How Do I Learn New Things?

As an educator, I confront the two questions daily in the context of higher education:

  • how do students learn?
  • what is the role of teachers in the learning process?

There is a vast literature on this and entire academic fields of study devoted to these two questions.

Putting aside this ocean of work done by trained professionals, here I’d like to reflect on how I believe I learn new things.  It is an ongoing project for me to apply this to my own teaching.  However, this isn’t about my teaching style, but a meditation on my own internal modes of learning.

The main bullet points would be:

  • I have to want to learn and be engaged
  • I have to have a simple conceptual foothold to get me started
  • I need to see lots of examples, practice them myself, and obtain rapid feedback
  • I need to have some modest stress
  • I need to apply the learning repeatedly over long periods
  • I need to accept that sustained learning requires multiple exposures
  • I have to memorize key ideas and concepts
  • I need to develop an internal model

I have to want to learn a topic.

Learning a new thing I want to learn can be challenging.  However, it is perhaps not surprising that learning a new thing I don’t want to learn is really, really hard.  My strategy: If there is a topic that I’m being “forced” to learn (e.g. some kind of required training), I pretend I want to learn it.  Like many undergraduates, I had to take many classes (usually General Education courses) that I really didn’t want to take.  But once enrolled and attending, I made every effort to try and learn the new topic as if I wanted to learn it.  This shift in attitude made all the difference in my enjoyment of the course and my ability to learn the content.  Eventually, the sentiment becomes genuine and one really does want to learn the new topic.  This happened to me during an American History class in my senior year of college.  I ended up having to take it based on the GE options available.  But I kicked into this mode I described and really ended up enjoying it.  Another more recent example are these State-mandated sexual harassment sensitivity trainings we must do every couple years.  They aren’t exactly convenient to do and can be much longer to take than you expect.  It is natural to start resenting them.  However, by popping into my “pretend like I want to learn this” mode, they actually become quite interesting and informative.

I have to be engaged in the learning process.

Engagement strategies come in several forms for me:

  • Paying attention
  • Taking copious notes and drawing pictures
  • Making connections between ideas and to things I already know
  • Asking questions
  • Reviewing and repeating the content
  • Memorizing key elements

Here’s one strategy I use.  I don’t just asking questions as they come up, but actually actively think of questions to ask.  That is, even if I don’t think I have questions I still think of some to ask and write them all down in my notes with a “Q*” (circled) in the margin.  By doing this, with feedback, I learn what a “good” question is for a given topic and what a “silly” question is.  The idea that “there is no such thing as a bad question” is simply incorrect.  There are “good” questions and “bad” questions.  However, part of learning a new topic is to learn what the good and bad questions are.  This means asking lots of bad questions.  A better way of turning around that education trope would be “you will ask bad questions when you are learning something new, and that’s ok, even encouraged.”  To a point.  There is a pivot where asking lots questions becomes an attention-seeking exercise and wastes other people’s time, particularly in a classroom setting.  So there is a balance.  Sometimes just writing the question down and seeing if the education process answers it naturally is the best thing.

In contrast to some common active learning activities in modern pedagogy, I don’t usually benefit from talking to others who are also learning the topic (e.g. peer instruction, think-pair-share, etc.).  That activity is helpful for morale (e.g. realizing others are confused too), but it doesn’t seem to help with my learning.  What tends to happen is that we reinforce each others’ misconceptions and walk away thinking we know more than we do.  It can also reinforce a sense that “we are all confused, so the instructor must be screwing up.”  Talking with an instructor directly is a different matter and that can be very helpful.

I have to find an intellectual or conceptual foothold in the topic.

I have to get an early confidence boost by feeling like I understand one little, tiny thing then building on it.  My own strategy is finding analogies with things I already understand, but this has to be done delicately.  One bad analogy can set the learning process back.  This tiny thing is often a weird, special case of some concept.   What works as a foothold for me isn’t always easy to anticipate.   Frequently, it is an example that an expert would almost feel bad presenting because it doesn’t portray the entire picture and is too simplified.  It might even be something an instructor would regard as so self-evident as to not even be worth mentioning.  It can be a vapor-thin analogy or some very simple way to appreciate some concept.  It can sometimes be in the form of understanding the cultural landscape of a topic: “experts think of this idea in this way,” providing a heuristic, bird’s eye view of the concept.  Connecting back to the memorization and repetition theme above, it can mean simply knowing what some new vocabulary word means and how to use it in a sentence!  Yes, that basic!

With a foothold, even if somewhat trivial, the seeds of understanding start to bloom. Note: One can’t stick to the simple, heuristic version forever, but a foothold is essential for me to start.

I have to see a lot of examples then be able to try it myself with rapid feedback.

Coupled to the foothold is the well-crafted example.  My strategy is to seek such examples.  A few completely worked examples that build in complexity are really important to me as I learn new things.  It can take a rather abstract idea and solidify it very quickly.  Yes, the understanding gleaned from an example may be superficial by the standards of an expert, but for me-as-the-student these baby steps are super important.  After seeing a few examples, I need to try it myself then get instant feedback about how I did.  This procedure of seeing a well-crafted example, trying it myself, then getting feedback basically needs to be repeated in some form or another.

I have to have a learning context that has the right balance between stress and leisure.

If my motivation to learn is entirely carefree and leisurely, I’ve found my ability to learn is softened quite a bit.  I might be entertained, but I won’t really learn anything.  My strategy is to come up with a reason to learn something.  Sometimes this isn’t hard because I legitimately have to learn something.  However, even just having a certain personal drive to learn something new can be sufficient to motivate — but there has to be some intensity to the experience, even if internally (“artificially”) generated.  But too much stress is a serious problem.  If I feel that I “must” learn it, feel like I’m having to cram for some reason, or that a lot is at stake for some reason, my own thinking gets very clouded and the whole learning process gets damped.

I have to repeat and practice the modest skills I’ve built over a long period of time.

I can’t really learn something on first exposure. For me, sustainable learning and mastery is iterative.  I pretty much have to apply any new knowledge I learn on a regular basis to retain it.  The old “use it or lose it” platitude is basically true.  This isn’t really a surprise.  As a younger student, the half life of knowledge was longer.  However, I think the fact remains that having to use what I learn allows me to retain the “I learned this” status.

Of course, the motivation for learning something new might not be to use it indefinitely.  Having learned something, even in the short term, as a form of entertainment, can be rewarding.  However, having learned something once, just reviewing it can be easy and lets me get back in the groove. Going back to the intellectual foothold point above: these footholds can serve as reentry points.  They are like those little mnemonic boxes people use in their minds;  they are little pointers to topics, rather than the topics themselves.  With a simple conceptual trigger, a wide infrastructure of the original learning can reopen.

I have to (gasp) memorize stuff.

This is considered blasphemy in my field, but to learn something new I have to memorize a lot of patterns and repeatedly use them until I don’t have to think about them.  This is so certain words and patterns become integrated with my thinking and are no longer some external thing I have to keep looking up, which slows things down.  Even if I understand the concepts, having to stop and lookup/review “what does this symbol mean again?”  is very distracting and bogs down ongoing mastery.  This might include formulas, constants, vocabulary, graphics, sounds, etc.  The memorization need not be active, but it might need to be at first.  Yes, I can understand the concept of something without memorizing anything.  But, sadly, just understanding the concept isn’t usually good enough to actually apply something I’m trying to learn.  This flies in the face of the basic philosophy of my own field of study!  Concepts rein supreme!  In fact, it may even fly in the face of actual studies.  But I have a hard time giving this up.  I’m not saying that memorizing is the same as deep learning or “true understanding.” But it is essential for me if I want want to make progress and apply newfound knowledge.

I understand the concept of chess pretty intuitively, but could I really play it competently without knowing (without hesitation!) how the pieces move at a glance?  No way.  But make no mistake, just knowing how the pieces move isn’t mastery either.  However, it is a necessary condition for mastery.

Without memorizing stuff, the learning process can evaporate quickly.  As topics become more advanced beyond just the inspirational introduction, the information builds on itself.  Without simply knowing what the words mean, it all becomes a firehose of vocabulary.  If you want to think like an expert in that field, you have to know what the words and ideas actually are without hesitation.

It is easy to dismiss memorization and repetition as a pathetic crutch for the intellectually weak — this is easy to say if you already have the important things memorized!  But if you are just learning something new, having a few key ideas memorized and internalized (ideas that you might not yet understand) can make the learning go so much faster.

Memorization isn’t understanding, but it can make the process of understanding so much easier!

I have to build an internal model.

This is really the culmination of all of the above.  Eventually, the processes above align with my brain and I reach a certain level of mastery and learning.  I have attained an internal way of thinking of it that maps directly onto the reality of the topic.  It is difficult to describe an “internal model.”  It is neurological.  Internally, it is qualitative and part of my qualia.  Some set of ideas, words, concepts, applications, etc. that seemed unfamiliar are now familiar and can be applied to new things.  It is a curious effect.  The words and symbols that meant nothing last week now have some internal substance that can be manipulated in a meaningful way.  It is quite satisfying.  My ultimate test to see if I’ve learned a topic is to see if I can apply it to something new.  More frequently than not, I’m disappointed in my inability to do so at a level I would like.  It is humbling, but a nice check.  Learning and mastery are ongoing experiences, usually lifelong, and it should be no surprise that innovations and creative problem solving don’t come quickly.

So, that’s a very rough outline about how I tend to learn things.  I’ve certainly forgot many other factors.  Also, I’ve probably overstated and understated some of the ones above.  In any case, hopefully I’ve left you with some food for thought: how do YOU learn new things?