Which Promotes Greater Learning – Higher Standards or Lower Standards?

“Not good enough!” was my inner mantra most of the time that I held a violin in my hands.

After all, much like the ability to discern the pronunciation nuances of a foreign language is key to developing an accent-free level of fluency, a good ear and high standards take years to fine-tune, and are essential to honing one’s skills as a musician.

It’s one of the products of musical training that I’m most grateful for, as I feel that an understanding of what excellence looks like has served me well in everything I’ve ever spent any time on – from psychology to parenting to even my decidedly sub-mediocre tennis skills. But if you asked my kids, they might would totally express a little less enthusiasm about daddy’s standards of excellence, and wish I’d overlook more details.

I certainly don’t want to discourage my kids or take away from their learning experience. But then again, I’m afraid to let them get away with subpar work, and internalize lower standards of excellence too. So it’s been a challenge to figure out where the right balance point is.

In teaching as well as parenting, what is the solution? Should we lower our standards to make things easier at first? Or insist on a high level of performance even from the very beginning?

Easy vs. difficult

A group of researchers recruited 34 college students with little to no prior golfing experience, and created a putting green of sorts, using artificial grass and a square 2x2cm cardboard cutout as a target to aim for.

The participants were randomly split into two groups, and given 5 practice putts from 15 meters away (to make sure they were evenly matched in terms of skill).

Then, each participant was given 50 practice putts (5 blocks of 10 putts), with the goal of getting the ball to stop as close to the target as possible. But the researchers added a small twist to make this task seem easier or more difficult.

They marked out two concentric circles surrounding the target (like a bullseye). One circle had a diameter of 7cm. The second circle had a diameter of 14cm.

One group was told that any putt landing inside the larger circle was considered a “good” putt. The other group was told that putts had to land inside the smaller circle to be considered good putts. The ultimate goal or target remained the same in both cases. The only difference is that the standards for success were simply expanded a bit to make it easier for one group to accumulate more tiny wins.

How much did they learn?

The next day, everyone came back to the lab for a putting test, to see how much they had learned from their practice session the previous day, with both circles removed from the putting surface.

The test was pretty straightforward – a) 12 putts from the original 15-meter distance and b) 12 putts from 18 meters away (a “transfer” test to assess their ability to adapt their skills on the fly to a different distance).

Who did better?

Both groups started out with virtually identical accuracy scores on their first 5 practice putts – with the ball stopping an average of 53.3cm and 53.9cm away from the target.

But on the putting test, the large circle group performed markedly better, hitting the ball consistently closer to the target (28.6cm) than the small circle group (37.2cm).

And when asked to putt from 18 meters away, the large circle group once again outperformed the small circle group – 30.4cm vs. 37.9cm.

I wouldn’t have guessed it, but it seems that individuals learn (and perform) better when success appears easier to come by.

But why? Why does the perception of success lead to enhanced learning?

Getting tight

Well, imagine you’re taking driver’s ed, and consider how you might feel driving for the first time in your parents’ brand new car vs. driving an old junker that’s already dented up and rusting. Wouldn’t you be likely to feel much more tense in the new car, and drive much more carefully and cautiously?

The authors surmise that when success is perceived as being easier to achieve, we putt more freely. We’re less controlling and tight, and don’t try to micromanage every muscle to the point that everything becomes robotic and rigid. Thereby leading to greater success not just during our practice, but in subsequent tests of our ability to execute these skills too.

Take action

So ultimately, the question of high standards vs. lower standards isn’t really an either/or situation. It’s about keeping one’s standards of “excellent” performance high, but adjusting one’s standards of what constitutes “good” performance.

I imagine that over time, as one’s skills progress, one could make the definition of “good” increasingly more challenging, but in the early stages, it seems that making things seem too difficult inhibits learning.

All of which makes total sense to me now, but before reading the study I might have guessed the opposite to be true. That making things more challenging at first would result in greater learning. What do you think? What have you found to work best when learning or teaching a new skill?

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Comments

8 Responses

  1. interesting article…..couple things weren’t clear (or i didn’t pick it up)….appears that on the test the different targets were used (i.e., target was identical for each group for what they trained on)….would be interesting to know how the group with the smaller target would have done using the larger target for the test….maybe somewhat akin to running longer distances to train for a somewhat shorter race……using the golf analogy, i’m a hack but i play noticeably better when i’m playing with someone who shoots well (and interestingly, often people who shoot well have a terrible day playing with me….hah!)…..thanks again…..look forward to the blog every week.

    1. Hi David,

      Yes, the description above may not as been as clear as it could have been. To clarify, the small and large circles were both present for both groups during the 50 practice putts. And both circles were removed for the putting test the following day. The 2x2cm target remained present throughout practice and testing, and was the goal for both groups. The only difference is that the researchers lowered the standards of a “good” putt for the large circle group, thereby enhancing their expectations of success.

  2. For me, having smaller wins kept me going. Once I got to a certain level of competency, I had to raise the standards of a “win” or my good feeling would degenerate into “not being good enough”. So, if I were to talk about what was required to improve, it had to be “enough to get out of my comfort zone”, but not so lofty as to get cold feet and say “That’ll never happen”. There is psychology associated with winning and one really has to build the “success” or “winning” muscle. Just like you wouldn’t start bicep curls with a 20 lb weight if you’re goal is 10 reps at 25 lbs. You can’t do 25 without being able to do 5. So if you can’t celebrate a small win and accept it, there is no way you’ll build in the reps required to get the bigger wins.

  3. Small victories are crucial to persistence, and in persistence lies eventual mastery. If I don’t revel in minor successes at the harp (and I mean *seriously* minor, like not-forgetting-to-change-keys), I would be too discouraged to continue. My teacher emphasizes this periodically by reminding me, in moments of self-flagellation, that rolled chords used to be difficult for me and so forth. In other words, she encourages me to see incremental improvement as success.

    I think this is such a constructive method of teaching that I’m trying to apply it to my own students, and the feedback I give them. It’s difficult because I was raised in an atmosphere of never-good-enough, so I have to really work to arrest that hypercritical reaction.

  4. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I can say that I wasn’t at all surprised by the results of the study you mentioned in this article. My experience both as teacher and as performer (saxophone) affirms this time and again. As you said, when aiming too narrowly for an exact result when approaching a skill, people can tend to “micro-manage” the physical elements involved involved to the point of actually interfering with their brain’s ability to optimally plan, initiate and execute the movements necessary to carry out the skill. (I describe this as having “too much of an internal focus of attention”). One of the things I emphasize when coaching a musician is the importance of continually “bringing things back into reach” when practicing. This involves learning to purposefully and skillfully regress their efforts during each segment of the practice session so as to create a learning experience that is positive as well as progressive. The idea is to gently, gradually, but most assuradly, improve upon what they can already do. Your wonderfully written article is a nice reminder and affirmation of the efficacy of this approach. Thank you!

  5. It goes with “encouragements work better than criticism” : to hard a goal can be discouraging, whereas a challenging but atteignable one leads to confidence. Small steps, one at a time, can lead to a long route, whereas seeing this long route without any pause leads to “ok, no need to even try, never will I arrive there”.

  6. Great article. It fits with my experience that we tend to perform in a freer, more effortless way when we perceive the performance task to be less demanding. Isn’t that supported by the research that suggests that in order to achieve “flow” we must believe that our skills and experience are sufficient for success for the task at hand.

    What would be fantastic would be if we can find a technique to flip the perceived difficulty of a task from “hard” to “easy”. I wonder if you have techniques we might employ to change our feeling as an outsider/imposter/underdog faced with a hard task to feeling like a veteran/champion/winner with a easy task that we are completely prepared for.

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