Learning to Learn
It is incredible to me how, even at the college level, many students still see learning as a linear function of time. By this I mean that they approach learning as a process that simply happens when you sit down with the material, and that throwing time at a subject is the only way to improve understanding and recollection. Learning is a complex mental process that humans are only just beginning to understand, but from what has been uncovered one thing is abundantly clear: there are approaches and mindsets that can boost, or block, the learning process, and one’s ability to grasp any subject is by no means predetermined or just a matter of time spent studying.
I was lucky enough to realize at a young age that just like everything else, learning can be learned. Since then, I have been crafting my approach to learning based on the findings of cognitive psychology and the teachings of some of the greatest minds on earth. I taught a private class to fellow students on the side while I was a student at Harvard University on this, and the thirty or so peers of mine who took it at some point over two years all saw significant improvements in their grades and in their time available outside of academics. Following are the main approaches and skills I emphasized and the resources I referred students to (and I won’t make you pay the $300 Harvard students used to pay to learn them).
Associations Are The Key to Learning
If you approach learning as placing individual pieces of information into your brain, and making no active effort to truly construct an understanding, you are doing yourself a disservice. Your understanding and recollection of material will be much worse than someone who spends the same amount of time as you but is spending it intelligently. And when your professor asks an exam question that requires critical thinking and deriving further meaning from the material, the other student will likely blow you out of the water.
Learning is best done when it is viewed as a process of “constructing an understanding.” Every piece has somewhere to go, and is connected to something else in the structure. Just thinking about learning this way when you read a textbook or lecture notes, be it for math or history, will lead you to learn better.
Numbers to Leave Numbers
“Numbers to Leave Numbers” is a phrase coined by Josh Waitzkin, world champion in chess and in Tai Chi. It refers to his approach to learning, which is to build the foundation of a subject so strongly it becomes close to intuition. The term refers to one instance of this, which is numbers losing their technical character after one has enough practice with them. You no longer have to think about what 3 means, or what 4+7 represents. It becomes second nature.
This idea is crucial to being able to understand the complex areas of any subject. Consider the following math example. If you are still shaky on derivatives and integrals when you start to learn Taylor series, you will have little chance of understanding. And I don’t mean just being able to calculate them, that does not show understanding. I mean understanding what a derivative is, what it means. Textbooks always spend a long time discussing the seemingly simple aspects of this, and reading through it carefully will likely lead to a pretty good understanding. But so many of the students I worked with simply skimmed or skipped this section. The understanding was not needed to simply calculate a derivative according to set formulas, so why bother. But when they got further on in the class, they were completely lost. I recommended they go back and read the early sections, and for all of them things started to become much clearer. When I took calculus, the median grade on the midterm was 42%. Keep in mind these were Harvard students. My grade? 95%. Some people brushed this off as me simply being a “genius,” but I knew that it was because I consciously built a foundation from the ground up, understanding the parts of the whole. Everyone else had tried to grasp the complex while still being unsure of the simple. This is not a learning method that will yield good results.
I had an intuition of this process for years, but truly grasped it when I discovered the writings of Josh Waitzkin, after which I truly started exceeding in school. Waitzkin is probably one of the best people to learn this approach from, as he has written extensively about how he used it to become a world champion in two incredibly difficult fields in a very short time. Reading his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance was one of the most important steps to developing my approach to learning that has gotten me so far. Aside from that, it just takes a little commitment and some practice to start learning subjects much more effectively.
Believe in the Incremental Learning Hypothesis
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found some pretty incredible patterns in her research on learning. Namely, she has found that people who view intelligence as malleable and able to be bettered (people who hold an incremental learning hypothesis) are better learners and more motivated to persevere in difficult topics. Her research also found that when people believe intelligence is innate (people with an entity learning hypothesis) they are less likely to be able to understand new topics, they are more likely to give up, and they can even lose the ability to understand things they previously could after trying something hard.
Clearly, on an exam you do not want your brain to shut down your ability to solve problems that seem difficult, and you certainly do not want hard problems to ruin your ability to do the easy problems. But this is exactly what Dr. Dweck has found happens to people who believe intelligence is innate. In one experiments, children who viewed intelligence as innate were given an easy math problem set, a very hard math problem set, and another easy one. They cruised through the first one, gave up easily on the second one, and then incredibly could no longer answer the easy problems on the third one!
Meanwhile, in that study another group of children who viewed intelligence as something you could build with hard work were given the same problem sets. These children also solved the first set, and tried for a very long time to solve the hard set, and then were able to do the last set as easily as the first.
So, it seems apparent that it is in your favor to believe that intelligence is not innate, but rather gained. No matter what you currently believe, you can and should shift your views. The study discussed above is just one of many pieces of evidence that intelligence is not all innate. Before you do homework or go into an exam, read an article or research that argues that intelligence is not innate. Dr. Dweck has found that this alone can improve performance on tests. Furthermore, read enough of it and you will start to believe it, and you will start learning better.
Learning is not as straightforward as many think it is. It is affected by mindsets and actions in ways we cannot understand, but it is to your advantage to take advantage of what we do know. Learning is a skill that can be learned, and something you can make a conscious effort towards doing better.
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