How To Conquer A Learning Plateau

Feel a little stuck in your learning journey? The hump can be overcome by making small but smart moves in your daily practice. Here are some tips to try.
Pausing to reflect or make a detour in the course of your learning can help you make greater headway.
Pausing to reflect or make a detour in the course of your learning can help you make greater headway.

If you notice little progress in deepening the proficiency of a skill, you might have hit a learning plateau. This can happen at any stage of learning.

Your progress might even have lows when you feel that your skills are not improving, even as you put more time into practice. This feeling can be discouraging for novices and experts alike. But by making small shifts and doing things differently, you can tackle a learning slump.

Reflect: Am I Trying to Gain Too Many Skills at Once?

Before making any new moves, it’s useful to reflect on what might be holding you back from making progress. Once you have a better understanding of your obstacles, aim to also get a clearer idea of your strengths, available resources and preferred learning style.

Consider keeping a learning journal with regular reflections:

  • Which part of the topic or task am I still unfamiliar with?
  • Which challenging topic or task do I tend to avoid? Why so?
  • Who can I ask that might be more knowledgeable or experienced about this?

After identifying the plan for improvement, author James Clear of Atomic Habits recommends focusing on only one thing at a time to boost your chances of implementing a new habit or mastering a skill. Committing to only one new habit will drastically increase your chances of success.

Using unfamiliar methods gives you a new way to tackle problems, which will expand your capabilities.

Reflect: Am I Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again, With No Results?

A common adage goes: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. However, repeating the same techniques and skills without making progress might soon make you lose motivation.

Adjust your practice by adding variety. This could help you cut the time needed to make a leap in learning and keep you motivated. For example, a budding guitarist may know how to play several individual chords. Instead of practising the same chords in the same sequence over and over, vary the learning by playing different songs or orders of randomly generated chords.

Scott H. Young, author of the book Ultralearning, recommends practising skills while avoiding one’s dominant strategy. For example, a rock climber who often uses quick, explosive jumps can try a new style by adding a constraint of pausing for a while before making the next move.

Using unfamiliar methods gives you a new way to tackle problems, which will expand your capabilities. Challenging yourself this way could also show you the limitations of the methods you are already most comfortable with.

best tips for overcoming a learning slump

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Reflect: Am I Asking the Right Questions To Make Progress?

Asking questions and doing self-tests of your knowledge makes you a more active learner. Instead of simply following instructions or a set syllabus, it may be more helpful to understand the purpose or the process behind why something should be done in a certain way.

With the example of the budding guitarist, a learner who feels stuck could delve into music theory or investigate why certain chords are more challenging to play in sequence.

A hobbyist chef or baker could study the chemistry of which ingredients work best to bring out desired flavours, or how different cooking techniques affect the final output.

An important question to revitalise your learning is reflecting on why you want to keep learning a skill. Has the purpose of learning this skill changed? Has your interest in a hobby wavered? What was the initial motivation for starting on this learning journey?

Sometimes, it could be a matter of bad timing, the authors of The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success suggest. In this case, it may be worthwhile to simply wait and take a break before resuming your learning or practice. Periods of rest and inactivity are vital to helping you recharge.

Act: Keep At It

If you’ve decided that a skill or hobby is worth your effort, press on. Psychologist and professor Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania defines “grit” as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal”.

A test she developed, called the Grit Scale, measures how much grit a person has. The test has been used with thousands of military cadets, college students and spelling bee competitors. She found that grit was a stronger measure of success, above other metrics such as self-control and verbal ability.

It is easy to worry about being stuck at your current level, or how far away you are from a goal. With reflection and clarity on the next steps, you might just be one or two small corrections away from making a big leap in progress.

    Mar 29, 2023
    Amos Ng
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Liew Xinyi
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