Learning How To Learn

Image courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt
Image: D Sharon Pruitt

I read a lot…mostly nonfiction; business books, history, science, and cognitive psychology, not to mention the endless online journals, blogs, software tutorials, and news articles. When it comes to the practical application of Big Ideas retention rapidly fades. I have so many books I want to read I jump into the next one, hoping that all of this information is somehow being stored in my personal cerebral cloud for later recall. It is easy to become addicted to the novelty of something new.

To apply my rudimentary understanding of cognitive bias or Bayesian inference to a problem, it is not enough to have a broad conceptual familiarity these complex and counterintuitive ideas. I need to strengthen my thinking skills, and that requires intentional practice.

Ideas and skills are encoded in the brain through the process of recall, particularly randomized recall that allows some in-between time for forgetting to occur; not too much forgetting, just enough to create cognitive effort and some failure when recalling the skill. It turns out that contrary to what many of us have been taught, mass repetition (repeating that difficult four-bar musical passage for an hour until you go into a trance) is not the most efficient way to learn; better to spread the drilling over several days and contexts.

Some books are designed around how we learn, continually coming back to key ideas, synopsizing chapters, and building quizzes into the text. I have tried the time consuming task of taking extensive notes while reading, but my notes tend to be forgotten when I move to the next field of study.

Lately I have begun experimenting with flash cards. While reading, I note ideas I want to learn, dig deeper with additional research, and develop flash cards to quiz myself. I am using a program for the Mac and iOS called Flashcard Hero. The program allows you to easily create you own card decks which are stored in the cloud and sync to a free iPhone app. It is easy to quiz yourself anytime, customize the look of the cards, and shuffle them randomly. We’ll see how this goes.

What learning techniques work for you?

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