I recently finished an excellent course titled “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects”, available for free on Coursera. While by most measures the course wasn’t particularly demanding—the lectures were short, and the quizzes were easy enough to pass—it did make me take a hard look at how I’ve been learning.
It turns out I’ve probably been doing it wrong for most of my life.
The Easy Path Is an Illusion of Competence
One of the central ideas of the course is a concept called a “chunk,” a piece of information that is bound together through meaning. As you create chunks of meaning in your mind, your brain is able to run more efficiently, and you are better prepared to solve larger and more complex problems. Small chunks can be built on to create larger chunks, and so on.
One of the keys to creating effective chunks is practice. Not just any kind of practice, though, but what they call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is when you intentionally and repetitively test yourself on the concepts that are more difficult for you to get the hang of.
There are a couple things in there that stand out to me. First is that to really learn something, you need to test yourself on it. Simply rereading a book or an article is not going to help very much. You’ll think you grasp the concept, but as soon as you look away, you forget what you thought you learned.
I’m guilty of this all the time. I love to read blog articles related to web development. But usually I only read them, and then I’m done. I’m satisfied that I’ve learned whatever the article was teaching. But then when I move to the next article—surprise!—I’ve already forgotten what I’d read about before. In contrast, the simple act of looking away from your reading and trying to recite the main points in your head can actually help you cement the concepts in your brain, creating chunks that you can use later when you need them.
The second thing I found important is that it’s not enough to test yourself on just anything. It’s easy to fall into the trap of practicing the things that you’ve already got, the things that are easy for you. It’s fun, but it doesn’t help you learn. To achieve true mastery, you must practice the concepts that are difficult for you. It sounds obvious, but it is something I’ve generally avoided doing throughout my learning, both in school and after. I’ve had the tendency to take the easy path, to do things that come more easily to me. And all too often, once things become difficult, I give up. But if I want to become truly good at something, like programming, I have to do the hard things. By definition it’s not easy, but it becomes easier the more you work on it. Of course, once it becomes too easy, it’s time to work on something harder.
It’s Not Too Late to Change
The good news is it’s not too late to change the way I learn. Even though I’m not in school anymore, I’m never done learning. And I believe it’s never too late to become an expert in something.
Barbara Oakley, one of the professors of the course, said, “People believe that what they’re naturally good at is what they’re supposed to be doing in life, but … passions can broaden, change, and grow.” Dr. Oakley herself is a great example of this idea. She grew up being pretty bad at math and hating it, but now she is a professor of mechanical engineering.
It gives me hope to know that even if I am not initially all that great at something, I still can become good at it. All it takes, basically, is persistence and deliberate practice. Lots and lots of deliberate practice.
So What’s Next?
I’m excited to take these techniques I’ve learned from the course and apply them to learning—really learning—something new. Although I haven’t fully committed to it yet, I’m interested in starting the Open Source Society University computer science track. I don’t have a degree in computer science. It’s something I’ve always felt was lacking in my education, and it’s time I did something about it.
And this time, I’m going to learn the right way.
By the Way
This blog is long overdue for some love. In the semi-near future, expect to see some neat changes. I’m excited about it.