There's A Gap Between Perception And Reality When It Comes To Learning Increasingly, people feel they can master tasks simply by watching instructional videos like the kind you find on YouTube. But sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be deep and wide.

There's A Gap Between Perception And Reality When It Comes To Learning

There's A Gap Between Perception And Reality When It Comes To Learning

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Increasingly, people feel they can master tasks simply by watching instructional videos like the kind you find on YouTube. But sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be deep and wide.


Parents have been telling their kids this for generations. Practice makes perfect. If you want to be good at something, you need to put in the work. Or, do you? Increasingly, people feel they can master tasks simply by watching instructional videos, like the kind you find on YouTube. But as NPR's Shankar Vedantam reports, sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be deep and wide.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: In most areas of his life, Jon Sharp is a doer, not a watcher. When he bought his first house in Homer, Alaska, some years ago, he made sure to get one with a garage so he could build a woodshop inside it. It's tiny, but he's proud of it.

JON SHARP: Right now, I've got a nice 14-inch band saw, a 3-horsepower cabinet saw. I've got some Festool products, which are very high-end.

VEDANTAM: He's also got another important tool.

SHARP: When I get an idea or I see something that I want to build, I definitely go right to YouTube.

VEDANTAM: That's right - YouTube. He likes to watch instructional videos to learn a few tips and find inspiration.

SHARP: And I've got, you know, probably three or four projects that are just, you know, halfway complete or, in the queue, if you will.

VEDANTAM: But Sharp also teaches sixth grade. He's usually exhausted after a full day in the classroom. And so he's been finding himself spending less time in his shop and more time on his couch just watching those how-to videos.

SHARP: And what I do is, I usually use it to decompress after work. So I go home, open up YouTube. You know, like, the other night, I was watching a how-to-build-a-barn-door cause I'm also building one in my house, and I thought, I just want to get different ideas.


BRUCE ULRICH: What's going on, everybody? I'm Bruce Ulrich. Welcome back. In today's video, I'm going to show you how...

SHARP: And it just becomes, like, this vortex where I'm just, like, there's one cool one...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I love sliding barn doors.

SHARP: Look, there's a different one. I'll watch that one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I built this out of an ambrosia maple slab. It's not actually one big slab.

SHARP: And then, you know, it seems like 30 to 45 minutes have passed while I watch videos on, you know, people fixing car engines...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How to super-clean your engine bay. So clean that you'll be able to eat off of it.

SHARP: ...Or how to build decks...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So we're going to start out by putting the ledger on the house. And you can see...

SHARP: ...Or how to renovate houses...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hey, guys. This is my kitchen. As you can tell...

SHARP: ...And it's just non-stop. It's just - I mean, I could be on there hours and hours, and just - and on a weekday, I'll usually watch, on average, two hours. But on a weekend, if I don't have a lot going on, you know, I will watch four to five hours, easily, in a day.

VEDANTAM: It's relaxing, but watching videos like these also offers an escape, the chance to step into another life. To live, as it were, vicariously.

ED O'BRIEN: We live in a world now where you don't just have to sit around thinking about stuff. You can actually log online, and with the click of a button get some taste of that experience yourself.

VEDANTAM: This is Ed O'Brien. He's a social psychologist at the University of Chicago. Along with his colleague, Michael Kardas, he studies people's intuitions about what a new experience will feel like. O'Brien and Kardas started to wonder about instructional videos and whether there was a gap between the perception of learning and actual learning. Or to put it more simply...

O'BRIEN: Does this stuff work?

VEDANTAM: The researchers had a hunch that people might overestimate their own abilities after watching how-to videos. They based this on real-life experience and a simple truism.

O'BRIEN: It's a lot easier to watch somebody do something than it is to actually do it yourself.

VEDANTAM: To test their hypothesis, they devised a series of experiments. In one case, they had volunteers watch a short video of a person throwing a dart.

O'BRIEN: And the dart lands perfectly in the bull's-eye.

VEDANTAM: Some of the volunteers watched the video just once, but others watched it 20 times in a row.

O'BRIEN: So you see this bulls'-eye over, and over and over again.

VEDANTAM: People who watched the video repeatedly were more confident that they would score a bulls'-eye on their first throw. They were wrong.

O'BRIEN: There was absolutely no effect of video-watching on actual performance.

VEDANTAM: That's a nice way of saying they were dismal at darts. O'Brien and Kardas tried other tests, like asking people to watch instructional videos with step-by-step instructions for juggling. Or like this one...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: All right, guys. Here we go. Want music. Five, six. Five, six.

VEDANTAM: ...For dancing the moonwalk. Again, those who watched the video 20 times felt confident.

O'BRIEN: You come away thinking, I bet I'm going to nail this. I'm going to get a really high score when I jump in and try the moonwalk.

VEDANTAM: Nope. Incorrect. Volunteers realized very quickly that the moonwalk was much harder than they thought it was going to be.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: If I can keep my balance. (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Not only did they find it difficult, a panel of judges could see no difference between the skills of moonwalkers who had watched the videos repeatedly and those who hadn't. In fact, they all scored pretty much like the dart throwers.

O'BRIEN: Participants, whether you watched once or 20 times, didn't do very well.

VEDANTAM: Over and over, the researchers saw the same results. O'Brien says there's something about seeing someone perform a difficult task well. It seems to convince people that they have learned everything to perform the same task.

O'BRIEN: We feel confident because we've memorized the steps. And what we forget to do is adjust for the fact that those steps feel like something, upon taking them, that change the experience when we jump in.

VEDANTAM: They found this wasn't the case when people learned in other ways. Reading an instruction manual or thinking about a trick didn't produce the same overconfidence. The researchers also discovered a small tweak that could reduce overconfidence. All it took was a quick taste of the actual experience. So for example, the researchers added one step after volunteers watched the juggling video.

O'BRIEN: So in this study, it was as simple as having participants hold a bowling pin for a few minutes. So not even actually trying to juggle, but just hold this bowling pin for a few minutes.

VEDANTAM: One little reality check was enough to remind people that watching is not the same as doing. In his heart of hearts, Jon Sharp already knows this. He says that when he's watching how-to videos instead of working in a shop, he feels like he's losing something.

SHARP: When I watch the video, what I think I'm losing is, I'm losing the ability to gain the skill. I think I'm tricking my mind to think that, you know, I'm getting that skill. I watched the video. I know how to do it. In reality, that's not true.

VEDANTAM: Where he knows he should be is out there in his woodshop, finishing those half-done projects. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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