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Learning to Learn
I have been learning incorrectly all my life. And this is such a valuable skill that I wish I had been taught more about this back in school. And so if I could go back in time, I will change how I learn (and also buy a ton of TSLA stocks).
We are learning all the time. And of course it doesn’t stop after we finish school. At work, we learn how to specialize in our roles, how to interact with people, and a myriad of other things. Learning happens outside work as well, when we read books or even when interact with friends. The difference between school and real life is that there is no fixed syllabus, and there is nobody to help us.
Unfortunately though, most of us have not learned how to learn well. For example, for the longest of time, I used to read books and put them away, hardly ever to think about them again. Slowly but surely I would forget whatever I read.
It is like filling your car’s gas tank even though it has a big hole leaking the fuel.
I have always been fascinated by how some people know a lot more than me. And often times I have wondered how someone else’s comprehension is so much better than mine even though we both studied the same thing. So that’s why I started doing some research many years back, and stumbled across an interesting book called Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown. It is just my naivete, because it has taken a while for this knowledge to sink in and for me to start adopting some of this. Only for the past one year or so, I am slowly changing how I learn.
A lot of things have been written about learning (in the book and elsewhere). Some people talk about visual learning, others on how to mix different kinds of material, and so on. A lot of these ideas are valid and useful, but if you want to get 90% of the benefits with one trick, there is one: retrieval (and it’s cousins like reflection, elaboration etc., which you will encounter below).
This post is largely based on the book. Retrieval is just one chapter, and I would recommend picking up the book for the other techniques as well. I will add some quotes from the book below.
Importance of Retrieval
The most effective method of learning is retrieval, and the least effective is rereading. Let that sink in.
I have been learning ineffectively all my life by rereading most of the time. What a waste of time!
When you reread something, you are not learning but just recognizing: your brain will tell you, “aha, I remember reading this,” and all it does is to give you false sense of confidence about the mastery of the material. If you were to take a test, that’s when you realize that you don’t know anything!
If you read something, try to recollect it later instead of going back to that material and reading it.
Retrieval strengthens memory. If you want to get fancy, you can read up on Ebbinghaus’s work and adopt Spaced Repetition. I have been using it for improving my retention from books with the help of readwise (though it doesn’t do a good job of forcing you to retrieve, but that’s for another day).
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Testing and self-testing
Testing is a good way to force you to retrieve and recollect. I don’t go to school anymore, so I don’t have tests. I can rely on self-testing where I can ask myself questions about what I have read or learnt.
For self-testing, you can ask specific questions and try to see how well you can answer.
When you do this, you are not only retrieving and strengthening the memory, but also forming better mental models and connecting to what you already know.
In 2010 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested.
In fact, here is a less intuitive way of learning: even before you start reading a chapter or attempt to learn, try telling what the chapter is about. Or if you come across a question for which you are just about to read the answer, try to answer yourself even if you haven’t the faintest clue. This has been shown to improve learning.
In Range, David Epstein writes:
One of those desirable difficulties is known as the “generation effect.” Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. Socrates was apparently on to something when he forced pupils to generate answers rather than bestowing them. It requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.
This is more useful for our everyday jobs, where often times there is no set material to read. You go through a busy day, tackling several challenges at work, and afterwards you can sit down to reflect. You reflect on what exactly transpired, how to change things around etc.
Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.
.. if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.
That’s just incredible, that “there’s no known limit to how much you can learn.”
Elaboration can take the form of speaking, or in fact, writing (which is a lot more effective). When you elaborate, not only are you exercising retrieval, but you get to know all the holes in your knowledge, so that you can go back and fill those holes.
But the catch of course is that all of this takes time.
It ain’t easy
If you spend 1 hour reading a book, you can take one more hour to write about it in your own words by retrieving from memory. But you may protest by saying you don’t have that extra one hour. Well, if all you had was one hour, you could be reading for 30 minutes and then spending the next 30 minutes on elaboration.
Agreed that this strategy may not be necessary for all the books and for everything you read. You could instead spend 10 minutes trying to recollect after reading for an hour, and think of the salient points.
All of this is extra effort and mentally exhausting, and we don’t want to do it. I don’t like doing it either and it is very tempting to move on and so that I can go on to other interesting stuff.
But that’s a terrible strategy (if your goal is to optimize for long-term learning and retention).
Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.
And like David Epstein put it “It requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.”
I am indeed slowly trying to change myself. This year I want to read less books precisely for this reason.
How will you change how you learn and read?