Episode 30: If It's Not Difficult, It's Not Doing Anything
LISTEN AND FOLLOW ON:
If your teen ever finds their study (especially exam revision) challenging, the good news is, they're likely 'doing it right'.
Because I often see students busy 'studying' but what they're doing is not the most effective thing they could (or should) be.
Being 'busy' does not necessarily create progress.
Increasing the amount of activity, does not necessarily increase results.
For your teen to get most return on effort, they need to be doing things that will make the biggest difference.
This means doing the right type of activities (active rather than passive) at the right level of challenge.
Therefore, if it doesn't feel difficult in some way, then the truth is, that it's probably not really doing much to advance them or their results.
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 30 - and today I’m going to give you some good news if your teen is finding their study challenging - AND how they need to make it more challenging if it isn’t - Whaaat?!
Hi VIP’s, how are you doing?
This week I want to share with you one of the statements I find myself making more and more often at the moment to students. And that is ‘if it feels hard, if it’s difficult, if it’s making your brain hurt, you’re doing it right.’
Or - the flip side: ‘if it’s easy, it’s not really doing anything.’
So, I want you to think about physical training and exercise.
Let’s say we’re working out at the gym and we’re just lifting the 2 kilo weights for an exercise where we could be doing 10 and maybe 15 would be a real challenge. The 2 kilo dumbells really aren’t going to do much. We could do 50 reps, but it’s not challenging our muscles. We’re not breaking down the muscle fibres so they can repair and be even stronger. We could still spend an hour at the gym, but if we’re doing exercises that are totally ineffective, we would get little to no results no matter how many days we go, for how many hours. But, we’d still have ‘done a workout’, been to the gym, lifted weights.
But, compared to lifting say the 15 kilo weights, if that’s a weight that feels challenging, a weight that we can lift but it’s a struggle, we have to put in effort to do it, we could even do less reps - which would mean we take less time, but we would get results. We would get stronger.
If we want to get better at endurance running for a marathon, but we keep doing 5 mile runs, that aren’t challenging us, we won’t get better at running a marathon distance. We need to increase our endurance and do training that will do that.
If we want to get to grade 8 piano, practising pieces from grade 5 won’t get us there.
It doesn’t matter how many pieces we play, or how many times over we play them, it won’t progress us. We need to do piano practise that helps us build the skill and dexterity that will enable us to play grade 8 pieces.
Just like your teen may have spent 2 hours studying, doing lots of practise questions, writing out notes, making revision cards, watching tutorials, whatever it may be.
But is what they’re doing, going to push them to the outcome, the goal that they are after?
It’s the case for all of us that doing uncomfortable things is uncomfortable.
Doing challenging things is challenging! And our brain - or at least the primal part of our brains, our lizard brain - is programmed to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy.
And so taking on something that challenges us mentally or physically goes against those 3 things. It often isn’t pleasurable, we are having to expend mental energy and time, and it’s painful! Emotionally painful because it might make us question our ability or confidence, it might make us feel stressed or panicked if it’s for an upcoming exam, it might make us feel incompetent or despairing or bring up doubt. Especially if we know that is what’s required to achieve the result or grade we want. If it’s what we think we ‘should’ be able to do.
And so this is where your teen needs to consciously and actively engage their higher brain - the pre-frontal cortex. The part that is capable of overriding that pleasure-seeking, energy-conserving instinct. The part that says, if we really do want that result, then here’s what actually needs to get done, EVEN if it’s not pleasurable or easy in the moment.
And to be clear, that may include just taking that time beforehand to consider what it is they are about to dive into and really think about intentionally choosing something that really is challenging them at the right level.
Are they about to pick up the 2 kilo dumbbells and do 8 of the easier questions or just copy up some notes, or are they going to intentionally choose the 10 kilo dumbbells and do just 2 of the harder level or extended response questions or put in the extra cognitive effort to transform those notes into a different format?
Because here’s where I see students getting tripped up with this.
They mistake the time spent as the challenge.
I’ll say that again. They mistake the time spent as the challenge.
They think that a lot of time working equals hard work. They mistakenly believe that they’ve put in effort because they’ve put in time or because ‘hey, look at all these pages of notes I have’ or all the quizzes that are ticked on their revision guide. And they understably feel that way because ‘hey, it wasn’t exactly fun’, they didn’t do those ten Maths questions for pleasure.
But, here’s the thing: Those actions or activities or tasks weren’t as MENTALLY challenging as they NEEDED to be to really produce the desired, or perhaps required outcomes.
Effort, when it comes to study and academic success is not the same as time.
It’s about the processing that had to go on in the brain.
In other words - Did it make their brain hurt a bit?
Not - Did their hand start to cramp up writing all those notes.
It’s got to be the right kind of pain.
The right kind of challenge.
Just spending time on something we don’t enjoy does not automatically mean it’s CHALLENGING us.
I could spend hours cleaning my house, my car, the oven. But has it advanced me mentally? No.
But of course, that’s obvious. The trouble with doing low cognition study activities is that they look like or feel like they should be producing some results, creating some positive outcomes.
But, doing 10 grade C level Maths questions, is not going to mean you can answer one B grade question. Now, you might, you might just figure it out, but you know what you really need to practise in order to nail B grade questions?
You need to practise B grade questions.
And I see this happening all the time.
Students revising for Maths and they choose to do 5 of the simpler revision questions when really, they would be better off spending their time doing just one or two of the challenging extension questions .
And they don’t do it out of laziness, it’s almost subconsciously.
And I’m no psychologist, so I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be that when this happens, it’s our subconscious primitive brain keeping us on the path that will keep us feeling accomplished, won’t make us feel out of our depth. Because the risk is that if we tackle the challenge level question, we might only get one done - or we might not even complete it. I might have to go find the teacher to ask them about it.
We don’t get to tick anything off the list - or at least not as many things.
So it doesn’t give us as big of a dopamine hit, as much pleasure, as if we’d completed 10 questions. But, that challenge, that feedback or help we need from the teacher, the processing that went into completing just one big and meaty question, is like upping our marathon training from 10 mile runs to 12 miles. Or using the heavier weights in the gym, even though it’s going to hurt. Even though maybe we can only do 5 reps with the 10 kilo weights, for now, but if we’re going to get stronger, that’s what we need to do to get us to the goal. And gradually, as we keep pushing ourselves to work at that level we DO get better.
So on that note, you might be thinking:
What about all the times when I’m telling you that your teen’s study can be easier, smoother, faster?
Well, the good news is that this intentionality and strategic decision to complete less reps but with more challenging study, might actually mean that they can spend less time AND get better results. If they do 1 hour of really strategic study, that will give them a better pay off than 2 hours of ineffective study.
But, here’s an even more important point - especially for those of you who have teens who are studying all hours - Let’s say they’ve been told to do 4 maths questions for homework and they can choose which ones from a selection or depending on where they got up to in class - they could probably get 4 easy ones done in 20 minutes. But it might take them an hour to do four more challenging ones.
So now we’re back to more of the pain, right. But at least that hour was super-useful. Because here’s what might just be more painful… having spent 20 minutes on something that will give almost zero benefit.
So, I’m not talking about your teen taking more time over their study or attempting tasks that are beyond their current level. I’m talking about making that time more effective, choosing study activities that are efficient and pitched at a level that will challenge them in the right ways.
Remember - often, the more active strategies can be faster than the passive ones.
It might take your teen half an hour to copy out that page of notes. Whereas it would take them 15 minutes to convert that information into a time line, flow chart, diagram, mind map or whatever way is most appropriate to convert and process that information.
This is about not taking the easy path.
Because if it’s easy, it probably isn’t doing anything.
Instead, have your teen figure out the more productive path OR just get off the path and get some rest or enjoy another part of life. Either of those are much better than staying on the easy path keeping busy studying but doing it in ways that aren’t actually effective.
So, to round up, if your teen is working to revise and memorise information, or learn and understand concepts in the first place, or practise and develop them further, it should feel hard.
If it’s easy, then it’s likely that they are studying passively, and passive revision, or passive study isn’t the most effective way to be spending their time.
And to be clear - this is different to not knowing what they’re doing or how to do something.
Tackling a challenging question on quadratic equations is not the same as not knowing what quadratic equations are or how to solve them.
And remember, our brains naturally want us to take the easy path.
They are wired for survival and that means seeking pleasure - those feelings of confidence and accomplishment, avoiding pain - the discomfort of having to really figure something out, perhaps the inconvenience of having to go ask a teacher, and conserving energy - not expending too much mental energy.
So, your teen has to first of all be aware of what’s happening here, be self aware enough to know when they are falling into this trap. And then they need to use their higher brain - their pre-frontal cortex - in order to take the more strategic and effective path, the path with the right level of challenge, because that is the path that leads to their goals.
And talking of goals, this podcast is growing every single week and it is all down to you, my listeners. So, thankyou, especially if you have already subscribed. And if you haven’t, definitely do that now. Also, I would really appreciate it if you take a screenshot right now and post it onto your social media so that other parents can also get this information too.
Have a wonderful week, I’ll see you back here next week.