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In today’s world where access to information is being democratized like never before, “learning how to learn” is a skill that will play a key role in one’s academic and professional accomplishments. This book collates ideas from some of the recent books on learning such as, “Make it Stick”, “A Mind for Numbers”, “The Five Elements of Effective Thinking”, “Mindset”, etc. The author has added his own personal take on the various research findings mentioned in the book and has come up with a 250 page book. If one has really absorbed the concepts mentioned in the previous books, then you really DO want to read this book. Any exercise that puts you in retrieval mode of certain concepts alters your memory associated with those specific concepts. Hence even though this is book serves as a content aggregator of all the previous books, reading it from the eyes of a new person, changes the way we store and retrieve memories of the main principles behind effective learning.

Broaden the Margins

The book starts with the author narrating his own college experience, one in which standard learning techniques like “find a quiet place to study”, “practice something repeatedly to attain mastery”, “take up a project and do not rest until it is finished” were extremely ineffective. He chucks this advice and adopts an alternative mode of learning. Only later in his career as a science journalist, does he realize that some of the techniques he had adopted during his college days were actually rooted in solid empirical research. Researchers over the past few decades have uncovered techniques that remain largely unknown outside scientific circles. The interesting aspect of these techniques is that they run counter to the learning advice that we have all taken at some point in our lives. Many authors have written books/blog posts to popularize these techniques. The author carefully puts all the main learning techniques in a format that is easy to read, i.e. he strips away the academic jargon associated with the techniques. The introductory chapter gives a roadmap to the four parts of the book and preps the reader’s mind to look out for the various signposts in the “learning to learn” journey.

The Story maker

A brief look at the main players in our brain:

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Labeled in the figure are three areas. The entorhinal cortex acts as filter for the incoming information, the hippocampus is the area where memory formation begins and neocortex is the area where conscious memories are stored. It was H.M, the legendary case study that helped medical research community and doctors give a first glance in to the workings of the brain. Doctors removed hippocampus from H.M’s brain essentially removing the ability to form long term memories. Many amazing aspects of brain were revealed by conducting experiments on H.M. One of them being motor skills like playing music, driving a car are not dependent on hippocampus. This meant that memories were not uniformly distributed and brain had specific areas that handled different types of memory. H.M had some memories of his past after removal of hippocampus. This means that there were long term memories residing in some part of the brain. The researchers then figured out that the only candidate left in the brain where memories could be stored was the neocortex. The neocortex is the seat of human consciousness, an intricate quilt of tissue in which each patch has a specialized purpose.

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To the extent that it’s possible to locate a memory in the brain, that’s where it resides: in neighborhoods along the neocortex primarily, not at any single address. This is as far as storage is concerned. How is retrieval done? Again a set of studies on epilepsy patients revealed that the left brain weaves the story based on the sensory information. The left hemisphere takes whatever information it gets and tells a tale to the conscious mind. Which part of the left brain tells this story? There is no conclusive evidence on this. The only thing known is that this interpreter module is present somewhere in the left hemisphere and it is vital to forming a memory in the first place. The science clearly establishes one thing: The brain does not store facts, ideas and experiences like a computer does, as a file that is clicked open, always displaying the identical image. It embeds them in a network of perceptions, facts and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time. No memory is completely lost but any retrieval of memory fundamentally alters it.

The Power of Forgetting

This chapter talks about Herbin Ebbinghaus and Philip Boswood Ballard who were the first to conduct experiments relating to memory storage and retrieval. Ebbinghaus tried to cram 2300 nonsense words and figured out how long it would take to forget them.

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The above is probably what we think of memory. Our retention rate of anything falls as time goes. Philip Boswood Ballard on the other hand was curious to see what can be done to improve learning. He tested his students in the class at frequent intervals and found that testing increased their memory and made them better learners. These two experiments were followed by several other experiments and finally Bjorks of UCLA shepherded the theory to give it a concrete direction. They coined their theory as “Forget to Learn”. Any memory has two kinds of strengths, storage strength and retrieval strength. Storage strength builds up steadily and grows with usage of time. Retrieval strength on the other hand is a measure of how quickly a nugget of information comes to mind. It increases with studying and use. Without reinforcement, retrieval strength drops off quickly and its capacity is relatively small. The surprising thing about retrieval strength is this: the harder we work at retrieving something, the greater is the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength. Bjorks call this “desirable difficulty”. This leads to the key message of the chapter, “Forgetting is essential for learning”

Breaking Good Habits

This chapter says that mass practice does not work as well as randomized practice. Finding a particular place to do your work and working on just one thing till you master, and then proceeding on to the next , is what we often hear an advice for effective learning. This chapter says that by changing the study environment randomly, randomly picking various topics to study gives a better retrieval memory than the old school of thought.

Spacing out

This chapter says that spacing out any learning technique is better than massed practice. If you are learning anything new, it is always better to space it out than cram everything at one go. This is the standard advice – Do not study all at once. Study a bit daily. But how do we space out the studies? What is the optimal time to revisit something that you have read already? Wait for too long a time, the rereading will sound as a completely new material. Wait for too less a time, your brain gets bored because of familiarity. This chapter narrates the story of Piotr Wozniak, who tackled this problem of “how to space your studies?” and eventually created SuperMemo, a digital flashcard software which is used by many people to learn foreign languages. Anki, an open source version of SuperMemo is another very popular way to inculcate spaced repetition in your learning schedule. The essence of this chapter is to distribute your time over a longer interval in order to retrieve efficiently and ultimately learn better.

The Hidden Value of Ignorance

The chapter talks about “Fluency illusion”, the number one reason why many students flunk exams. You study formulae, concepts, theories etc. and you are under the illusion that you know everything until the day you see the examination paper. One way to come out of this illusion is to test oneself often. The word “test”, connotes different things to different people. For some teachers, it is a way to measure a student’s learning. For some students, it is something they need to crack to get through a course. The literature on “testing” has a completely different perspective. “Testing” is way of learning. When you take a test, you retrieve concepts from your memory and the very act of retrieving fundamentally alters the way you store those concepts. Testing oneself / taking a test IS learning. The chapter cites a study done on students shows the following results

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The above results show that testing does not = studying. In fact, testing > studying and by a country mile on delayed tests. Researchers have come up with a new term to ward off some of the negative connotation associated with the word “test”; they call it “retrieval practice”. Actually this is a more appropriate term as testing oneself (answering a quiz / reciting from memory/ writing from memory) essentially is a form of retrieval that shapes learning. When we successfully retrieve something from the memory, we then re-store it in the memory in a different way than we did before. Not only has storage level spiked; the memory itself has new and different connections. It’s now linked to other related aspects that we have also retrieved. Using our memory changes our memory in ways we don’t anticipate. One of the ideas that the chapter delves in to is to administer a sample pre-final exam right at the beginning of the semester. The student will anyway flunk the exam. But the very fact that he gets to see a set of questions and looks at the pattern of questions before anything is taught, makes him a better learner by the end of semester.

Quitting before you are ahead

The author talks about “percolation”, the process of quitting an activity after we have begun and then revisiting at frequent intervals. Many writers explicitly describe this process and you can read their autobiographies to get in to the details. Most of the writers say something to this effect: “I start on a novel, then take a break and wander around a familiar/ unfamiliar environment, for when I do so, the characters tend to appear in the real/imaginary worlds who give clues to continue the story”. This seems to be to domain specific. May be it applies only to the “writing” field where after all writing about something is discovering what you think about it and it takes conscious quitting and revisiting your work.

The author cites enough stories to show that this kind of “percolation” effect can be beneficial to many other tasks. There are three elements of percolation. The first element of percolation is interruption. Whenever you begin a project, there will be times when your mind might say, “Moron quit it now, I can’t take it anymore”. Plodding through that phase is what we have been told leads to success. However this chapter suggests another strategy, “quit with the intention of coming back to it”. There is always a fear that we will never get back to working on it. But if it is something you truly care, you will get back to it at some point in time. An interesting thing happens when you quit and you want to get back to the activity after a break, the second element of percolation kicks in, i.e. your mind is tuned to see/observe things related to your work, everywhere. Eventually the third element of percolation comes in to play; listening to all the incoming bits and pieces of information from the environment and revisiting the unfinished project. In essence, having this mindset while working on a project means quitting frequently with the intention of returning to it, which tunes your mind to see things you have never paid attention to. I have seen this kind of “percolation” effect in my own learning process so many times that I don’t need to read a raft of research to believe that it works.

Being Mixed up

The author starts off by mentioning the famous beanbag tossing experiment of 1978 that showed the benefits of interleaved practice. This study was buried by academicians as it was against the conventional wisdom of “practice till you master it”. Most of the psychologists who study learning fall in two categories, first category focus on motor/movement and the second category focus on language/abstract skills. Studies have also proven that we have separate ways to memorize motor skills and language skills. Motor memories can be formed without hippocampus unlike declarative memories. Only in 1990s did researchers start to conduct experiments that tested both motor and declarative memories. After several experimental studies, researchers found that interleaving has a great effect on any kind of learning. The most surprising thing about interleaving is that the people who participated in the experiments felt that massed practice was somehow better, despite test scores showing that interleaving as a better alternative. One can easily relate to this kind of feeling. If you spent let’s say a day on something and you are able to understand a chapter in a book, you might be tempted to read the next chapter and the next until the difficulty level reaches a point where you need to put in far more effort to get through the concepts. Many of us might not be willing to take a break and revisit it, let’s say a week later or a month later. Why? These are following reasons based on my experience:

  • I have put so much effort in understanding the material ( let’s say the first 100 pages of a book). This new principle/theorem on the 101st page is tough. If I take a break and come back after a week or so, I might have to review all the 100 pages again which could be waste of time. Why not somehow keep going and put in a lot of effort in understanding the stuff on page 101 when all the previous 100 pages are in my working memory.
  • I might never get the time to revisit this paper/book again and my understanding will be shallow
  • Why give up when I seem to cruising along the material given in the book? This might be a temporary show stopper that I will slog it out.
  • By taking a break from the book, am I giving in to my lazy brain which does not want to work through the difficult part?
  • What is the point in reading something for a couple of hours, then reading something else for a couple of hours? I don’t have a good feeling that I have learnt something
  • I have put in so many hours in reading this paper/book. Why not put in some extra hours and read through the entire book?

The above thoughts, research says are precisely the ones that hamper effective learning. Interleaving is unsettling but it is very effective

Importance of Sleep

We intuitively know that a good sleep/quick nap brings our energy levels back. But why do humans sleep? One might think that since this is an activity that we have been doing since millennia, neuroscientists / psychologists / researchers would have figured out the answer by now. No. There is a no single agreed upon scientific explanation for it. There are two main theories that have been put forth. First is that sleep is essentially a time-management adaptation. Humans could not hunt or track in the dark. There was nothing much to do and automatically the internal body clock evolved to sleep during those times. Brown bat sleeps 20 hours and is awake for 4 hours in the dusk when it can hunt mosquitoes and moths. Many such examples give credence to this theory that we are awake when we there’s hay to be made and we sleep when there is none. The other theory it that sleep’s primary purpose is memory consolidation. Ok, if we take for granted that for some reason, evolution has made us crave for sleep, what happens to stuff that we learn? Does it get consolidated in sleep? The author gives a crash course on the five stages of sleep.

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The five stages of sleep are illustrated in the above figure. There are bursts of REM(Rapid eye moment) in a typical 8 hr. sleep period. Typically one experiences a total of four to five REM bursts during the night–of 20 min of average duration. With its bursts of REM and intricate, alternating layers of wave patterns, the brain must be up to something during sleep. But what? For the last two decades there has been massive evidence that sleep improves retention and comprehension. Evidence has also shown mapping between Stage II of the sleep and motor skill consolidation, mapping between REM phase and learning skill consolidation. If you are a musician/artist preparing for tomorrow’s performance, it is better to practice late in to the night and get up little late so that Type II phase of sleep is completed. If you are trying to learn something academic, it makes sense to sleep early as REM phase comes up in the early stages of 8 hr. sleep period that helps you consolidate. Similar research has been done on “napping” and it has been found to be useful for learning consolidation. The brain is basically doing the function of separating signal from noise.

The Foraging brain

If effective learning is such a basic prerequisite to our survival in today’s world, why haven’t people figured out a way out to do it efficiently? There is no simple answer to this. The author’s response to this question is that our ideas of learning are at odds with the way our brain has been shaped over the millennia. Humans were foragers; hunting and tracking activities dominated human’s life for over a million years. The brain adapted to absorb – at maximum efficiency –the most valuable cues and survival lessons. Human brain too became a forager—for information, strategies, for clever ways to foil other species’ defenses. However its language, customs and schedules have come to define as how we think the brain should work—Be organized, develop consistent routines, concentrate on work, focus on one skill. All this sounds fine until we start applying in our daily lives. Do these strategies make us effective learners?

We know intuitively that concentrating on something beyond a certain time is counterproductive, mass practice does not lead to longer retention; it is difficult to be organized when there are so many distractions. Instead of adapting our learning schedules to the foraging brain, we have been trying to adapt our foraging brains( something that has evolved over a millennia) to our customs/schedules/notions about learning things( something that has happened over the few thousand years). The author says that this is the crux of the problem. This has kept us at bay in becoming effective learners. The foraging brain of the past that brought us back to our campsite is the same one that we use to make sense of the academic and motor domains. Most often when we do not understand something, the first instinct is to give up. However this feeling of “lost” is essential for the foraging brain to look for patterns, aid your brain in to creating new pathways to make sense of the material. This reinforces many of the aspects touched upon in this book:

  • If you do not forget and you are not lost, you do not learn.
  • If you do not space out learning, you do not get lost from time to time and hence you do not learn.
  • If you do not use different contexts/physical environments to learn, your brain has fewer cues to help you make sense of learning.
  • If you do not repeatedly test yourself, the brain doesn’t get feedback and the internal GPS becomes rusty

It is high time to adapt our notions of learning to that of our foraging brain; else we will be forever trying to do something that our brains will resist.

imageTakeaway:

There are some counterintuitive strategies for learning that are mentioned in this book—changing the physical environment of your study, spaced repetition, testing as a learning strategy, interleaving, quitting and revisiting project frequently, welcoming distractions in your study sessions etc. Most of these are different from the standard suggestions on “how to learn”. However the book collates all the evidence from the research literature and argues that these strategies are far more effective for learning than what we have known before.

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