How to Increase Your Stamina to Learn

We can now take classes anywhere, at any time. So why do we so often give up on learning?

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A lot has been said lately about the phenomenon of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. But here’s one fact you may not have heard in all the hype: less than 10% of people who sign up for a MOOC actually complete it. That’s right: less than 10%.

(MORE: Why the Online-Education Craze Will Leave Many Students Behind)

This extraordinarily high attrition rate is a source of concern in the education world. A recent survey of chief academic officers at colleges around the country, for example, reported that the majority of them believe that “lower retention rates for online courses remain a barrier to the growth of online instruction.” Others point out that plenty of people drop out of traditional, in-person courses of instruction as well. This latter point only emphasizes the scope of the issue, however, which we can frame in this way: Why do we (and our children, and our students, and our employees) so often give up on learning?

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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) has 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 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.

(MORE: Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques)

Bring People With You
Why do you think most college students go to class? To see their friends. 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.

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 endeavors 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.

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 behavior.” 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 Sunstein call the context in which we make decisions. Make sure that the structures you build support learning — in the short term, and over the long haul.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.