There is no skill that will earn greater dividends in your life than that of learning effectively.
The twin forces of Globalization and Technological Progress ensures that the days of a single career at one company are long past. The average person can be expected to change jobs 10 to 15 times, and planning for multiple careers in a lifetime is becoming a necessity.
Beyond career benefits, there’s also the personal ones. Have you ever tried to learn an instrument, before leaving it to gather dust in the attic? How about learning a language on Duolingo, only to never reopen the course after the first week? If you’re like me, there’s likely a graveyard of dead hobbies and interests that started initially with great gusto but quickly petered out.
In the face of all this, you have a choice. Will you choose stagnation or growth? This article is for those who choose the latter. It contains a synthesis of all the books and articles I’ve read on learning, with the hope that you’ll be able to apply it in both your personal and professional life. It’s broken down into three main sections: upgrading your learning toolbox, common learning traps and steps for effective learning.
Upgrading Your Learning Toolbox
Below are a handful of strategies that when applied, can have a great impact on your ability to learn and retain information. They’re best used in conjunction with one another.
Recall: This strategy consists of quizzing yourself on topics you’ve been learning, with the most common way of doing this being flashcards. One study showed a retention difference of 46% between students who used active recall as a learning strategy and the control group which used a passive reading technique. As you practice recall, it’s important to employ spaced repetition. The recommended spaced repetition is 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, and 21 days to offset the forgetting curve.
Chunking: This strategy refers to tying individual pieces of information, into larger units. For example, you can remember the Buddhist Precepts for lay people by tying them into the acronym KILSS (No Killing, No Intoxication, No Lying, No Stealing, No Sexual Misconduct). You can also chunk information into images. For example, computer memory hierarchy consists of five levels, which can be visualized as a five next to a pyramid.
Interleaving: To interleave is to mix your learning with other subjects and approaches. One study showed that blocked practice on one problem type led to students not being able to tell the difference between problems later on and showed that interleaving led to better results. In my case, whenever I have a subject I’d like to learn more about, I collect a diverse source of resources. When I wanted to learn about Machine Learning, I combined the technical learning through textbooks and online courses, with science fiction, tv shows, podcasts, and movies. This strategy can also be used for fields that have some relation to one another. For example, Chemistry and Biology where you’ll be able to note both similarities and differences.
Deliberate Practice: This type of practice refers to focused concentration with the goal of furthering one’s abilities. Keeping in mind that some subjects are easier to do deliberate practice than others, generally, the gold standard of deliberate practice consists of the following:
A feedback loop in the form of a competition or a test
A teacher that can guide you
Uniquely tailored practice regiment
Outside of your comfort zone
Has a concrete goal or performance
When practicing, you need to concentrate fully
Builds or modifies skills
Has a known training method or mental model from experts in the field that you can aspire towards
Your Ideal Teacher: An experienced teacher can mean the difference between breaking through or breaking down. As such, it’s important to consider the following when looking for a teacher:
They are someone who can keep you up to date on specific progress
Provides practice exercises
Directs attention to what aspects of learning you should be paying attention to
Helps develop correct mental representations
Provides feedback on what errors you’re making
Gives you an aspirational model for what good performance looks like.
Dynamic Testing: As you learn it’s important to have some sort of feedback loop to see how much you’re actually learning and where your holes are. The easiest way to do this is with flashcards, but other ways could include writing a blog post or explaining a concept to a friend who can point out inconsistencies. In doing so, you’ll quickly notice the gaps in your knowledge and the concepts you need to revisit in your future learning sessions.
Pomodoro technique: This is a technique I’ve been using consistently for the past few years and I’ve been very happy with it so far. The concept is pretty simple, you start a timer for either 25 or 50 minutes, after which you focus on one single thing. Once the timer is up, you have a 5 or 10-minute break before starting again.
Common Learning Traps
Authority trap: The authority trap refers to the tendency to believe someone is correct simply because of their status or prestige. As an effective learner, it’s important to keep an open mind and be able to entertain multiple contradicting ideas. This is especially the case as you start getting deeper into a field of study, where certain issues are still being debated. Keeping an open mind and referencing multiple resources is key in forming the right mental models.
Confirmation bias: Only seeking out knowledge that confirms existing beliefs and disregarding counter evidence. If you find yourself agreeing with everything you’re learning, find something that you disagree with to mix things up.
Dunning Kruger effect: Not realizing you’re incompetent. To combat this, find ways to test your abilities through dynamic testing or in public forums.
Einstellung: Our mindset prevents us from seeing new solutions or grasping new knowledge. To counteract this, learn to step back from the problem and take a break. Sometimes all it takes is a relaxing hot shower or a long walk to be able to break through a tough conceptual learning challenge.
Fluency illusion: Learning something complex and thinking you understand it. For example, you may read about computing integrals thinking you understand them, then when tested you fail to get any of the answers correct. Thus having some sort of feedback loop to check your understanding is the quickest way to defuse this. Another way would be to explain what you learned to someone smarter than you
Multitasking: Switching constantly between tasks and thinking modes. When you’re learning, it’s important to focus completely on the learning material at hand. By letting your attention be hijacked by notifications or other less important tasks, you miss out on the ability to get into a flow state.
Steps For Learning
Before iterating through these steps, it’s important to compile a set of tasks and resources that you’ll be referencing during your time spent learning. You don’t want to waste time filtering through content, so make sure you have your learning material ready.
First, check your mood. Are you sleepy/agitated/upset? If so, change your mood before starting to learn. This could be as simple as taking a walk, drinking a cup of water, or taking a nap.
Before engaging with the material, try your best to forget what you know about the subject, opening yourself to new experiences and interpretations.
While learning, maintain an active mode of thinking and avoid lapsing into passive learning. This consists of questioning, prodding, and trying to connect the material back to previous experiences.
Once you’ve covered a certain threshold of material, you can then employ dynamic testing with the new concepts using flashcards with spaced repetition to convert the learning into long-term memory.
Once you’ve got a good grasp of the material, proceed to teach the concepts to someone else. This could be a friend or even a stranger on the internet
To really nail down what you learned, reproduce or incorporate the learning somehow into your life. This could entail writing, turning your learning into a mindmap or integrating it with other projects you’re working on.
Your Learning Journey
I challenge you to revisit an old hobby or learning project and employ some of the techniques outlined in this article. Realize that there may be some stumbling along the way, and a reversion to old habits (e.g. Highlighting and re-reading text), but keep trying and you’ll soon see how effective the new tools in your learning toolbox are!
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