To Develop Expertise, Motivation is Necessary but Insufficient

Lots of readers of my entry on learning languages have said that the only reason I learned French well the second time (with the Assimil course) is that I was motivated. Here is one example: “Guy, the main reason that you learned French this time was because you wanted to learn it this time.”

Understanding the role of motivation in learning is important for designing productive learning environments — i.e. for learning well — so I would like to discuss it further.

Yes, motivation is important for learning! When I was in high school and training for the U.S. Physics Olympiad team, we heard (maybe apocryphal) stories about how our counterparts were being trained in the USSR: Candidates who didn’t make the cut got sent to the army. This kind of motivation, I thought, would definitely lead me to put in the needed hours.

To agree with the readers’ comments more strongly: For learning, motivation is necessary. However, there is a distinction between necessary and sufficient. Although motivation is necessary, it is not sufficient.

First I’ll give you an example from my own experience; then I’ll discuss a key research result from the study of expertise.

Myself, I’ve long tried to improve at chess. I learned the game from my mother when I was 3. My family tells of an uncle who had come to visit a few years later and was happy to find a 6-year-old keen on having a chess game. After I had won, I consoled him by saying, “If you want to win, you should play my dad.” One conclusion is that I was a little brat. The other is that I’d had lots of time to learn chess. And I was motivated. Sadly, at age 42, my chess skill is not much higher than when I was 6, despite lots of motivation and lots of practice.

Motivation does matter: We must want to learn. But the wanting is only part of a productive learning environment. We must also know how to learn — which I did not. That’s the key conclusion of the research on expert performance (an area of research discussed in this blog in the Q&A with David Shenk).

The how of learning is deliberate practice. For example, in school and college, to develop mathematics and science expertise, we must somehow think deeply about the problems and reflect on what did and did not work. One method comes from the physicist John Wheeler (the PhD advisor of Richard Feynman). Wheeler recommended that, after we solve any problem, we think of one sentence that we could tell our earlier self that would have “cracked” the problem. This kind of thinking turns each problem and its solution into an opportunity for reflection and for developing transferable reasoning tools.

Deliberate practice requires sustained concentration, and the rewards are subtle and apparent only in the long term. Thus, one needs motivation in order to enter into and sustain the hard work of deliberate practice. But the learning happens not simply through putting in the hours, but through doing so intelligently.

For chess, deliberate practice includes deep analysis of grandmaster games. You take an annotated grandmaster chess game — say, from Bobby Fisher’s My 60 Memorable Games — make the first few moves, then cover up the grandmaster analysis and try to figure out the move the grandmaster is about to make. If your candidate move matches the grandmaster move, great — move on to the next position in the game! If they do not match, try to figure out what the grandmaster understood that you did not. If you cannot figure it out, study the analysis in the annotations. Then repeat from step 1 with the next position.

This work is hard. But it is necessary. And it is productive. Canadian chessplayer Peter Biyiasas is said to have become an International Master by studying just two books, one of which was Fisher’s My 60 Memorable Games.

The power of deliberate practice is the message of the paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in Chess Expertise” (Applied Cognitive Psychology19:151—165 (2005)). Authors Neil Charness and co-workers studied the effect of different types of chess practice on chess rating. Hours of deliberate practice were a factor of 6 more effective than hours of regular practice (playing tournament games). No wonder I have hardly improved in 36 years. (And this factor of 6 comes after transforming the practice hours onto a logarithmic scale, which means that, in practice, deliberate practice is vastly more powerful than regular practice.)

So, do we need motivation to learn? Definitely. But alone it is insufficient. Deliberate (intelligent) practice plus motivation are together necessary and sufficient. Let’s design our learning environments so that they contain both.

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  1. WisdomSeed says:

    How does one determine the best deliberate practice for an unknown subject? As I age, I find I have a lot less patience with unrewarding rote

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    • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

      That’s a great question, and something I wonder about a lot. One answer is to find a great coach. Atul Gawande has described his finding a coach in order to become a better surgeon and teacher of surgeons ( http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande )

      My piano teacher, by the feedback and suggestions that she gave, helped me figure out what deliberate practice meant for pianists — something I would have had no chance of figuring out on my own.

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  2. Joel Upchurch says:

    You also have to consider innate ability. Practice and Motivation will help make the most of your innate abilities, but you aren’t going to reach grandmaster status if your innate abilities are more at the Commodore 64 level.

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    • D Doan says:

      The difficulty lies in determining the limits of innate ability especially for more cognitive skills, which unlike physical skills are not nearly as constrained by physical limits (height, size, and so on) and are often culturally shaped. Defining and determining what innate ability means for cognitive skills is difficult if not impossible; better time would be spent on figuring out the best methods of practice and motivation regardless of some innate ability factor. A complex cognitive skill often has many components and therefore many avenues to exhibiting that skill. Unless the skill is a very narrowly defined skill there would more likely be multiple innate abilities for the expression of that skill.

      Also we’re should be comparing average people to one another not average people to cognitively impaired people (Commodore 64).

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  3. mike fladlien says:

    You have nailed it. It’s not “practice makes perfect”, but “perfect practice makes perfect.” A student might be motivated to practice, but if the student practices a technique imperfectly then the practice was wasted. Only deep reflection and focused practice will aid learning. To make myself clear, if a wrestler practices a takedown wrong every day, the wrestler will have little success on the mat. The wrestler needed more than motivation to learn. The wrestler also needed instruction.

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  4. Alamin says:

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  5. harshbir singh says:

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    • Steve O says:

      I thought the article was great! You have to read the previous post (referenced in the first sentence) to understand his point of view. Mahajan isn’t saying “think really hard when you practice and you’ll be a grand master!” — his point is that rote learning isn’t as effective as deliberate learning, where your mind is engaged and your brain is making meaningful connections.

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    • Steve O says:

      It seems like all of the initial reactions to this post are needlessly negative… Mahajan’s posts on the learning have definitely informed my views on the subject and have validated my experience. I think it is vital that we study how people learn and continuously strive to do a better job of teaching (and learning). We can look at how people learn languages or math or medicine and draw definitive conclusions about one way being better than another.

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    • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

      I agree with your condition A. And I agree with condition B, as far as it goes. Becoming an expert is a long-term process (10,000 hours is often the figure given for how much practice, or rather deliberate practice, one needs). But just delaying gratification is not alone enough. The practice has to be skillful. That was my main message.

      Not solving the problem of motivating students today does not mean that one is writing moonshine. That said, I do agree that it is a very important problem. Post your ideas, approaches, solutions…

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  7. Jason says:

    Steve just because you’re not current on research doesn’t mean those of us in education who’d like new research aren’t.

    This is regurgitated knowledge from the past 20 years, at minimum.

    Secondly, intrinsic motivation and home support accounts for more than anything mentioned here.

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  8. ErikB says:

    I guess you are still not as good as you like in Chess, right? Reading your article it feels still too simple. Deliberate practise is about more then just reflecting on what just happened. Reflecting on your chess games and the ones of a grand master are all just random experience. To become great, you need to find “skill chunks” that you can train seperately. A football player for example will not just play and reflect. A big part of his training will be just running for long times. Another part will be to just run very fast. Another part will be to pass the ball. And so on. This is what deliberate practise means! Yes, the feedback is important. But cutting your training process into small steps that are all trainable just by themselves is what will get you ahead of the average player.
    Maybe you didn’t talk about that, because for you it is just the natural process to learn. In that case just be reminded that it is not usual for most people to learn this way. But I think it is more likely, that you don’t think this way about learning yourself. Give it a try!

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