Learning How to be a Better Learner

, Learning, Personal, Certification

Learning How to be a Better Learner

Throughout my life I have always been interested in learning new things, exploring new ideas and generally trying to learn more. Last year at work when undertaking a refresher course in presenting I used learning as the subject for a presentation we were asked to give on a passion. I am thankful to my parents, family and those who have influenced me throughout my life that they instilled this passion in me. I have no doubt it has aided me immensely in my work life as those who work in technology are constantly learning new things - patterns, frameworks, technology stacks, languages and platforms are just a few areas that come to mind.

For my work I also have a number of industry accreditations and certifications to achieve and maintain as part of my role and for future career development. These certifications require me to ensure I have learned a set of material. I have found that as time has progressed, I have other priorities and items within my life that take focus away from my ability to study effectively and I am concerned that I am getting close to just cramming for certain exams rather than studying the material and retaining it at a deeper level as I did when at university for example.

Not only was I wanting to improve my abilties to learn this material to help me prepare for exams and retain the information more long term, I was interested in just generally maximising the way I learn information to hopefully open up my abilities to dive back into different topics. How can I get back into learning mathematics or better learn a language, or even a completely new topic to me all together? How can I broaden my horizons to help me perhaps see connections between concepts that I hadn’t noticed before?

Learning How to Learn

I came across the Coursera course Learning How to Learn late last year and read very favourable reviews about it both on Coursera and through some active research myself. The primary course leader, Dr. Barbara Oakley, is the author of the book “A Mind for Numbers” which has been on my reading list for a while. The course covers a very broad set of information and gives a number of useful tips and tricks on learning and improving your ability to learn effectively and retain information. I want to discuss some of these items here and talk about how I have tried to use them to improve my ability to study and learn, hoping that this may help or encourage a few others to apply some of these techniques for their own success.

Breaking Some Pre-Conceptions

Like everyone I have some pre-conceived notions of my understanding of learning, a combination of things I have learned through the years in school/university and things I have been told. One of the best parts of this course is the fact that the course leaders are both leading experts in the field on the cutting edge of research - so the information is far more reliable and up to date than any source that isn’t you going out and reading a ton of scientific papers.

The two biggest pre-conceptions I had which were helpfully shattered were around the size of my working memory and illusions of learning. I had long believed from a psychology course I did many years ago that the brain could hold 7 items (with some fluidity) in working memory at any time and that any more than that for say a shopping list you should write down. It turns out that this is an overestimation and that the true number is actually closer to 4 items. Any more than that and you are going to have issues. Not only did this have an immediate impact on the way I have been planning the items I wish to study at a time by reducing the number of key pieces of info, but also made me quickly review the way in which I managed other areas of my life to avoid trying to have more than 4 things in my head at once.

Secondly, the course talks about the illusions of learning that exist for all of us and this really both hit home about the way I study, but also changed some of the techniques that I now use in studying. Highlighting, as an example, is really not a great idea. Just reading something is not a great idea. To put it simply, the way in which you study and learn the material has a big impact on how comfortable your brain is with the material and whether or not therefore the learning will be effective. For example, highlighting can have a tendency to lead to you highlighting a large amount of text or information within the passage or document, which then reduces the amount you can start to remember as you are simply just highlighting most of the text and not focussing on key information. It is similar with simply reading the material, doing so will not provide you a deep understanding and your brain will start to “skip ahead”, especially if it encounters information it recognises. I personally noticed this immediately as one of the things I have found I occasionally need to force myself to do is read through material more slowly when revising it, as I begin skipping where my brain is telling me “yep we got this”. Most commonly this is because it is material that I understand when reading it, however I will not necessarily remember all the details when attempting to recall it later.

Recall & Spaced Repetition

Instead, as you begin to learn material you should ensure that you attempt to recall items from what you have just read or studied to test yourself and reinforce the learning. Work by Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke showed that students who tested themselves on their recall of material they had just learned had a much deeper learning of the material than students who studied the material and added concept mapping. By testing yourself early you reinforce the neural pathways created in learning the material and this again can be further enhanced by using spaced repition to test yourself on the material long term. A great example of a tool I have been using that utilises this methodology is Duolingo, which teaches foreign languages and aids the student in learning by testing them using spaced reptition to ensure that they have truly learned the material and helping to reinforce their recall. Tools such as Anki also help you to write and create your own flashcards and review material which it will then space out for you to learn. A great write up on spaced repetition from Dr. Karpicke with a wealth of references can be found here.

Deliberate Practice & Interleaving

Similarly for subjects where recall is not the sole aim (think sports, mathematics and computer programming instead of language vocabulary learning, historical facts etc.), deliberate practice is a key tool that should be undertaken. With deliberate practice you aim to avoid the trap of the Einstellung effect whereby you increase your illusion of competence through repeating the same action or pattern at the expense of learning new material. A good example of this personally is learning new programming languages, platforms and frameworks. At first the unfamiliarity of the language means that recreating a previous application or project using the new language is a great way of enabling myself to get to grips with the syntax or foibles of the language, but after that has been done I need to push my competencies to further develop learning. What features does this language have that those I have used before does not which I can work with? How do I extend this existing application or improve its performance using this new language?

Pushing yourself at the edges of your competency and understanding not only ensures that you are avoiding illusions of competence but also aids in furthering your understanding of the material via a process called interleaving. Interleaving has been found to be extremely important in helping you to improve your ability to understand and master concepts and material by working on related items that require different strategies to complete the task. Undertaking this form of deliberate practice ensures that you are connecting concepts and understanding in a deeper way. It is often more uncomfortable when beginning but leads to you connecting the chunks of information you have learned in new and exciting ways that both reduce the issue of einstellung and leads to you thinking more independently and creatively about the problems you are solving and the material you have learned. Going back to my previous example of learning a new programming language, it would be learning a new concept from that language I had not previously used, a recent example being closures when I was brushing up on my JavaScript skills. They are a more advanced language topic but allow the some problems to be solved in a more interesting or secure way.

Where Do I Go From Here?

These are just a few of the topics that I have personally found extremely useful from the course and begun to incorporate into my daily practices alongside existing ones such as the pomodoro technique, which I have used for a few years after being shown it by a former work colleague. I know that a lot of those who have read this blog are developers and Salesforce community members who take certifications and are always looking to improve themselves. I would highly recommend that for any of those studying either for some of the certifications I have highlighted in earlier posts or just aiming to improve their knowledge overall to try and undertake some of these practices. Break the information down into small chunks and focus on learning them and testing your recall early in your study. Make sure you test this recall with spaced repetition and practice deliberately the material you have learned as well as different strategies for approaching the problem or using the technology.

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