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At some point in our lives, we’ve all practiced some counterproductive learning habits.
We’ve sabotaged ourselves without realizing it, and found ourselves stuck. There have been failures we believe have defined our potential.
We’ve obsessed over perfect solutions and singular pathways. In frustrated moments we’ve refused help from others, thinking acceptance means weakness. We’ve done this as teachers, students, friends, and parents.
These are not crimes; they’re part of what makes us human.
Our counterproductive learning habits usually come from what we observe and hear. We pick things up as children from well-intentioned adults in our lives. In addition, the experiences of others constantly unfold right in front of us. We observe actively, and we remember.
Eventually we come to believe that what we see is how things are, and that it never changes. We know now that this doesn’t have to be the case. We know now that we can create our own experiences. Let’s make them good ones when it comes to learning.
7 Counterproductive Learning Habits and How to Fix Them
Luckily, negative beliefs can be changed or unlearned. That’s what we’re looking at here. We’ll examine a number of different counterproductive learning habits below. We’ll also consider how to turn them around.
1. Fear of Failure
This one heads the list because it’s one of the most common barriers to learning. In reality, failure is useful and should be recognized as a necessary part of learning.
Many of us were taught early on that failure is bad. We heard that making mistakes is harmful and damaging to ourselves and others. As a result, we felt bad when we made them. In some cases, we might have made others feel bad for making them. Time to let all that go.
Our counterproductive learning habits usually come from what we observe and hear.
Consider that Thomas Edison failed many times before he succeeded. So did Einstein, Maya Angelou, Fred Astaire, U2’s Bono, Julia Child, and Michael Jordan. The list goes on and on. Each one of these examples speaks of someone who turned failure into an opportunity to learn and grow.
2. Focusing on Perfection
Learning was never meant to be perfect. It was, however, meant to be useful. The best learning is messy learning. It comes from solving problems and exploring pathways until the discovery is made. Learning is not a linear one-size-fits-all process. Our digital students are proof positive that not everyone learns in the same way.
3. Refusing to Ask for Help
How did this get to be a bad thing? What makes us so afraid to reach out?
Some of our learning experiences come with a map and some don’t. Sometimes in learning we find ourselves in the dark, trailing off the map’s edge. When that happens, we don’t know where to go. So we do what we’ve often heard is synonymous with ineptitude: we ask for help.
We get this, but it doesn’t have to be humiliating. We can always put our best efforts in first. It’s a learner’s responsibility to ensure they’ve done everything they can do beforehand. As learners we must explore every avenue and exhaust every recourse. We must ask every question we can ask of ourselves. If we still need help after that, we can ask with pride. At least we know we’ve done everything we can do.
There was only one way Henry Ford could have accomplished what he did, and he knew it. That was by surrounding himself with people who were a lot smarter than he was. Ford asked for all the help he could get. Because of that, he changed the world. So go ahead and ask. Someone might give you a rough time for it, but that just means that they have some more learning to do themselves.
4. Not Realizing Information (and the World) is Changing
Long ago, traditional education once taught us that the world was not bound to change very much. We seemingly saw many things as black and white. Many times in history we have declared, “everything that will ever be invented already has been.” We also thought this way about information.
Our digital students are proof positive that not everyone learns in the same way.
We can sometimes get caught up in believing there is only one right answer. Information is no longer static in our online culture. It’s changing and evolving all the time. Real-world problems are more complex and organic the ever. They shift constantly, and require flexible thinking and data. They can have multiple solutions and outcomes. Having this awareness is key to building critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
5. Not Learning From Others
The old saying “no matter how good you are, there’s always somebody better” rings true here. It also works the other way. Chances are someone’s made a truckload of mistakes in learning something you want to know. You can benefit greatly from either one of these kinds of people.
6. Not Helping Others Learn
Helping people learn is a great gift we give to each other. It’s what makes teaching such a noble and worthwhile profession. Helping others has many emotional and intellectual benefits. Ask any teacher how they feel when a student experiences a brilliant moment of learning.
According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, we recall 90% of information through direct meaningful experience. This level of retention comes from practical reinforcement. It suggests that helping others learn also helps us learn. What’s more direct and meaningful than the gift of teaching?
7. Setting Low Expectations
How many times have you heard someone use limiting self talk? Your students, colleagues, friends, and family members may have used it. It comes in the form of:
- I can’t get this, it’s too hard.
- I’ve always been bad at _________ .
- I’m not good enough to be able to figure this out.
- I think I’ll leave this to the experts.
- I’m so stupid sometimes.
- What’s the point in trying, it isn’t going to work anyway.
These are malicious self-destructive thoughts and assumptions that we often let determine our outcomes. What if we were to change that thinking? Imagine if we faced our learning with the mindset of “I can rock this!” Think of what would happen if we expected learning success.
As we said before, negative thought patterns can be unlearned. It’s like uploading new software into your belief system. It begins with self-awareness. Be conscious of your thoughts and self-talk about your own abilities. Replace old negative thought patterns with new constructive ones.
Fixing our counterproductive learning habits takes time and diligence, but it’s worth the effort.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jul 21, 2018, updated September 23, 2021