Some Important Lessons on Improving your Learning

There have been some great advances in recent times on the most optimal ways to increase your learning of new material.

This field is of particular interest to me, given that my role involves convening and lecturing various universities courses, and teaching specialist courses to the public and private sectors. As an educator, my role goes beyond simply teaching students new material. It also involves teaching them how to learn.

I employ these new methodologies, not only to my classes, but also to my own learning strategies.

The key premise is that the traditional method of reading, then re-reading material multiple times, intertwined with copious amounts of highlighting etc, is simply one of the least productive ways to learn!

It may allow you to quickly absorb new material at a fairly shallow level, but it limits your ability to retain and deeply understand it, without allowing you to create connections to other material you already know.

Fortunately, there are much better ways:

  • Retrieval practice/Testing effect: The act of recalling information/skills/concepts from memory, be it via quizzes, or other forms of testing, has been proven to be a much more effective way of learning than simply rereading the information. It offers two key advantages:
    1. It strengthens your memory
    2. It arrests forgetting
  • Interleaving: The method of switching from one topic to another, before either is completed. This is contrast to the traditional way of completing learning one topic before moving on to the next. It’s been shown that by interleave the study of different topics, you learn each topic better than if you’d studied them one at a time in sequence.
  • Elaboration: The process of expressing new material or concepts in your own words, and forming connections with what you already know. This can also be done using metaphors or visual images to help clarify new concepts.
  • Spaced learning: The act of leaving enough time between study and practice, such that you start to forget a bit. This has been shown to make the memory and learning stronger.
  • Early attempts: The act of trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution. This has been shown to lead to better learning and longer retention of the correct solution, even when errors are made in the initial attempt, as long as corrective feedback is provided as immediately as possible.

Here is one very simple way that you can immediately start putting this into practice:

If your course has regular quizzes and tests, then make the most of them to reinforce your retrieval practice. If not, then simply self-test yourself by using regular self-quizzes to recalibrate your understanding of what you know/don’t know, and hence need to work on.

The basic idea is simply that if your learning is easy, then you’re more likely to forget the material. However, when you put the effort into learning, then it lasts longer and you’re more likely to understand the material at a deeper level.

I’ve worked in the technical field of Data Science my whole career, and even though I’ve moved across various domains and industries, one thing that’s remained constant has been the importance of continual learning. There’s always something new to learn ie yet another programming language, a new machine learning algorithm, a new business domain, etc…

One technique, in addition to the above, that’s greatly helped me deepen my knowledge in a new area, is to try explain it to two different groups of people:

  1. A domain expert: to help identify any gaps in my technical understanding, in both depth and breadth, and help guide me to fill these gaps
  2. A lay person: to ensure I’ve correctly understood the concepts and intuition at a deep level, and can tie the ideas to other related areas, minus any jargon that can mask a lack of understanding

If you’re inspired to learn more, as either a student or educator, here are some great books to get you started:

  • Make It Stick: Peter C. Brown
  • What The Best College Teachers Do: Ken Bain
  • Small Learnings: James M. Lang
  • Mindset: Carol Dweck

It’s also worth checking out the famous, and relatively simple, Feynman Technique, by the legendary physicist Richard Feynman. A key facet of his guide to successful learning centres on continually identifying and correcting gaps in your understanding.

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