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?

Teaching Philosphy

Force Density

I was recently promoted to full Professor of Physics at Cal Poly.  I joke that, nearly 50, I’ve finally grown up and got a real job.  This was roughly a thirty year project from starting my freshman year as a physics major at San Jose State in 1986, through my masters degree, through my Ph.D. at UC Davis, through three postdocs, through a tenure-track probationary period at Cal Poly, through a tenured Associate Professor position, until finally as a full Professor in the fall of 2016 at Cal Poly.

In my case for promotion, I had to submit a teaching philosophy, which I would like to share here.  The ideas in it are not new; I don’t claim to have invented them.  Moreover, they are not cited because, in some ways, they are rather ordinary, blending into the background mythology of teaching culture.  However, I feel that the particular personal way I have presented the ideas is perhaps worth sharing.  The essence can be summarized as this: “Like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.”

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

In my nine years at Cal Poly, I feel I’ve grown as a teacher and mentor. However, this newfound wisdom also makes me question my own growth; I now know how little I know whereas, when I started, I thought I had it all figured out. As someone not formally educated in Education, here are some of the things I’ve learned.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.  In education, success and purpose can become a tautological exercise where one begins defining accomplishments in terms of what one is accomplishing. This is not unlike adding items you have already completed on a to-do list then immediately checking them off to feel productive. There are many sensible metrics of education effectiveness, but most are of a specialized nature or difficult to identify. Like Heisenberg’s celebrated Uncertainty Principle, it seems that the more specific a metric of one educational success is, the more uncertain is its ability to measure another aspect of success. In my own teaching and mentoring in physics, this abiguity has driven me to reflect on the purpose of our curriculum and focus on what we want to achieve and how to measure it. Nevertheless, I believe that education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

Education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

But setting aside abstract philosophies of education, my conclusion is that a successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.  My particular specialty is physics, but I’m also human. If I facilitate this process by providing some skills and focus though my physics and my humanity, both in and outside the classroom, then I have been a successful teacher and mentor. I have helped guide many students through the struggles of the technical, day-to-day details of coursework, mentored them as they find their career path, and consoled them in their struggle to find out who they are as a person.

A successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.

Helping physics students find their own definition of success and finding the corresponding skill set to accomplish this has been challenging for me. But it is a challenge I have committed my life to and embrace with aplomb. In physics, one of the biggest barriers to promoting student success is also one of its greatest strengths: physics is both very generalized and yet fundamental by nature. Physics involves scientific ideas spanning about 30 orders of magnitude in space and time – from the quantum world to the cosmos and everything in between. It is a daunting task to prioritize these ideas for undergraduates and generate practical skills while also imparting rigor, problem solving, and deep understanding of fundamental concepts about the nature of reality. In my own work, I continue to experiment with different teaching styles and techniques, but have settled into what might be called the “traditional method” of lecturing enthusiastically at a board with chalk, asking them questions in class, giving regular exams and quizzes with quick feedback, and being available to students in and out of class, either online or in person. This path has allowed me to optimize my own ability to convey to students my enthusiasm for physics and to coach them in a positive, constructive way through the learning process. Feedback from students indicate they genuinely appreciate this.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process. An empowered instructor is one who feels they are making a difference. An instructor driven far outside their comfort zone will not facilitate student success. If an instructor’s enthusiasm is suppressed, both instructor and student will suffer. Nevertheless, a teacher should be flexible and encouraged to experiment with different teaching methods while innovating, but they should also settle into a style that is most comfortable for them without becoming complacent or without compromising intellectual integrity. Because I’ve found my comfort zone, this also creates a positive learning environment for the students. They trust me to guide them on the intellectual journey because of the friendly confidence I try to convey.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.  In my option, teaching and learning cannot be completely emulated with computer algorithms, online courses, or simply reading about a topic at home. Yes, all of those things can augment a learning experience but, until the invention of neural implants, which instantly inject knowledge, experience, and mastery directly into the human brain, interaction with a human teacher is necessary for deep learning. While I do add some elements of technology to my courses and mentoring, I try to learn everyone’s name and treat them as a coach would treat a team: we are all in it together and let’s try to win this game together. In this context, it gives me a chance to connect more with students inside and outside the classroom and give them very personalized feedback. Grades are not given as an authoritative effort to control, rather a genuine source of assessment that helps them improve their mastery. I aim to allow students to make mistakes and learn from them without feeling like they are a failure.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process. A subject like physics is overwhelming – to try and learn it from scratch without guidance would be an intimidating undertaking. Without this foothold, developing skills in physics would be quite challenging. But, like with any project, it is best to master it in small, digestible chunks. The teacher is one who has made the journey through the material and can break the material into the right-sized pieces. I try to take the perspective of the student, remembering what is like not to know something, and then convey the concepts that allowed me to make the transition to an expert. I reenforce this by giving many content-rich homework and content-rich take home exams in addition to challenging in-class exams.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.  A topic cannot be mastered in a single course. It takes repeated exposure to a topic over many years to begin to develop a meaningful understanding of something new. Learning a topic is a complicated undertaking. How much one has learned may not be realized for weeks, months, or even years after being exposed to it. Sometimes learning happens actively and voluntarily, but it even happens passively and involuntarily. To ask students right after a course “how much did you learn” is a meaningless question. Most instructors learn new things about material they have been teaching for decades. Given the students are the least qualified to assess their own learning, how could students possibly know how much they learned after a course if they have no baseline to compare it to? The adage “the more you know, the more you know how little you know” applies here. Similarly, akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, “the less you know, the less you know how little you know.” This latter effect tends to breed overconfidence. A good teacher gives students a sense of a bigger world of knowledge, generating some self doubt, but without squelching enthusiasm to explore it further.

One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.

 One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.  In some ways, I value student satisfaction and the inspiration to continue their intellectual journey more than the content itself. In this respect, I try and provide the student with an educational Experience rather than just another class.

So, like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.  By doing so, I have learned how little I knew. I have defined my own success and pursued the skills to attain it. I have taken initiative in generating and expanding my own learning process. Without compromising rigor, I have also found satisfaction in the experience of teaching, inspiring me to continue learning about it the rest of my life. This experience, I hope, makes a difference to my students and allows them to find their own successful paths.

Science Lies? Tales from the Science Illuminati

I’m a physics professor at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA.  Recently I came tWriting on dooro work early to find my office door decorated with the word “LIES” written in a childish scrawl across a “I Support Science” Darwin Fish sticker I have in the window of my office door.  The graffito, written with a red whiteboard marker, was probably composed by a student the evening before while studying in the building.  It was a minor annoyance to remove it because it was written on the frosted matte side of the window that wasn’t really meant to be used as a whiteboard.  I notified my Chair and my Dean of the situation.  They were sympathetic and obviously found the vandalism inappropriate.

I think it bothered me for all the right reasons.  I’m reminded that campus climate is not exactly universally friendly toward certain scientific principles that happen to be in tension with people’s religion.  That’s not good.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But in addition to the message, what makes me feel strange is the willingness to deface a professor’s door at all.  Even if someone wrote “cool!” across the fish, it would feel weird.  Who does that?

But, I was also able to dismiss it for all the right reasons. When the best argument someone can muster against evolution is an anonymous “LIES” scribbled on a physics professor’s door in the middle of the night,  it betrays a lazy and crippling intellectual weakness.  The feeble anonymous assertion “LIES” seems a cowardly gasp.   It’s a spontaneous act by a creationist that un-coyly says “I strongly disagree with you.”  But it is weird language. A lie is a deliberate act to deceive.  It implies evolution is like a conspiracy perpetuated by the Science Illuminati.  It would be the kind of anti-establishment graffiti someone would see in the 70s.  Naturally, I know exactly what it means to write “LIES” across an “I Support Science” Darwin Fish.  It is obvious.   However, the word choice is funny.  I think what they really meant was “WRONG.”

Some peers have shrugged off the defacement with a “kids will be kids” attitude: “Yes, it’s inappropriate, but you sort of had it coming with that provocative sticker.”  It is a sad state of affairs when passively declaring support for one of the most evidence-based theoretical frameworks in all of science is considered “provocative.”  The most support I’ve received is from the students in my department.  They were genuinely shocked at the event and were actually concerned about me, unambiguously condemning the action.  One student wrote me a very touching email making it clear that he and the other students stood behind me.  Although an unfortunate context, that part really did make me feel greatly supported.  It is a privilege to work with such colleagues.

Now back to sacrificing another Schrödinger’s Goat in my weekly ritual to actively perpetuate my sinister New World Order Parameter.