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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.