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Miscellaneous Ruminations

A Quick Post on Learning

Recently I came across a couple of books about learning that I was very impressed with. Learning is something that everyone needs to do well, particularly those of us who work in rapidly changing fields like programming. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about learning and how to do it well.

The number one thing to know about learning is that unless you are testing along the way, you should not trust that you are learning anything much at all. There is a cognitive bias whereby being familiar with material (for example through re-reading a book) feels like mastering it. It’s easy to say to yourself: oh, yes, I know this because I’ve seen it before. However, for useful learning, it’s not enough to recognize something – you need to be able to summon it (the idea or the method) and apply it appropriately when needed. This is altogether a different task and it involves work. In any course material, the most valuable part is the exercises. Even if there are no exercises provided, it pays to make up your own, especially if it involves more than just regurgitating memorized facts.

One more thing. Multiple short study sessions spaced at least a day apart (but even further apart if you want to retain the material for longer) are more effective than longer study sessions. Obviously, there is some minimum length required to do any useful study at all. But learning the same material twice or more (with testing!) beats learning it once, even if the same amount of time is spent overall. It’s actually helpful for longterm retention if some forgetting has occurred between study sessions.

By the way, I recommend both the books:

Slightly more about the specifics of what techniques work and probably more helpful for a teacher looking for things to try.

This one has more background about how researchers discovered truths about learning and why it took such a long time. It also includes some amusing personal asides and anecdotes, making it a bit of a lighter and less didactic read.

(Those are Kindle links, by the way, but there’s no affiliate kickback for me.)