No matter how difficult learning a particular subject or skill might be, take heart in this fact: you were born to learn. This is not just a motivational tag line; it’s a scientific fact. Here’s the brainy proof (heads-up: if you don’t like rap, even with positive lyrics, please mute your sound before you watch):
Your natural ability to learn, however, can be inhibited and even sabotaged by a lack of confidence and a feeling of anxiety about a particular subject or skill.
EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.” Rita Smilkstein, PhD
Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007
Thus, it is important to approach learning with confidence. “How can I do that, if I struggle with _______ to begin with?” you might be asking yourself. This question stems from a narrow view of learning confidence. This is understandable because learning is divided into specific subjects and skills, so we tend to compartmentalize our learning perspective–focusing our abilities on specific areas, rather than on our ability to learn in general.
However, to develop learning confidence, we should focus on this general ability to learn, focus on our brain’s natural learning function. Hence, it’s not your confidence in a particular subject or skill that matters. What matters is your confidence in being able to learn. It’s your confidence in your brain’s natural ability to do its job that’s key. Even if you say that you’re not a “math person” or are a “bad writer,” realize that you are hardwired to learn any and everything. Your brain just can’t help itself!
Now this is not to say that you won’t struggle to learn some things and that your ability in certain areas won’t be limited. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But don’t let your weaknesses, or perceived weaknesses, cause you stress and anxiety. These negative feelings create norepinephrines, which make it difficult to think. In other words, these chemicals inhibit brain function. You can begin to ward off feelings of stress and anxiety by keeping these biological truths in mind:
- You were born to learn.
- Every step toward learning strengthens your brain.
What else can you do to increase your learning confidence?
- Focus on learning itself, not on the troublesome subject or skill. You can do this by watching the video above and reminding yourself that every time you attempt something, you literally change your brain (in a good way). This means that every step, no matter how small or “clumsy,” toward learning something creates more synapses in your brain, causing existing connections to strengthen. So even when you struggle with something and feel like you’re not making progress, your brain is progressing.
- Leverage your strengths. This will help you approach more difficult subjects and skills with increased confidence because you’re making connections between your areas of strength and areas of weakness. This will cause your brain to produce endorphins, which increases confidence therefore making learning easier.
- Reward yourself! Give yourself some positive reinforcement for each stride you make toward overcoming a learning difficulty. Doing so will increase your endorphins, which in turn will increase your ability to learn.
Happy learning–it’s only natural!