Why Some People Suck at Learning (and How to Fix It)

Torsten, Math Teacher by Blondinrikard Fröberg

For some people learning new things is just harder than it is for other people. They struggle to pick up things that they see other excel at easily. They fail to acquire skills even though they feel like they’ve given their best. Put simply, they suck at learning.

As it turns out, the reason things are so much harder for them than others might be entirely in their head – and it’s something that can be fixed.

How Perceptions Affect Performance

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis and her team wanted to find out why some people struggle with exercise while others don’t seem to have any problems. They devised a study where participants had their hip to waist ratio measured – a basic metric for how fit or overweight they were – and then were asked to run a short distance. Before they ran it, participants had to judge approximately how far they thought it looked from the start line to the finish.

When the research team matched the participants’ waist to hip ratios with their estimates of the distance they had to run they found a statistically significant correlation between the two. In other words, the more out of shape a person was the farther they thought the distance they had to run looked. Their fitness level actively influenced their perception of their environment and the task ahead.

Dr. Balcetis’s research team also came to the conclusion in a second experiment that people who had committed themselves to a reasonable goal that they felt could be accomplished in a timely manner also perceived exercise in general as being easier – regardless of fitness level.

Put together, this means that people who perceive themselves as being unfit will also think of exercise as being more difficult than it actually is and that have goals that you perceive as being attainable can mitigate that added mental difficulty. Our perceptions of ourselves, our abilities, and our goals have a direct effect on how we experience the world.

So what does all this exercise stuff have to do with learning?

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Dr. Balcetis’s research shows that our perceptions of ourselves affect the difficulty or ease with which we undertake tasks. If we think of ourselves as being out of shape, then we will experience physical tasks as more difficult than if we thought of ourselves as being in shape.

The same is true of mental tasks like learning new things. If a person considers themselves to be a poor learner, or to be bad at a certain thing, then they’re likely to experience learning or practicing that thing as being more difficult than they otherwise would.

This ties strongly into something called the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.

People generally fall into one or the other category in regards to how they perceive themselves. Those with a Fixed Mindset have the attitude that there are things they excel at, and things that they are poor at, and those things are for all intents and purposes unchangeable – they’re a fixed quality.

Often you’ll see this in kids being raised with a particular parenting style. If you’ve ever heard a parent praise a kid for being naturally good at certain things (drawing, sports, music, math, whatever) but then when that kid struggles in another area they tell them something along the lines of, “Oh well X just isn’t your thing.”

If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I’m just not a math person,” or something along those lines as an adult that’s precisely what we’re talking about. One I hear a lot on account of my passion for language learning is “I just don’t have a head for language learning,” or one of its variants. In some cases (particularly it seems with math for whatever reason) some people even seem to be proud of their assertion that they’re just naturally and irrevocably ‘bad’ at this particular thing.

People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, approach things with the worldview that everything they do can be improved upon. They may feel they are naturally inclined toward one thing or another, but they don’t feel like there is any one thing that they can’t potentially learn to do well. Where someone with a Fixed Mindset gets a bad grade on a math test and thinks, “Eh, I’m just bad at math. Oh well.” the person with a Growth Mindset gets a bad grade and thinks, “I’m bad at math. I should work hard to get better.”

People stuck in a Fixed Mindset then wind up being terrible learners in a general sense for two reasons.

The first is that the attitude of ‘I’m just good at X’ and ‘I’m just bad at Y’ is at its core a defeatist view. If you feel like you can never improve and do poorly on something your first time, you’re probably going to give up on it. After all, if you ‘suck at language learning’ why would you invest hundreds to thousands of hours trying to learn a new language? From that viewpoint hard work is disincentivized. It then becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you suck at something you aren’t going to get better without putting hard work in.

The second issue is that, relating back to the original point we discussed above about things perceived as being difficult also being experienced as being more difficult regardless of other factors, if you think you’re bad at something and that trying to improve it will be extra grueling because of your inherent ineptitude it will actually wind up being more difficult for you. A person with a Fixed Mindset makes it so that even when they do try to work hard at something, they’re making that hard work even harder because of their attitude.

So how do you stop sucking so bad at learning?

The first step is taking a look at your attitudes on learning in the first place and making sure that they’re set up to put you in the best place for it. If you’ve always had a Fixed Mindset start working to change it. Now you’re probably not going to be able to just ‘decide’ one day to change your entire worldview in relation to how you view your ability or inability to learn new things. You can start out slowly though by picking something you’ve always thought you were just naturally ‘bad’ at and telling yourself that you can get good at it through some hard work – then actually do the work for a little while and prove to yourself that everyone can improve.

Do you have any thoughts on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets? Have you had any success transitioning from one to the other? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com