The power of intensity…

I have this American friend who learned to speak conversant Malay within a few months of coming to Malaysia. In Malaysia very few expats learn much Malay because everyone speaks English. We’re spoiled.

My friend told me that according to a study he’d read, which I’ve never been able to find on the internet, the pace at which you learn a language is exponentially related to how much time you spend per week. So if you have 2 Malay lessons a week, you’d learn more than twice as fast compared to if you have 1 Malay lesson per week. Have 5 lessons a week, and you wouldn’t just learn 5 times faster than if you have 1 lesson a week, but you’d learn perhaps 15 or 30 times faster. So he said the secret of his learning Malay was by having lots of lessons per week.

Whether such study actually exists, the recommendation he gave makes sense. The longer the gap in between the lessons the more forgetting between lessons and the more you have to spend re-learning what you learned in the previous lesson. And it explains why people learn languages so slowly from regular lessons. I learned French for 10 years, averaging 2 lessons a week yet I did not reach a level where I could comfortably talk to anyone in French. But people who migrate and are forced to speak the local language, who probably speak around 1-2 hours a day, are typically beyond conversant within months.

It occurred to me that the benefits of intensity probably apply outside languages too.

So I decided to try teaching Maryam and Danyal Physics iGCSE with a high intensity. I started teaching physics 3 months ago, one hour every weekday, so had to put Maths A-level on hold. The results have been really surprising. Both recently got just over 50/80, around a D grade, in the basic/core physics paper, Paper 2, the first time they attempted one, without any revision. With even greater intensity I think A*’s in their Physics iGCSE is achievable, in as little as 5 months from the day they started studying physics.

What’s even more interesting is that it’s reasonable to assume that if the kids went on a super-intense course of physics – perhaps 8 hours a day – they’d be ready to go from never having been taught physics before to taking their Physics iGCSE in 3-4 weeks flat. Unfortunately not practical for most, including us, but it certainly does make one wonder how effective the 12 years of physics lessons I had leading to my GCSE Physics really were.

So we’ve now modified our home school once more. We try to make the courses more intense. That means no more 18 months to learn a GCSE or an A-level. It’s more like 5-8 months to go from zero to taking the exam, cranking up the intensity towards exam time. Unfortunately schools are hardwired so school kids would struggle to benefit from this – schools force kids to spread themselves thin – but homeschoolers can take full advantage of the power of intensity.

[An update a month after writing this blog: Over the last month I upped the intensity of physics, so the kids have studied around 3 hours per day. By the way they’re as motivated as I am, in case you think it’s some slave camp at my home. Anyway, as of this weekend Maryam is consistently getting low A*’s while Danyal is averaging A’s, that’s from D’s only a month ago.

I’m impressed but not entirely surprised. It’s taken them around 155 hours from never having studied physics before, 4 months ago, to around A/A* level in their iGCSE!!! Forget 3-4 weeks, the idea of doing an iGCSE in 2 weeks flat seems very plausible!]

Author: Asim Qureshi

Passionate about tech startups, home schooling, barefoot running and squash.

20 thoughts on “The power of intensity…”

  1. So after all, are GCSE-level and A-level math and physics easier and more accessible than they are usually considered to be? Do regular pupils usually underrate or overrate their abiltily to master them?

    To give some credit to my home county, their Russian counterparts are more rigorous, although I very strongly doubt that the actual knowledge level is higher.

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  2. Hi Asim, I saw this post, or at least on this topic from you on Quora previously and then Linkedin.

    I am currently prepping for my End of year Chemistry Exams as a Imperial first year student.

    Due to the exams fast approaching in May/June I have since ramped up my study hours to Double Digits. During the 10 minute breaks that I have I ask myself:

    What went well?
    What didn’t go as well as it could have?
    What will I do differently next time?

    The thing that is getting me right now is that I strongly feel my level of intensity within those 50 minute sessions is very insufficient to do well in my exams.

    You did Physics at Oxford, which is probably way more challenging than Chemistry at Imperial, and you said at some point if I recall correctly that in your first year of studies you got by on one hour a day on average of revision? You did then go on to say that in your final year you went really ham on revision and did a lot of past paper usage.

    Anyway so my question is – What approach do you recommend I take to really crank up the intensity meter on my exam prep?

    Currently I am mainly reading through the lecture slides and taking notes. My pace is not that fast.

    I want to really get it down pat since I am very interested in entrepreneurship and social enterprise and want to do a lot of things in that area whilst still at uni before graduating and want to have the skills to be able to spend most of my time doing that whilst maintaining a high average and having more self certainty about the academic side to be able to dive into the entrepreneurial side.

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    1. David, you’re doing the wrong thing. You need to do questions – actually do them, not just nod you head thinking you can do them. Reading lectures notes is a waste of time. Doing is far more important as observing.

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  3. How do you think children who have trouble focusing and being motivated should go about studying? (Children who don’t really know what they want to do in the future)

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    1. By removing distractions. I take my kids to cafes with me. No distractions means they have nothing else to do. My kids don’t like studying any more than any other kids.

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  4. Hi Asim,

    Was wondering how much one remembers about a subject learnt — especially using intense technique — say after a gap of a couple of years?

    Do the kids fine it difficult to recall the subjects they leaned previously?

    Thanks.

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    1. Hemant, they learn fast and probably forget fast. The important thing, in my view, is they that go the grades. If they ever need to know it again it won’t take them long to re-learn.

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  5. Insn’t “The power of intensity” same as setting a deadline to your goals? Suppose you want to accomplish some task or learn a new subject and you’ve got six months. Now if suddenly due to some crisis xyz your boss asks you to complete it in three or four month setting the deadline early. So you work hard engaging yourself completely and get the results.
    I think power of intensity can be improved by placing yourself in uncomfortable situations. Let’s say you have to learn French in 6 months but instead you go to the class and announce to your peers/teachers that you will give a presentation in French after 3 months. Since now you want to save yourself by not getting embarrassed you dedicate yourself completely to learn the language and getting way ahead than others, even reaching the goal.

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    1. Sarvesh, not it’s not the same but in some contexts it can be. Intensity is hours per time period. Deadlines are, well, deadlines. Yes, short deadlines do lead to higher intensity.

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  6. Asim, came to your blog via Quora; really interested in your approaches as I’m exploring approaches to compacting/intensifying (these may be different concepts) curriculum in general. Do you identify a particular subject to intensify, then move to another subject to ensure exposure? i.e. I’m thinking of intensifying math, but this means sacrificing history/science in a given day.

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    1. Jane, that’s exactly how you should do it, in my view. Sabeen has just spent several months focusing on her French IGCSE and now she’ll start just doing her Maths A-level.

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      1. Thank you, Asim! I’m used to “spread kids thin” method since I grew up in establishment school system. Intensifying makes a lot of sense to me. My kid’s going to enter U.S. Grade 6. I’ve gotten Maths texts meant for Grades 6, 7, and 8. I’ll experiment with intensifying math and report back with how we do!

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  7. Hi Asim,
    I am currently on a scholarship in China to study world economics however this scholarship comes with a clause, I have to pass HSK 4 level of Chinese language hence I am studying Chinese for one year.
    Now the problem is, I believe in the power of intensifying but I seem never motivated to study Chinese given that writing the characters and remembering them is quite tedious,
    What do you suggest I do to be really motivated understanding that I may really master these characters soon enough.
    P.S when I open a Chinese text to read anxiety gets triggered for me.

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    1. Amaka, if the scholarship doesn’t motivate you enough, then I won’t be able to! And if you lack motivation, then you’re in trouble.

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