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Weekly 3: Learn smarter, not harder


Idea Journal Weekly 3

January 24 · Issue #175 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: You can make your individual learning process more effective and efficient. This issue explores 3 approaches.
(~5 min read)

#1. Take responsibility for your learning
AI researcher and linguist Michael Covington writes that there are four ways to learn difficult material more effectively: 
1. Have goals and adjust them often: You have to want to learn something. Don’t wait passively for a teacher or some book to “take you on a ride.” 
You must have specific goals. For example, we don’t read textbooks like novels, to see where they go. We read textbooks because we want them to tell us something. 
And because you don’t start out knowing exactly what you’re going to learn, you have to constantly update your goals as new material comes up.
2. Use an appropriate learning strategy: As Covington notes: “Different kinds of material require different learning strategies.”
For example, when you’re learning history or literature, the main goal is understanding – not solving a problem. A secondary goal is familiarization with lots of things. 
On the other hand, when you’re learning computer science or engineering, the main goal is to apply science to solve problems.
Covington points out that: “A student who is only good at one subject is often someone who only has one learning strategy.”
3. Insist on clear understanding: If something is unclear, don’t wait to clear it up later. Stop, back up, and get clear: “Find the first word you didn’t understand.”
Unfortunately, our educational system encourages unclear understanding: “If 70% is a passing grade, you can almost get by with nothing but guesses and vague familiarity.”
For example, 70% knowledge of American history is worthwhile, but 70% of the multiplication table is nearly useless.
4. Organize the knowledge for yourself: Make your own notes, even pretend that you’re writing a textbook. 
As Covington puts it: “Don’t expect the teacher or the textbook to organize the contents of your head for you.”
After all, “the knowledge in your mind is your own creative product.”
#2. Use all your senses
The concept of learning styles is a set of theories proposing that each of us has a preferred way of learning, and it groups people into one of the following categories:
  • Auditory learners who learn best by hearing information
  • Kinesthetic learners who learn best through movement and by touching things
  • Visual learners who learn best by seeing the material they want to learn
But as professor and bioengineering researcher Barbara Oakley points out in her online course Mindshift, while scientists agree that people process information differently, there are two problems with the idea that each of us has a fixed learning style:
1. Lack of evidence that it works: “There’s no statistically significant difference when it comes to the relationship between learning style preference and instructional method for your ability to comprehend the materials.”
2. It puts you at a disadvantage: Relying on only one of your senses can weaken your ability to learn in other ways. For example, if you think you’re an auditory learner, then you’ll try to learn by listening. But you won’t get as much practice reading, and that will hurt you if, for instance, you have to take a written test.
Oakley writes in her book Learning How to Learn that when you’re learning something, you should take advantage of all your senses.
At deep levels of your brain, you see and hear, you see and smell, you hear and touch: “When your brain creates its impressions of the world, you want as many senses involved as possible.”
#3. Take a little bit at a time
Author Dan Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent that for whatever skill you’re learning, the pattern is always the same: “See the whole thing. Break it down into its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.”
As Coyle points out, every skill is built out of smaller pieces. These are what researchers call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language.
Alone, each smaller piece isn’t very useful, but when it’s combined with a slightly bigger chunk (words), and when those chunks are then combined with even bigger ones (paragraphs, sentences), they can create something complex and valuable.
Here are three steps you can take to start chunking any skill you want to learn:
1. Engrave the skill on your brain
You can do this by intensely observing someone else performing the skill well. The key to effective engraving is to create a strong connection: “to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill.”
For physical skills like dancing, imagine yourself inside the performer’s body, and become aware of their movements and rhythm.
For skills that are more mental, you’re trying to recreate the expert’s decision patterns: “Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by re-giving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.”
2. Master one chunk
Ask yourself: what is the smallest single element of the skill that you can master?
Coyle recommends using a technique he calls the “smallest achievable perfection.” Pick a single chunk that you can perfect – not just improve at or work on, but get 100 percent consistently correct.
For example, a tennis player might choose to focus on the serve toss, or a salesperson might focus on the twenty-second pitch they’ll make to an important client.
3. Combine the chunks
Once you’ve mastered one chunk, look for other chunks that link to it.
Coyle gives the example of how students at the Meadowmount School of Music learn.
First, they cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces in a hat, and then pull each section out at random. Once they’ve mastered each separate section of music, they start combining them in the right order – like puzzle pieces.
As Skye Carman, one of the school’s violin instructors, puts it: “It works because the students aren’t just playing the music on autopilot – they’re thinking.”
Quote of the week
“Until now, learning methods have probably been hit-or-miss – frustrating, inconsistent, and inefficient. No one bothered to teach you the most important academic skill: how to learn.”
- Author, educator, and hedge fund advisor Adam Robinson in his book What Smart Students Know
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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