Real Learning is Not All Smiles

Years ago, I read an article about video game development at Valve Software, the makers of Half-Life and Left 4 Dead, that changed how I value the feedback I get as an instructor. In the interview, Valve game developers talked about how they changed how they do playtesting.

Initially, a Valve employee would sit down with a playtester and have them give live commentary as they played the game. This lead to a lot of animated and exaggerated reactions by the player and lively interactions with the observer. The Valve observer would finish the session feeling like it was productive, but the data collected was often too superficial and did not reflect how a player would play the game on their own.

To fix this, they switched to putting the playtester in a room alone, like they would be at home, and watching with a hidden camera. The player would silently stare at the screen with a bland expression on their face--or even a look of frustration--that the observer could interpret as being unhappy with the game, but when finished the player would come out and say they had a lot of fun.

The lesson was that how someone acts when they want to show you they are having fun and how someone acts when they are actually having fun are two different things.

As BJJ instructors, we can fool ourselves by looking for big reactions from our students. We can think a class was good because students praised us for showing a cool move or going gasping with amazement when we show a key detail, when the true face of learning may look a little frustrated and need to chew on the new information a bit.

In a similar vein, as instructors or students, we can trick ourselves by thinking improving performance and improving learning are the same thing.

By “performance,” I mean performing a technique or skill in controlled circumstances, such as in drilling. Learning is acquiring a skill so it can be used at a later date in real life circumstances.

Watch researcher Robert Bjork explain the difference between the two:

(I highly recommend you watch these videos of Robert Bjork talking about many misconceptions about learning.)

Training methods that improve learning do not necessarily improve performance (and vice versa), as counter-intuitive as that is. Modern research also shows that frustration as you work to acquire new skills is usually good because it means you are pushing yourself to the edge of your ability.

Changing my mindset about this has been a challenge because I have always been a big advocate of high rep drilling. Like many, I was brought up on the mantras “drillers make killers” and “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Repetition is and will always be necessary for learning, but how you get these reps in and how “clean” the practice looks may challenge your preconceptions.

As an instructor, once you change your mindset about the value of superficial positive feedback from students, you can disregard methods that pad your ego but fail to meaningfully better your students' learning and instead focus on what really matters.

And as a student, accepting that frustration is an important part of learning can take the string out of an especially tough night of practice. Learning is often happening when we do not know it is.

All of us can benefit from putting our emotions and preconceptions aside to reevaluate if what we like to do is really the best for us, and I hope this article has helped you do that.