Dr. Universe,

How do you learn something hard?

– Kai, 12, Alaska

There are so many different things we can learn in our world, but that doesn’t mean learning is always so easy. Maybe you want to learn a process, like how to complete Rubik’s Cube, code an app, design a solution to a problem or answer science questions.

My friend, Sarah Fick, an assistant professor of science education at Washington State University, was excited to hear your question. She said one way to learn something hard is to ask a lot of questions of yourself and other people.

Questions like: Why is it hard? Are you trying to remember something? Are you trying to understand how it works? Are you trying to solve a problem that’s hard to solve? Can you design something or come up with an idea that will help you solve that problem? Where can you find more information about your problem or who can you ask about it?

“Depending on what experiences you’ve had in learning — and the knowledge you’ve gained from your family and community — you are going to come at these problems with your own strengths,” Fick said.

Things that are easy for you, might be hard for someone else or the opposite could be true.

Fick reminded me that while we can learn a process, we can also learn more about how a process works. That’s what scientists do — they help us bring deeper knowledge into the world.

Through collecting data, researchers can help us build on current knowledge to create new knowledge. Another thing scientists do is create a model or draw a picture showing how they think the process works. A model can sometimes help us understand what we know and what we still have questions about.

When you are learning something hard, it also helps to ask yourself what is motivating you to learn. Maybe the motivation is that you want a good grade on a test. We call that extrinsic motivation. But maybe you want to learn how to do something for, well, you. Then, you have intrinsic motivation. When motivation comes from within, it often helps us learn.

Finally, while it may feel frustrating to learn difficult subjects or tasks, that’s sometimes a good sign. You might just be wrestling with knowledge that’s new to you and might be on your way to an “Aha!” moment when you gain a better understanding.

One of the areas Fick researches is helping us better understand how students can use their knowledge from one subject, such as math, to help them learn more about another area, like science. Learning often happens when we find connections, including connections to our daily life.

There are a lot of different factors that go into learning something hard, and these are just a few. The next time you find yourself facing a learning challenge, take a deep breath, ask yourself some good questions and get ready for the next step on your learning journey — wherever it takes you.

Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

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