3 Ways To Trick Yourself Into Finishing What You Started

One fact I shared with readers on my blog this week got by far the most attention:

Less than 10 per cent of people who sign up for a MOOC, or “massive open online course,” complete it.

That’s right: less than 10 per cent. Coincidentally, this week also brought the release of a new survey of chief academic officers at colleges around the country. It reported that the majority of them believe that “lower retention rates for online courses remain a barrier to the growth of online instruction.”

Many readers were quick to point out that online courses are not unique in having high dropout rates. “Only a small percentage of people who have been heard to say ‘I should really go back to (conventional offline) school and get my degree’ actually do it,” commented reader Tim Converse. Tim is right about that, of course. But his point only emphasises the scope of the issue:

Why do we (and our children, and our students, and our employees) so often give up on learning?

Most of us have set out to learn something—a foreign language, a new sport, a skill that we need for work or one that we’d just like to have—only to fall well short of our goal. The rise of MOOCs (and of DIY sites, and how-to videos, and indeed all of the information-rich Internet) have shown that it’s technologically possible for us to learn anywhere, at any time. Now we’ve got to get to work on the psychological side of the equation.

But a brute application of willpower—”People should just buckle down and stick to it, by gum!”—isn’t the answer. We need to be clever in our cultivation of persistence, even “stealthy” (to borrow an apt term from a recent journal article on social-psychological interventions in education). We must outsmart our tendency to get too busy, too tired, too intent on catching the latest episode of Downton Abbey. Below, three ways to improve the odds that you’ll finish the learning you start.

Bring people with you. Why do you think most college students go to class? To see their friends. Or at least to avoid having a friend ask, “Why weren’t you in class today?” By contrast, much of the learning we do as adults—whether it’s with an online course or a how-to manual or a video tutorial—we do on our own, accountable to no one. This makes it all too easy to quit. Some online courses are beginning to incorporate social media into their design, but connections forged this way are likely to be weak, especially at first. Better to recruit people you already know, whose opinions you care about, to sign up for that course or commit to a series of lessons along with you.

Redesign your “choice architecture.” In their terrific book “Nudge,” authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein note that “small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behaviour.” Often it’s not an insurmountable obstacle preventing us from pursuing learning, but rather a few minor hurdles that we never get around to addressing. Now is the time to print out that application, to schedule that first session with a coach. Sometimes getting over the initial hump is all you need.

Or maybe you’re actually good at getting started, and it’s the middle and end stages where you bog down. As Thaler and Sunstein remark, “Never underestimate the power of inertia.” But, they add, “that power can be harnessed”—harnessed to achieve your learning goals. This means making learning the default, and not learning the more effortful or expensive option. Work with a  music teacher who charges you for the lesson whether you show up or not (if you’ve paid for it, you will). Schedule a meeting to demonstrate your new skill to your colleagues (it’s easier to learn it than to back out). “Choice architecture” is what Thaler and Sunsein call the context in which we make decisions. Make sure that the structures you build support learning.

Use data to motivate yourself. Maybe you’ve heard about the “Quantified Self” movement—the  oddly addictive practice of tracking every calorie consumed or burned, every minute spent online or asleep. This practice of using data to monitor and motivate yourself can be applied to learning endeavours, too. Often we get discouraged in our attempts to educate ourselves because we can’t see the progress we’re making. Keeping a record of your learning helps make that forward motion visible. It’s important to put numbers to your efforts—hours practiced, problems completed, pages read—and it can be helpful to represent those numbers visually, in a graph or chart.

Of course, this technique and the ones above can be used to help others persist in their learning, too: see this post from the Brilliant Blog for an account of how one teacher is using data to motivate her students.

Read more on The Brilliant Blog >

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