Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning. I’m studying banjo and fiction writing and Spanish at the moment. Sometimes things seem to be going well, other times, not so much. Thanks to the magic of the YouTube recommendations algorithm and the generosity of people in my FaceBook writing groups, I’ve found some terrific information recently that I think is going to be really helpful.
The Feynman approach
If you want to understand something, explain it simply.
You can do this in person, if you have someone handy, preferably a kid who will keep asking you “why?” I often discover how inadequate my own understanding is when I try to explain something to someone else. Of course, that can be embarrassing, and not everyone may want to listen to you flail around.
An easier approach is to explain it on paper. Here are the steps:
- Write the name of the thing you want to understand at the top
- Explain it in simple terms. Include examples and ways to use the information.
- Identify problem areas where your explanation is weak or your understanding is shaky. Go back and learn more, then revise your explanation.
- Identify any technical terms or complexity, and try to simplify your explanation.
Here’s a post from Thomas Frank with more details, a video, and links.
And I recommend checking out Richard Feynman himself. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist and a great explainer.Here’s a website dedicated to him, and here’s one
of his books that even us non-physicists can enjoy.
To remember more, give your brain more time to consolidate the information, and give yourself a chance to forget a bit so when you come back to it, you’ll learn more and your recall will be strengthened. This is that “forget to learn” idea. The harder you have to work to retrieve the information, the better you’ll be able to remember it later. Two obvious ways to make retrieval harder are letting some time go by (giving time for interfering information to seep in) and focusing on something else (e.g., interleaving study topics, like ABCABC instead of AABBCC).
Thomas Frank recommends a flash card setup called the Leitner system with five boxes or piles:
- Review every day
- Review every other day
- Review weekly
- Review biweekly
- Review when you need it (i.e. before a test)
All the cards start out in box 1, and you move each card to the next box when you’ve mastered it. If a card’s in a higher box and you discover you don’t remember it, you move it back to box 1. Frank’s post lists several apps you can use for this. Duolingo, the language learning app I’m using to learn Spanish, seems to follow this principle.
Here’s Robert Bjork explaining the “new theory of disuse” which is behind this idea.
Practicing and engagement
Engagement is key to effective practice when learning a skill. You have to be there, focused on what you’re learning. This is going to be my challenge – I’ve gotten used to practicing banjo rolls and running through pieces I’m trying to memorize while watching Netflix, or even while reading (more difficult. Banjo picks get in the way of turning pages.)
Here’s what it takes:
- Focus when engaged in practice
- Minimize distractions
- Start slow, and increase speed later
- Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
- Visualize the skill to reinforce practice
To reach a big goal, you have to really want it. You also need to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces, and take pleasure in completing each piece.
This article, about a kid auditioning for Juilliard, explains this and more in a clear and entertaining way. I followed some of the links in the article, including this one, which includes a TedEd talk about how practice works, and this link to The Bulletproof Musician.
Do you have any tips on learning or resources you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.