Suggestions for How to Learn More Quickly

I’ve encountered a few interesting comments and stories about how to learn things more quickly. One thread that runs through all of them is frequent review. It’s one thing to blast through and learn something, even to the point of getting through a test or a class, but quite another to incorporate the new knowledge in a longer term framework.

Two writers and instructors I respect have created courses that involve presenting new material on Monday through Thursday, and then tie it all together on Friday with a review session that puts everything in context. One of them also suggests cementing your own knowledge by pretending you are teaching it to someone else. Teach to a wall if you need to. It doesn’t matter if anyone else receives the knowledge; what’s important here is the learner’s need to organize, structure, and simplify the information in his or her own mind. Teaching or pretending to teach provides a human motivation for getting that done.

A good curriculum will build on previously-acquired knowledge over the longer term as well. I remember hanging out with younger students in college and helping them with homework assignments I had done a year or two before. As we were working through some of the problems I was struck by how much easier they seemed than when I worked them the first time.

I’ve experienced this in other contexts as well. I’ve been swing dancing for a number of years and while I’d never suggest that I’m very good at it (I know enough to know some of what’s wrong by this point…) there have definitely been times when things have become more clear to me when I’ve been asked to explain them. There have also been a few moments where I suddenly understood something an instructor had said previously, sometimes by several years.

I also read that workers and managers who reflected on the events of the day before leaving tended to learn and adapt more quickly than those who did not. It probably helps if they make notes about those reflections. Engaging different forms of action and memory–seeing, listening, and writing–can help cement those memories as well.

Another common thread is simplification. Becoming an expert is partially a process of eliminating wasted motion. One wants to devote all of one’s energies to accomplishing a given end. This is true of throwing a curveball or teaching. I can’t find the nice article I read about a guy who measured the movement of his (amateur) wrist and compared it to that of a professional but this classic story about Richard Feynman should cover the teaching angle, as told by David L. Goodstein:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

OK, so the method only works if the subject is actually explainable, but who can resist a good Feynman story?

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