What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever learned to do?

Quick: what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever learned to do?


I’ll speculate that for many of you, the answer was something that you learned in college or in your career: perhaps fully solving advanced differential equations or articulating the complex nuances of deconstructionist literary analysis. For others, it may be something earlier that posed a severe challenge to you at an earlier level of education; many students struggle with logarithms, comma splices, or Newton’s laws of motions. From my experience as a tutor, I can say with confidence that many difficulties I see with advanced math can be traced back to lingering difficulties students encountered with fractions back in middle school.


All those topics are very challenging, but I would make the case that another pair of skills is far, far more difficult: walking and talking. When we think about the series of muscle movements that one must complete to walk on two feet, the physics are astounding. It’s not surprising that bipedalism is so uncommon (though not strictly human) in the animal kingdom. Similarly, the process of combining syllables into words, words into sentences, and sentences into messages is almost indescribably complex. We often experience this complexity first-hand when attempting to learn second languages as adults. Yet, we all naturally learn both these incredibly complex skills within the first handful of years on earth.


In my eyes, the fact that we can learn such difficult abilities from such a young age points to the existence of a natural desire to learn, a suggestion echoed by many philosophers, scientists, and educators over the years. Carl Sagan writes that “Every child starts out as a natural-born scientist.” Empirical evidence suggests the same (Gopnik 2012). The evolutionary case for an innate desire to learn nearly writes itself as one can imagine that the proclivity to gain new skills may directly increase one’s chance of survival in changing circumstances and environments.


This posited love of learning hits a harsh reality, however, when we listen to the average teenager’s commentary about school. Traditional schooling has developed a bad reputation among students as boring and irrelevant. The word ‘homework’ elicits a groan, and the notion of ‘tests’ and ‘exams’ can still cause nightmares in those who have long-since completed that stage of life. But we established previously that children are born with a love of learning; how can this coexist with the negative attitude many students harbor toward school, whose stated purpose is learning?


Carl Sagan explains this with the second half of the previous quote, ” Every child starts out as a natural-born scientist… and then we beat it out of them.” Some students “learn” through their early experience that they are “bad” students and adopt a self-image wherein they cannot succeed in traditional education. Others, lacking challenge, “learn” that education is itself “boring” given how little stimulation they are allowed to receive before being slowed down to the pace of the class. Many students succumb to the temptations of extrinsic motivation and begin pursuing learning for the sake of the grade or the achievement, thus adopting a performance orientation focused more on positive judgments and external accolades than internal success and mastery (Dweck & Leggett 1988). When we couple this with the finding that introducing extrinsic motivators reduces intrinsic motivation (e.g. Deci 1971; Kruglanski, Friedman, & Zeevi 1971; Lepper, Green, & Nisbett 1973), this development undermines exactly the type of innate love of learning that ought to instead be fostered. Still for other students, an idea emerges in their mind that the pinnacle of success is to achieve without effort, and thus they adopt a fixed mindset that encourages avoiding situations where their weaknesses might be revealed, even though these are precisely the situations where learning may occur (Dweck 2006). Perhaps for these reasons or perhaps for others, it seems that sometime between the acquisition of language and the onset of midterms, that natural love of learning disappears.


But does it really disappear? No! This love of learning never truly goes away. For some, it retreats to the background, awaiting a setting when it can emerge safely without the fear of judgment. For others, it finds other outlets, as video games or other hobbies supply the personal context in which learning can be pursued at one’s own pace and for one’s own purposes. Although we may be conditioned to dissociate the joy of learning from the contexts in which learning is supposed to occur, the love of learning itself does not dissipate. Learning is too ingrained within our species to simply disappear due to a handful of negative experiences. Instead, it lies dormant like a volcano, calmly awaiting an opportunity to erupt back to the surface and reintroduce the learner to its flow.


This, to me, is the ultimate challenge and the ultimate opportunity for massively open online courses. These courses represent the opportunity to reengage that innate desire to learn. By their open nature, MOOCs facilitate self-driven learning; material can be consumed at the individual’s pace, challenging students without overwhelming them and supporting students without boring them. The absence of tuition and human graders also diminishes the extrinsic motivation to participate in a MOOC; typically, rather than a grade, you instead leave the course simply with the skills you’ve mastered and the work you’ve produced. To participate and succeed in a MOOC, you simply must be self-driven; there is no financial loss to failure, there is no schedule forcing continued participation, and there is no easily-quantifiable résumé bullet point. The drive to learn must come from within, as it did decades ago when you and I first learned to walk and talk.


Creating an environment in which those with the desire for lifelong learning succeed, however, is just the beginning. Such environments have always existed. The internet has created boundless opportunities for knowledge, and those with the highest levels of personal drive can already set out to teach themselves anything they might want to know. The challenge of MOOCs that complements the opportunity is exactly this: how do we reengage that innate desire to learn? Given the opportunity to help lifelong learners keep learning, how do we motivate students to come back to lifelong learning in the first place?


This is an enormous challenge, but it is not insurmountable. We must find ways to preserve, or reinstall, students’ intrinsic motivation to learn while maintaining engagement at that flow-inducing point where challenge meets ability (Csikszentmihalyi 1991). We can begin to address this latter half in part through the self-pacing facilitated by open courses, but also by borrowing the lessons learned by the intelligent tutoring system community on providing automated, situated, individualized feedback. (e.g. Anderson, Corbett, Koedinger, & Pelletier 1995). As for the former element, the project-based learning community helps us not only address the need for intrinsic motivation, but also the need for demonstrable skills. The personal approach afforded by project-based learning allows students to connect their unique interests to the learning goals of the course. Through project-based learning, students’ intrinsic motivation can be preserved as mastery of the skill is externalized not into a grade or a certification, but into an ability to be performed in a meaningful, personal context. As an added bonus as well, the project that results from this approach becomes a portfolio piece, a demonstrable, external indicator of the abilities that the student has mastered.


But what does this mean for you? The need for lifelong learning is more evident now than ever as foundational skills, especially in the technology industries, reinvent themselves seemingly every year. In today’s careers, continuing to succeed is dependent on continuing to learn. Many times, these learning goals will not necessarily correspond to specific projects or problems, but rather to the need to stay current in the industry as a whole, and as such, the learning must motivate itself. The goal of learning must be to learn rather than to achieve. Toward this end, seek out those learning experiences that most closely resonate with what you what to learn right now. Let your intrinsic motivation guide you to the first step, and as you relearn or reawaken the joy of learning, you may find that each learning experience after becomes easier and more fulfilling to embrace.


Anderson, J. R., Corbett, A. T., Koedinger, K. R., & Pelletier, R. (1995). Cognitive tutors: Lessons learned. The journal of the learning sciences, 4(2), 167-207.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 41). New York: HarperPerennial.

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-155.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), 256.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House LLC.

Gopnik, A. (2012). Scientific thinking in young children: Theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implications. Science, 337(6102), 1623-1627.

Kruglanski, A. W., Friedman, I., & Zeevi, G. (1971). The effects of extrinsic incentive on some qualitative aspects of task performance1. Journal of Personality, 39(4), 606-617.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: a test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.