When and How Do I Learn Something?

Updated on  | By | Permalink

Strategies and actions that have helped me learn and retain material.

Blogged essays, twittering professors, personalized robotic tutors, and other technological pixie dust are all wonderful, but before asking what are the appropriate technologies for a better education system, we must understand when and how students learn.

I’ve asked myself this question over the past few weeks and here’s what I’ve come up with.

When I Teach
Teaching someone else what I’ve learned forces me to clarify my thoughts. It also encourages me to focus on the aspects which are most difficult. When learning on your own, its easy to sweep the most confusing bits under the mental rug and pretend they don’t exist. But when you teach someone else, you’re forced to anticipate and respond to their confusion on those same topics. In many of my college courses, I’ll invite friends over to study for exams or do homework, even if I’ve already studied or completed the work myself because it gives me the opportunity to teach.

Now imagine if teaching was actually a built-in part of our education system instead of an accident that some lucky students discover. Grad students teaching undergrads, undergrads teaching high school students, high school students teaching middle school students, and so on. Sure, some of this happens already through teaching assistant positions and volunteer tutoring services, but I imagine a much richer system in which students would teach topics immediately after learning them, testing and solidifying their learning experience.

Another interesting strategy I would like to try are “symbiotic learning relationships.” Let’s say I’m taking a class on quantum mechanics, but I’m also interested in 14th century feminist architecture and, quite fortunately, you are taking a class on 14th century feminist architecture, but you’re interested in learning a little quantum mechanics. We would make a deal to meet once or twice a week and tutor each other in these subjects, teaching as we learn. This could be an interesting side program that students can participate in voluntarily.

When I Prepare a Presentation or Write Out My Thoughts
Presenting and writing are helpful for the same reasons as teaching. Blogging has the added benefit that, while sometimes I won’t be able to find someone nearby who shares my interests and gives me the opportunity to teach, I can always blog on even the most obscure of lessons. In the context of a unified learning strategy, I see blogging as a great backup for face-to-face teaching.

When I’m Corrected After Realizing I’ve Made a Mistake
I’ve noticed there’s a significant difference between whether I’m corrected before or after realizing I’ve made a mistake. If I’m corrected before, I’ll often brush off the correction, superficially adjust my thinking, not truly appreciate my own mistake, and simply make it again in the future. However, if I realize I’ve made a mistake and struggle a bit with correcting myself first, then a correction comes as a welcome insight and I appreciate much better the change in my mental model that needs to take place. Good teachers don’t rush to correct students; they first encourage them to recognize their mistake and try to correct it themselves.

When I Summarize an Approach
After I solve a problem, write a proof, or otherwise come to understand a new concept, taking the time to review the approach I used is crucial to storing that lesson for future use. After a particularly difficult homework problem, my first instinct is often to run away in triumph, but resisting that urge and taking the time to reflect is probably the most important opportunity for learning in a course. Every problem is a chance to learn something new… if you stick around long enough to do so. A policy I’ve found helpful is to write myself a little note (in the book or on the assignment) after every problem I’ve solved, summarizing the general approach I used and any new insights I gleaned.

When I Read Slowly and Think in Pictures
This is a little trick I picked up from Richard Feynman. Don’t read faster than you can picture what you’re reading. It’s easy to read a paper or book at breakneck speed, superficially recognizing all the ideas and their connections and convincing yourself you understand everything. But for me, there’s a huge difference between keeping track of concepts as words and doing so with pictures. With pictures, I’m less likely to forget any particular detail, I can watch how different ideas interact, and I can tell myself a story as I read. Without pictures, concepts are represented in my mind as lifeless words and I’ll miss much of the interesting consequences of what I read.

So as I read, I’ll make sure to represent each concept or detail with something visual. Say I’m reading about an atom - I might picture a little ball. Then I read its positively charged - I add some hair to the ball. Later on, I won’t forget that the atom is positively charged because I’ll always be reminded by the hair. The pictures can be total nonsense; the important thing is that I have some visual representation to work with.

When I Take Action on Something
I asked one friend the motivating question for this post and his response was, “When my learning is directly responsible for saving me from a charging bear.” While not every educational moment can be this epic, immediately using the information I’ve gained through a new or existing project makes it far more likely to stick with me. What project means here really depends on the lesson learned. For particularly abstract lessons, like a new mathematical theorem or definition, a “project” might be a proof whereas for a new physical phenomena (like the dispersion of light through a glass of water), a project might be as simple as a quick experiment.

When I Learn Collaboratively
Figuring something out on my own can be fun, but the exciting back-and-forth that takes place when I do so with someone else is often even better. I find those moments energize me for the rest of the day and often lead to vivid and fond memories.

So what about you? Have any to add? Taking the time to reflect on a list like this for yourself might be very helpful in making the best of your time.