Learning How to Learn

What a bloody mess
In the past few months, I have challenged myself to embark on projects that I would have normally avoided. The daily cold water shower habit for instance, was painfully difficult to get used to. Even my neighbors were concerned, asking me if I was alright.

“We heard noises in the bathroom,” they would say in thick Chinese accent,” I heard a baby cry?”

The cold water shower, as it turned out, was essential for me to complete my next challenge of being able to show up on work way before time, every single day. It’s pure wonder how a jolt of freezing liquid could do to wake you up get you all jump started. In quite literal terms.

With success on such grueling tasks, I set out to enlist other further things I wanted to do. I wanted to brew my own beer, wanted to bake my own bread, wanted to improve on my cooking, expand my knowledge on wine and understand women. The last one didn’t go so well after being dumped and being told that I didn’t understand her at all. What cow crap.

yep, challenge status: compete. life status: incomplete 
These are all fine and well, but these are more on the “hobby” side of things. I am an adult now, and the sooner I come to terms with that, the better. That means being able to pay my own bills, bread and booze. Which basically boils down being able to earn a living.

Now the way I see it, my logic follows this following trajectory:

1.     I want to do what I want to do: Brew my beer, Bake my bread, invite people for dinner, feed them, keep up with the lifestyle I have and what not
2.     For that I need money
3.     That means having to do what I have to do: Research, studying and building an educational capital base

In other words, in order for me to do have time to do what I want to do, I have to finish up what I have to do. I might have stolen a line or two from the book “Taking the Stairs” but never was this line so personal to me.

The problem I am having with myself, in all honesty, is that I am an astonishingly lazy f**k who wants to do everything and be good at whatever I am doing. See where the logic fails?

So in order for me to drag myself into being good at what I do, I need to be able to learn the work in deeper, more intuitive manner. That would then allow me to build a capital which I could use to leverage a deal to fund my hobbies.

That means learning how to effectively learn first.

What I have noticed with people, over the years of being spanked and beaten up by kids who seem smarter, educated and well versed at what they do is that they imply effective learning techniques that they know works for them and use that into performing better than their peers. The Nripesh’s, the Pujan’s, the subigay’s, the sagars, the SNU kids, all but implement a well-oiled strategy that has helped them to learn and do whatever they are doing and be really, really good at it.

That means that not only does learning imply on doing well on studies, but also learning life skills that are quintessential to being who they are.

In recent days, I have been following this guy called Scott Young, the same Scott Young who took up the challenge to complete MIT’s 4-year undergraduate Computer Science program and finish it in a year without having to enroll in any classes or having to be accepted into MIT. Yes, he just used the open curriculum available and online lectures to grind his way to completing the “degree.”

To say the least, he finished it with aplomb. I watched his series of youtube videos on how he managed to do so while half expecting him to end up rugged, all beaten up and crazy at the end of that particular series. In fact, he looked surprisingly normal and sane.

The beauty of Scott forcing himself to undertake and complete the challenge is that it forced him to cultivate better, effective learning techniques which I want to try out and see if I can actually learn something from my shitty lectures that I have had to take. The books are huge and tedious, boring, stale and it basically sucks the life out of me so instead of doing what I was doing before, I have therefore, decided to implement, some, if not all, of the things he outlined in his lecture.

The outline.
Has anyone seen my glasses?
Interested? Well I have summarized the things he has said in his lecture here for me and you. I have basically broken down the writing into two parts; One with the basic idea that I knew I had in my pocket and the next which I found to be quite different to the way I approach studying all bolded out. 

Let’s start out where things can get a little tricky…


Quite frankly, I have had issues with motivating myself to sit down and study the subjects that don’t come naturally for me. That’s why I never improved my Nepali, or I simply dropped the heat transfer course because I found them incredibly difficult to motivate myself to drill through them.

The way Scott says it, in very simple two point terms, is to have faith in that:

1.     Every subject that you learn can be interesting
The point he makes here is to make/find a connection between what you are learning and what you love doing. For instance, I hate biology and chemistry. I just despise the subjects. But recently, having to deal with yeasts and hops and what not to brew and bake, I have really found learning about amino acids, peptides, proteins and yeast behavior interesting. I wouldn’t mind taking the chemistry lab course again, if I have to.

2.     Every subject can be learnable
Again, he says that once the interest is cultivated, it is possible to learn, mind you, any subject. He mentions that you just need to be able to see the connection and work on it. Having this belief, he mentions, will help to put the right frame of mind to start grinding.

This is easier said than done. True.

Learning how to learn better:

Scott mentions that every time you go over a new concept, it’s highly effective to use the Feynman’s technique; a technique devised by the famous Richard Feynman where one basically goes about taking a blank piece of paper and starts explaining to himself/herself like how one would go about explaining to someone else.

What this does is it forces you to think about the concepts you learnt and identify any confusions you have on the particular matter. This identification is crucial, he states. Once you have located the missing piece of the puzzle, it is important to reinforce the learning by looking at the book/lecture again on that particular piece and understand it.
This pinpointing is part of “depth of processing” which I will explain later.

Concentration and Focus:

Basically studying can be broken down into active and passive tasks. Passive task would be reading or listening to a lecture where you allow the information to flow over you. This is generally how most students think what they do when they mention that they are “studying.” Active would mean to basically use your brain to actively solve problems and solutions and just you know, make the brain work.

The lack of focus largely stems when we are on the Passive frame of studying where distractions can come by easy. What Scott mentions is to:

1.     Mix active and passive:
Read through, take notes. Not notes so that you can read it later but notes that you make to actually dig into the concepts that are new. Reading and then summarizing the idea helps to maintain focus.

2.     Use the technique how athletes train:
Athletes tend to workout on bursts. They train hard for a certain period of time and then they rest almost the equal amount of time. This helps them to recover the lost energy, get in that “second breath” and train better, more focused and concentrated.
The same can be applied to studying. Studying in bursts; Scott mentions that if you can only concentrate for 20 minutes. Do it and take a break. Then increase the time to 25. Do it and take a break. Workout, Relax. Workout Relax. Push, Pull.

Good Study Habits:

Scott mentions two things again he found effective:
My non-study to-do list. Notice how this is the wrong approach

1.     The Classic To-Do-List

I think everyone has, atleast once in their life, made a to-do list in their lives. It’s easy, fast and effective way to outline all of the day’s objectives. What Scott does mention here is to tweak this into three ways:

A.    Daily/ Weekly To do list
Make both a daily and weekly study lists of things that you want to complete. The weekly list gives you a grander picture of what you want to achieve this week and the daily list helps you to chunk that work into pieces and work on them one step at a time.

Here’s where the thing gets really interesting:

B.     Top Down Approach
Scott mentions the Top Down Approach which basically states that you want to do most of the work done on the morning than evening and similarly, most work completed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays than the rest of the week.
Why? He mentions that it’s a cure for the three problems that most students undergo; procrastination, no social life and burnouts.

I find this very intriguing indeed. In hindsight, being able to (or forcing) focus and complete the work earlier and scheduling lesser work during the night would allow to free up space for much needed rest, recuperation and social interactions. This also means I have time for whatever I want to do during the weekends.

C.     Knowing when to Stop
Studying and working is an endless process. You finish one, you have the next one to do. The amount is just staggering, if you really take the time to think about it. Having a practical to-do list allows you to know when to stop, Scott says. He says that everytime he finishes the day’s “goals,” he basically powers down and ends it there.

2.     Depth of Processing

A recurring theme on his video, Scotts insistence on how well you go through the text is ultra obvious. He’s argument is how students go through notes over and over again without actually understanding the core concepts. They might be able to sit down on the exams and ace it but that’s really not the point here. The point here is to learn and build capital that would later allow you to have the skills to nick out a living. To do that you need to have depth in what you understand.

One thing he mentions here besides the techniques mentioned before; the active/passive way of studying, using Feynman’s technique of asking yourself to explain the idea, is to use visualization and analogies to help explain the concept.

Which brings us to the idea of how to deal with difficult subjects. Say we encounter a course that’s not intuitive and we need to read and understand the chapter given to us for reading. He mentions four layers of careful, slow process of learning

a.    Reading the text actively. Writing down new concepts on a piece of paper, jotting down important points in own words rather than copying it.
b.  Using the Feynman’s technique, going over things that you know you can’t explain.  
c.     Use analogies to explain the idea better. Use visualization if necessary
d.     Practice questions to pinpoint whether the idea has been reinforced. The practice questions should have the answer with you on the side so that finishing a question and then immediately looking at how it has been answered and comparing that to your work. Here the key is feedback.

It is agreed that this type of process is time consuming but it better helps to retain the information for a longer period of time while enabling us to have an intuitive sense of the concepts being presented.

Which then brings us to reading a textbook for those of us who find self-learning is the key and class learning is utter bullshit. I will quickly point out one interesting thing he pointed out on taking notes while studying:

“The purpose is not to have a perfect note that you make to go over it later. The purpose is to understand while you make the note.”

That honestly has been my problem. I have always set aside notes for “some later time” studying only to be thrown away into the bin some months later. He also mentions about understanding the “Big Idea” about the whole chapter but that’s not something student’s haven’t done.

So yeah, that should wrap up the learning how to learn segment. I am curious as to see how some of the techniques I have learnt through writing this post will have an impact on the way I learn. I might have an exclusive “tested and checked” post up later so stay tuned.

Time to forget about learning and take care of my primal needs to scavenge for food.

Additional reading/viewing:
Scott's Guest Blog on Carl Newportman's Study Hack Blog [HERE]

Scott Young's Youtube Channel [HERE]

Scott Young on TED [HERE]


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