Learning (Part 2)

In the previous post, I showed you all a Quora answer I gave about learning based primarily on learning facts. Below is another question I answered that focused on learning concepts and developing a correct intuition. It’s arguably more powerful.

What is the best way to learn and remember information?

The ultimate goal of learning is to take information that exists outside of your mind, and create a robust, recallable, and useable representation of it inside your mind.

Everyone is certainly aware of the “inside your mind” component. But how often do we consider “robust,” “recallable,” and “useable” when we try to learn? When I was a university teaching assistant, I saw that most students barely gave any thought to these.

If a student’s learning strategy consists only of memorizing whole passages of books and lecture notes via repetition, would they do well?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west…

Perhaps…at first. But what happens when the material grows in size and complexity? Over time, this strategy is doomed.

Let’s return to the main goal of learning; we are not satisfied just with any mental representation. We need a great one. Our goal is to fix it in your brain so well that it becomes as real and readily accessible to you as any physical tool in your hand.

Breaking it down:

  • For your learning to be robust, it needs to be connected to your world view. The concept needs to be real beyond all doubt, no matter how you look at it.

Sunrises and sunsets are determined by the motion of the earth. People wake up in New York before they wake up in Los Angeles. Sundials are oriented northward, and their shadows’ movement inspired the design of clocks (clockwise). This all only makes sense if the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

  • To make your learning recallable,  you need to have the ability to pull it from your memory without any external cues to the answer. Be honest with yourself and consciously avoid illusions of competence.

I just heard the above sunrise/sunset explanation from a friend, and it makes sense. I should see if I can reproduce my friend’s explanation after lunch. If I can’t honestly do it at that point, I’ll review and try again after dinner.

For your learning to be useable, you need to apply it to problems. Furthermore, you must monitor how easily you were able to employ that concept and arrive at the correct conclusion. An example problem: which direction (east or west) should you direct a rocket that is deploying a satellite in orbit around the earth?

A satellite needs to go at high speeds to maintain orbit. The earth is already rotating in a particular direction, so that is an automatic boost in speed; if the rocket goes in the same direction, it can use far less fuel, so the rocket can be much smaller and cheaper. Since we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the earth must be rotating eastward. Therefore, the rocket should be directed east.

This is how you learn.

A final word on learning — your mind works just like a muscle, and therefore it needs to be exercised. Space out your learning and use it often.

Now go and be unstoppable.

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