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In today’s world, parents are extremely observant about how their children are learning. Be it academics or music or sport any other field that the child has developed a semblance of liking, the parent gives and seeks all the guidance available to make his/her kid’s learning process effective. Given the hyperconnected instant gratification world that we are all living it, Kids left to their own devices, become just that, in the literal sense. Their lives are surrounded by world of devices (cell phones, gaming consoles, ipod, ipad, etc.) and naturally they develop an affinity towards them. One doesn’t need some academic research to infer that attention spans are going down across all age groups, more so in children. In such an environment, can parents or teachers be confident that the children develops thinking and meta-thinking(thinking about how they are thinking )skills to become effective learners ?.

There is a mad rush towards alternative education schools everywhere. Parents are under the notion that schools that focus on standardized testing and standardized learning might not be effective for their kid whom they think is somehow “special” from everyone. In what sense they are “special”, only future would tell, but that doesn’t stop them from thinking that education must be somehow customized to suit their kid’s learning style.

In my own family, I have seen my cousin’s kids being put through a school where there are no tests at all until 8th or 9th grade. The school advertises to the general public saying that their USP is small class room sizes and NO TESTS. The admission process in the school creates a massive frenzy amongst everyone and even gets cited in the local newspapers. Parents feel that this “NO TEST” environment will unleash creativity amongst their kids and turn their little ones in to a creative genius. Is it really true that an environment without tests fosters good learning? Why is there a universal backlash against “tests”? Why is everyone fixated on “learning styles”? What is wrong with the current educational system? How does one become an effective learner? These and many more questions are answered in this book. Here is an attempt to summarize the book.

Learning Is Misunderstood

This chapter is a prelude to the book and lists down the claims that the authors verify via field research in various chapters of the book. What are the claims made at the outset?

  • Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.
  • We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
  • Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom. Cramming for exams is an example . Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.
  • Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory— is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.
  • When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.
  • Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.
  • People do have multiple forms of intelligence to bring to bear on learning, and you learn better when you “go wide,” drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.
  • When you’re adept at extracting the underlying principles or “rules” that differentiate types of problems, you’re more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations. This skill is better acquired through interleaved and varied practice than massed practice.
  • In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness.
  • Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.
  • Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content.
  • It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time. Yet surveys of college students confirm what professors have long known: highlighting, underlining, and sustained poring over notes and texts are the most-used study strategies, by far.
  • Rising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create an illusion of mastery. As any professor will attest, students work hard to capture the precise wording of phrases they hear in class lectures, laboring under the misapprehension that the essence of the subject lies in the syntax in which it’s described. Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them . However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Don’t let yourself be fooled. The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject.

All the above claims are verified by experiments carried out in various school settings and other unconventional places. The authors at the very beginning make it clear that the learning theories that have been handed down to us have been a result of theory, lore and intuition. But over the last forty years and more, cognitive psychologists have been working to build a body of evidence to clarify what works and to discover the strategies that get results.

To Learn Retrieve

We all forget things. If they are trivial stuff, they really don’t matter. But if they are key principles, concepts, then our learning will be stunted and it becomes painfully obvious that we need to re-read the forgotten stuff. To give a specific example, let’s say I am learning about Jump modeling and there is an introductory section on Poisson processes. In the past I would have spent some time going over Poisson processes and understanding the math behind it. The key theorems are somewhere in my memory. Not all are at my beck and call. So, whenever I come across a concept that I have tough time recalling, my usual strategy is to re-read the old section. Not an ideal strategy, says this chapter. I think most of us follow the above strategy where re-reading is the goto choice to make things fresh. The chapter focuses on one key point – retrieval practice. This is a kind of practice where you make an effort to recall those concepts from your memory, reflect on those concepts from time to time. This is not the same as rereading the text.

The authors make a strong case for “testing” as a means of retrieval practice. The retrieval effect in the cognitive psychology field is known as “testing effect”. Through the results of various experiments conducted, the authors suggest that testing immediately after a lecture, or testing yourself at spaced intervals is far better than rereading at spaced intervals. Repeated retrieval ties the knot of memory. Retrieval must be spaced out rather than becoming a mindless repetition. It should require cognitive effort. The authors back up these suggestions with field experiments that show that frequent testing of students with delayed feedback gave better performance than merely rereading or revisiting the material before midterm and end term.

For an adult learner, how does this apply? I guess one must self test, even though it is painful. It is actually better if it is painful as it leads to greater effort at retrieval and hence better learning. How should the tests be designed? For programming there are many suggestions out there. For something like math, I think the best way is to read a theorem and try to give a proof in your own words trying to recall whatever you have learnt the previous time around. Merely reading through the proofs or concepts will not make the learning stick. This is called the “generation effect “. You generate the proof from some clues. In the case of frameworks or set of ideas, you can probably write an essay recalling all the aspects of the theory without rereading. It is easy to fall in to the trap of ,” Ok I have forgotten, let me reread the material”. Instead this chapter says that one must pause, take a self test, then quiz yourself as you go over the material again, and then reflect on what you have relearnt. This has a term called “elaboration” in the literature. This means you elaborate the learning or practice session so that memory paths are strengthened. The other thing I have started following recently is to take a small 60 page booklet and keep noting down whatever you find interesting for the day in the form of statements, visuals or just about anything that captures the learning. Obviously as you go along these 60 page diaries accumulate. Once in a while you can pick a booklet and read the statements that you found interesting a month ago, 6 months ago, a year ago. This is a kind of retrieval practice where you are trying to learn better by testing yourself.

 

Mix up practice

The authors introduce a term called “mass practice” where you keep practicing one aspect of skill development until you are good at it and then move on. This is clearly seen in textbooks where each chapter is followed by a set of problems that are only relevant to that chapter and the reader is asked to practice the exercises and then move on to the next chapter. This is the usual advice passed on to us from many people. Practice, practice until the skill is burned in to the memory. Faith in focused repetitive practice is everywhere and this is what the authors mean by “mass practice” Practice that is spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention and more versatility. There is one price to pay though. From the part of the learner, it requires more effort. There are no quick positive affirmations that come with mass practice. Let’s say you have been immersed in doing Bayesian analysis for a few months, then you take a break and get back to it, there will be an inherent slowness at which you can digest things as those concepts are lying somewhere in your long term memory and invoking them takes effort. But the authors say that this is a good thing. Even though learning feels slower, this is the way to go.

This phenomenon of “mass practice” is everywhere. Summer camps, focused workshops, training seminars. Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall concepts. It doesn’t feel like you’re on top of it. What you don’t sense in the moment is that the added effort is making the learning stronger.

Why does spaced practice work? Massed practice is good for short term memory. But the sad part is that such a practice does not lead to durable learning. For something to get in to long term memory, there should be consolidation in which memory traces are strengthened. If you do not activate these memory traces, then the paths will be lost. It is like laying a new road and using it for a week or so, and then moving on. Unless you use the road often, the material never gets a chance to become strong and in the process loses vitality.

Practice also has to interleaved. Interleaving is practicing two or more subjects or two different aspects of the same subject . You cannot study one aspect of subject completely and move on to another subject and so on. Linearity isn’t good. Let’s say you are learning some technique, for example EM algorithm. If you stick to data mining field, you will see its application in let’s say mixture estimation. However by interleaving your practice with let’s say state space models, you see that EM algorithm being used to estimate hyperparameters of a model. This interleaving of various topics gives a richer understanding. Obviously there is a price to pay. The learner is just about learning to understand something, when he is asked to move to another topic. So, that sense of feeling that he hasn’t got a full grasp on the topic remains. It is a good thing to have but an unpleasant situation that a learner must handle.

Varied practice – Let’s say you are a quant and trying to build financial models. Varied practice in your case would be to build a classification model, a Bayesian inference model, a Brownian motion based model, a more generic Levy process based model, a graph based model etc. The point is that you develop a broader understanding of relationships between various aspects of model building. If you stick to let’s say financial time series for an year, then move on to machine learning for another year, it is likely that you are going to miss connections between econometric models and machine learning models. Having said that, it is not a pleasant feeling to incorporate varied practice in one’s schedule. Imagine you are just about understand the way to build a particle filter, a technique to do online estimation of state vector and you have already spent quite an amount of time on that subject. It is time to move to another area, let’s say building a levy process based model. As soon as you start doing something on Levy process, you sense that your knowledge Poisson + Renewal processes is very rusty and the learning is extremely slow. This is the unpleasant part. But the authors have a reassuring message. When the learning appears slow and effortful, that is where real learning is taking place.

Compared to mass practice, a significant advantage of interleaving practice is that they help us learn to assess context and discriminate between problems, selecting and applying problems from a range of possibilities. The authors give an example of “learning painting styles” to drive home the point of interleaved and varied practice.

Practice like you play and you will play like you practice. The authors stress the importance of simulations for better practice. If you are in to trading strategy development, simulating time series and testing the strategy out of sample is fundamental for a better understanding of the strategy. In fact, with the rise of MCMC, the very process of estimation and model selection is done via simulation. The authors also bring out an example where daily reflection can be done as a form of retrieval practice.

I liked the last section of this chapter where the authors share the story of Georgia university football coach who is following the principles of retrieval, spacing, interleaving, variation, reflection and elaboration, in making his college team a better playing team.

 

Embrace Difficulties

Short term impediments that make for stronger learning have come to be called desirable difficulties, a term coined by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork. The chapter starts with an example of military school where the trainees are not allowed to carry note books or write stuff. They have to listen, watch, rehearse and execute. Testing is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgment of what you know how to do. The process of strengthening the long term memory is called consolidation. Consolidation and transition of learning to long-term storage occurs over a period of time. An apt analogy for how the brain consolidates new learning is the experience of composing an essay. Let’s say you are studying point processes, a class of stochastic processes. First time around you might not be able to appreciate all the salient points of the text. You start out feeling disorganized and the most important aspects are not salient. Consolidation and retrieval helps solidify these learning’s. If you are practicing over and over again in some rapid-fire fashion, you are leaning on short term memory and very little mental effort is needed. There is an instant improvement, but the improvement is not robust enough to sustain. But if you practice by spacing and interleaving, the learning is much deeper and you will retrieve far easily in the future.

Durable robust learning means we do two things – First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short term memory into long term memory, we must anchor there securely. Second, we must associate it with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the material later. Having effective retrieval clues is essential to learning and that is where tools like mindmaps help a lot. The reason we don’t remember stuff is that we don’t practice and apply it. If you are in to building say math/stat models, it is essential to at least simulate some data set, build a toy model so that practice gets some kind of anchorage for retrieval. Without this, any reading of a model will stay in your working memory for some time and then vanish. Knowledge, learning and skills that are vivid, hold significance, and those that are practiced periodically stay with us. Our retrieval capacity is limited and is determined by the context, by recent use, and the number and vividness of the cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help it bring it forth.

Psychologists have uncovered a curious inverse relationship between ease of retrieval practice and the power of that practice to entrench learning, the easier knowledge or skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit your retention of it.

There is an excellent case study of a baseball team where the team is split in to two and they are given varied practice regimen. First group practices 45 pitches evenly divided in to sets of three where each set has a specific type of pitch thrown. The second group also practices 45 pitches but this time, the pitches were randomly interspersed. After the training, the first group feels good about their practice while the second group feels that they were not developing their skills properly. However when it came to the final performance test, the second group performed far better than the first group. This story illustrates two points – first, our judgments of what learning strategies work best for us are often mistaken, colored by illusions of mastery. Second, some difficulties that require more effort and slow down apparent gains will feel less productive but will more than compensate for that by making the learning stronger, precise and durable. The more you have forgotten a topic, the more effective relearning will be in shaping your permanent knowledge. The authors also make it a point to highlight that if you struggle to solve a problem before being shown how to solve it, the subsequent lesson is better learned and more durably remembered.

This chapter and this book is an amazing fountainhead of ideas that one can use. Not everything is new but the fact that there is an empirical evidence to back it up means that you know that it is not folklore wisdom. One thing I learnt from the book which has reinforced my way of learning is “write to learn”. After reading a book or reading a concept, I try to write it down so that I can relate to things that I have already learnt, relate to aspects of the field that I want to eventually apply etc. This obviously takes up a lot of time, but the learning is far more robust. I think book summaries that I manage to write is one of the best ways to reflect on the main contents of the book. I tend to write a pretty detailed summary of key ideas so that the summary serves as a material for retrieval practice at a later point in time.

The other idea this chapter talks about is about the need to commit errors to solidify learning. Came to know about “Festival of errors” and “Fail conference”. There is also a story about Bonnie, a writer and self-taught ornamental gardener, who follows the philosophy, “ leap before you look because if you look, you probably won’t like what you see”. Her garden writing appears under the name “Blundering Gardener”. Bonnie is a successful writer and her story goes on to show that struggling with a problem makes for stronger learning and how a sustained commitment to advancing in a particular field of endeavor by trial-and-error leads to complex mastery and greater knowledge of interrelationships of things. Bonnie’s story is pretty inspiring for anyone who wishes to tackle a difficult field. By going head long in to the field and learning from the trial and error process, and then writing about the entertaining snafus and unexpected insights, she is doing two things. Firstly, she is retrieving the details and elaborating the details. “Generative learning” means learner is generating the answer than recalling it. Basically it means learn via trial-and-error.

Takeaways

  • Learning is a three step process – Initial encoding, consolidation and retrieval
  • Ability to recall what you already have depends on the repeated use of information and powerful retrieval clues
  • Retrieval practice that’s easy does little to strengthen learning, the more difficult the practice, the greater the benefit
  • Retrieval needs to be spaced. When you recall something from your memory when it has already become rusty, you need more effort and this effortful retrieval strengthens memory and makes learning pliable
  • Practice needs to be interleaved and varied
  • Trying to come up with an answer rather than presenting it to you leads to better learning and retention


Avoid Illusions of knowing

The chapter starts by describing two modes of thinking System 1 and System 2, from Daniel Kahneman’s book and says that we base our actions based on System 1 more often than System 2. Our inclination to finding narratives means that it has a significant say in our memory capabilities. There are lot of illusions and misjudgments that we carry along. One way to escape from them is to replace subjective experience as the basis for decisions with a set of objective gauges outside ourselves, so that our judgments squares with the real world around us. When we have reliable reference points, we can make good decisions about where to focus our efforts, recognize where we’ve lost our bearings, and find out way again. It is important to pay attention to the cues you are using to judge what you have learned. Whether something feels familiar or fluent is not always a reliable indicator of learning. Neither is your level of ease in retrieving a fact or phrase on a quiz shortly after the text. Far better is to create a mental model of the material that integrates various ideas of the text, connects to what you already know, and enables you to draw inferences. How ably you can explain the text is an excellent cue for judging comprehension, because you must recall the salient points, put in your own words and give the logic of how it connects to everything else.

Get beyond your learning styles

It is a common statement that you come across in the media, “every kid is different, the learning style has to be specific and catering to the kid’s learning style”. On the face of it, the statement looks obvious. Empirical evidence however does not support it. The authors give a laundry list of all the learning styles that have been put forth and say that there is absolutely no evidence that catering to individual learning style makes any difference. The simple fact that different theories embrace such wildly discrepant dimensions gives cause for concern about their scientific underpinnings. While it’s true that most all of us have a decided preference for how we like to learn new material, the premise behind learning styles is that we learn better when the mode of presentation matches the particular style in which an individual is best able to learn. That is the critical claim.

The authors say that

Moreover, their review showed that it is more important that the mode of instruction match the nature of the subject being taught: visual instruction for geometry and geography, verbal instruction for poetry, and so on. When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.

So, if the learning styles don’t matter, how should one go about ? The authors mention two aspects here

  1. Structure building: There do appear to be cognitive differences in how we learn, though not the ones recommended by advocates of learning styles. One of these differences is the idea mentioned earlier that psychologists call structure building: the act, as we encounter new material, of extracting the salient ideas and constructing a coherent mental framework out of them. These frameworks are sometimes called mental models or mental maps. High structure- builders learn new material better than low structure-builders.
  2. Successful intelligence: Go wide: don’t roost in a pigeonhole of your preferred learning style but take command of your resources and tap all of your “intelligences” to master the knowledge or skill you want to possess. Describe what you want to know, do, or accomplish. Then list the competencies required, what you need to learn, and where you can find the knowledge or skill. Then go get it. Consider your expertise to be in a state of continuing development, practice dynamic testing as a learning strategy to discover your weaknesses, and focus on improving yourself in those areas. It’s smart to build on your strengths, but you will become ever more competent and versatile if you also use testing and trial and error to continue to improve in the areas where your knowledge or performance are not pulling their weight.

 

Increase your abilities

This chapter starts off by giving some famous examples like the popular Marshmallow study, Memory athletes to drive home the point that brain is every changing. This obviously means that the authors take the side of nurture in the nature vs. nurture debate. The brain is remarkably plastic, to use the term applied in neuroscience, even into old age for most people. The brain is not a muscle, so strengthening one skill does not automatically strengthen others. Learning and memory strategies such as retrieval practice and the building of mental models are effective for enhancing intellectual abilities in the material or skills practiced, but the benefits don’t extend to mastery of other material or skills. Studies of the brains of experts show enhanced myelination of the axons related to the area of expertise but not elsewhere in the brain. Observed myelination changes in piano virtuosos are specific to piano virtuosity. But the ability to make practice a habit is generalizable. To the extent that “brain training” improves one’s efficacy and self-confidence, as the purveyors claim , the benefits are more likely the fruits of better habits, such as learning how to focus attention and persist at practice.

After an elaborate discussion on IQ, the authors suggest three strategies to amp up the performance levels :

  1. Maintaining a growth mindset — Carol Dweck’s work is used as the supporting argument. Dweck came to see that some students aim at performance goals, while others strive toward learning goals. In the first case, you’re working to validate your ability. In the second, you’re working to acquire new knowledge or skills. People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges , and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder.
  2. Deliberate Practice – Well, this has become a common term after many authors have written journalistic accounts of Anders Ericsson’s research. In essence it means that expert performance in medicine, science, music, chess, or sports has been shown to be the product not just of innate gifts, as had long been thought, but of skills laid down layer by layer, through thousands of hours of dedicated practice.
  3. Memory cues – Until a learner develops a deep learning of a subject, he/she can resort to mnemonic devices. Conscious mnemonic devices can help to organize and cue the learning for ready retrieval until sustained, deliberate practice and repeated use form the deeper encoding and subconscious mastery that characterizes expert performance.

It comes down to the simple but no less profound truth that effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability. This single fact— that our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth but are, to a considerable degree, ours to shape— is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities. What we do shapes who we become and what we’re capable of doing. The more we do, the more we can do. To embrace this principle and reap its benefits is to be sustained through life by a growth mindset. And it comes down to the simple fact that the path to complex mastery or expert performance does not necessarily start from exceptional genes, but it most certainly entails self-discipline, grit, and persistence ; with these qualities in healthy measure, if you want to become an expert, you probably can. And whatever you are striving to master, whether it’s a poem you wrote for a friend’s birthday, the concept of classical conditioning in psychology, or the second violin part in Hayden’s Fifth Symphony, conscious mnemonic devices can help to organize and cue the learning for ready retrieval until sustained, deliberate practice and repeated use form the deeper encoding and subconscious mastery that characterize expert performance.

 

Make It Stick

The authors implement the lessons from the book within the confines of the book itself. This chapter is like a spaced repetition of all the ideas mentioned in the previous chapters. So, if you don’t bother about the empirical evidence, you can just read this chapter and take them at face value, incorporate them in your schedule and see if they make sense.

imageTakeaway

This is by far best book I have read that talks about “ how to go about learning something? ”. There are gems in this book that any learner can incorporate in one’s schedule and see a drastic change in their learning effectiveness. The book is a goldmine for students, teachers and life-long learners. I wish this book was published when I was a student!.

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