flaws (e.g. proximity to cat videos) that makes online learning ineffective.

But this isn’t true. It’s just that all current online learning frameworks are missing one or several essential puzzle pieces. Online learning has not to be synonymous with recording a bunch of videos and putting them in a MOOC.

Essential Aspects of Effective Learning Environments

To understand which puzzle pieces are potentially essential to create an environment that makes it possible to understand even the most challenging topics, it makes sense to analyze what universities are doing. While universities are far from optimal learning environments, this analysis will allow us to understand what is missing in current online learning frameworks. Once we’ve identified these puzzle pieces we can discuss how they can be realized and improved upon in an online setup.

So, let’s ask ourselves: What does a university provide to help students learn challenging subjects? There are at least the following eight puzzle pieces:

  • Community
  • Support
  • Guidance
  • Accountability
  • Credentials
  • Feedback
  • Content

With this list in mind, it becomes clear why most online learning experiments have failed so spectacularly. Many of them primarily focussed on providing content online, which is really just one tiny aspect and certainly not the bottleneck.

MOOCs typically don’t foster any sense of community, offer only limited support, feedback, guidance, or accountability (if any), and only provide credentials that are hardly worth anything. If we then add to this that the content is usually just a recording of mediocre lectures, the package doesn’t look enticing.

Of course, as discussed above, universities are hardly any better in most aspects. And some MOOCs are excellent at mimicking the university experience online. But the difference is that universities get away with their far from optimal package since they provide sufficient accountability and incentives (credentials) to make students endure the whole thing.

Universities are simply not the gold standard of learning experiences that they are often thought to be. Moreover, if you try to mimic something there are necessarily some losses along the way. Just to name two examples:

  • A video recording of a lecture is never as good as a live lecture since you can’t see everything at once.
  • Online certificates simply don’t have the same standing as established offline certificates.

So while the university package might be just good enough, due to these losses the online equivalent no longer crosses the threshold.

To illustrate this point, let’s rate how good universities are at providing the essential puzzle pieces listed above. I would say:

  • Community: 7/10
  • Support: 3/10
  • Guidance: 3/10
  • Accountability: 10/10
  • Credentials: 10/10
  • Feedback: 5/10
  • Content: 4/10

In total, we have 42 out of 70 possible points. (Feel free to put in your own ratings.)

Now what happens if we mimic the same thing in an online environment? In my experience, a typical result can be rated as follows:

  • Community: 2/10
  • Support: 3/10
  • Guidance: 2/10
  • Accountability: 1/10
  • Credentials: 2/10
  • Feedback: 2/10
  • Content: 3/10

Certain aspects are mimicked quite okay while others are almost completely lost. I might be a bit negative here but in my book we end up with 15 out of 70 possible points. Even if you’re a bit more generous, the result is certainly below the threshold (say 40 points) that separates effective and ineffective learning experiences.

With these observations in mind, we can finally think about how we can design more effective learning environments.

Revolutionizing Learning and Teaching

An exhaustive discussion of how each puzzle piece can be improved and implemented in an online setup requires several additional articles. The following list merely offers a few starting points.

  • Community. In theory, this should be the easiest part to improve in an online setup. The internet is a tool that connects people and hence should make it easier for communities to form. Unfortunately, this rarely happens when it comes to online learning. Most online communities are too open, too heavily moderated, too anonymous, and focus solely on text messages. Most people don’t feel comfortable shouting stuff from the rooftops for the whole world to hear. Moreover, it’s quite hard to make friends solely by exchanging topic-specific text messages. As a result, no real sense of community emerges. The rise of smaller private communities supplemented by virtual conferences, virtual book clubs and virtual co-studying places have the potential to improve the situation dramatically.
  • Network. Similar comments as for community building apply. An additional aspect is that it’s possible to network online simply by putting yourself out there. Most people remain invisible. Hence, if you’re interested in some topic and regularly publish things related to it, opportunities will show up at your door step.
  • Support. The way universities offer support is far from optimal. Lecturers are annoyed by questions since they make it harder to get through all the material. Tutoring sessions mostly focus on homework platforms and there is rarely any time for discussions. In contrast, online platforms like StackExchange are great at providing answers to specific questions. However, so far, the platforms function solely on a voluntary basis and are quite impersonal. Respondents typically don’t know your full background and the context of your question, and it’s simply a matter of luck if someone qualified feels motivated to answer your questions. This certainly limits the quality of answers. In addition, most platforms suffer from overmoderation. A paid full-time staff of tutors and a more decentralized, personal approach would improve the situation.
  • Guidance. There are quite a few learning curricula and learning roadmaps available online for most topics. However, these one-size-fits all curricula are far from optimal for individuals. Moreover, they are hardly ever detailed enough to provide enough guidance for individual decisions. Personal mentoring could solve these problems but also automated solutions could work.
  • Credentials: Online credentials exist but are not a good solution. They’re just the same (already bad) thing slightly worse. One proposed solution are college equivalence degrees. Although they could represent an improvement, they, like their offline equivalents, would inevitably get corrupted by the cobra effect. So, instead of the mimicking something intrinsically flawed, the opportunity should be used to replace it with something better. Credentials signal conformity and conscientiousness but certainly not deep understanding, creativity and high agency. To improve the situation, we could replace exams by projects and hence credentials by portfolios.
  • Feedback. Some MOOCs allow students to get feedback on their solutions of homework problems. However, homework problems (offline like online) are often primarily designed to keep students busy and to filter out certain types of students. Solutions would be to create exercises that help the students deepen their understanding (e.g. by explaining what they’ve learned to others) and to get real-world feedback on their projects.
  • Accountability. This is something universities are good at and that current online learning frameworks are lacking. A solution is to offer paid courses for small cohorts with a fixed starting and end date and regular virtual meetings.
  • Content. Despite of all tech innovations, books are still the best medium if you want to understand something deeply. You can read a book far away from all distractions, move through it at your own pace and jump between chapters. But this doesn’t mean that all books are automatically great or that no improvement is possible. In fact, as mentioned above most textbooks are impossible to learn from. And there are many ways of how even good textbooks can be further improved. A great example is to include multi-level content. Moreover, ideally textbooks are supplemented by something more human to provide all the little social cues that get lost when we try to transfer information in text form.

The message to take away is that attempts to create new learning environments are doomed to fail if they ignore one or several of the essential puzzle pieces.

But, of course, it’s not enough to just throw ideas out there. In the past, I’ve primarily focussed on the “content problem” by writing reader-friendly textbooks and by building a multi-layer wiki since I didn’t understand the bigger picture. Currently, I’m working on something that tackles remaining puzzle pieces too. So if you find the ideas outlined above interesting and want to get involved, feel free to send me a message.

PS: It’s a fun exercise to rate different online learning products and platforms using the 8 criteria discussed above. I would love to hear who gets the highest rating in your book!

P.S. I wrote a textbook which is in some sense the book I wished had existed when I started my journey in physics. It's called "Physics from Symmetry" and you can buy it, for example, at Amazon. And I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to get updates about what I'm recently up to.

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