my learning toolbox and other miscellanea

March 13, 2022

Lately, I have been thinking about the processes behind how I learn. What has been effective? What has been useless? Here I examine my methods of attaining knowledge and mastery. Biases of my perception apply. Let me open my learning toolbox.

Reading

To date, reading has been my go-to method of learning things. It's also the worst. I have identified characteristics of reading that make it a tad bad. When I do it, I feel like I'm drinking from an endless fountain of knowledge, whilst making great strides towards becoming a sophisticated polymath.
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Truth be told, reading has only brought to me a delusion of understanding. When I try to explain what I read to someone or try to write down what I understand, I'll be exposed. I barely grasp the basics! My mental model of the core idea is like old swiss cheese—funky and full of holes.

I later realized that there's a scientific basis for this peculiarity. For learning to occur, your brain needs to take a strong effort to recall information. Reading provides none of that. This is why I instantly forget large parts of what I read.

Reading has a few things going for it though—it's a fast way of acquiring information. It's easy to know what is there to know and master. Reading was my gateway drug to better learning methods.

Writing

Writing is not creation, it is ruthless destruction. Writing destroys all my delusion of understanding. It exposes the shallowness of my thoughts. It makes it known when I'm mistaking the label of a box for its contents.

Realisation—to make something real. That's what happens when I write it down. We often think that writing is something you do to communicate an idea to an audience of readers. We overlook writing as a tool of thinking. The mind has limited working memory—scribbling something down is a great way to free up that working memory and zoom in and out of different layers of complex ideas. We can draw connections from notes and form giant chunks of knowledge.

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Alas, writing has its limitations—it is no rambaan aushadhi. Writing does not help with mastery. For that to happen, you need to rehydrate your brain with the same knowledge in spaced intervals—and ideally not through reading. I remember when I wrote this somewhat long blog post about the quirks of floating-point arithmetic in computers a few years back. You'd think I'm well-versed on that topic if you read that post. But I won't remember why floating points show bizarre behaviour if you asked now at gunpoint.

Building things

I used to assume that building is an act that follows learning. In practice, I've found that building things without prior knowledge is a great way to learn something quickly. Tinker it till it works, and it will force you to keep recalling the ideas at the heart of what you are building. Straining your brain while recalling ideas is the main mechanism of learning. That is why learning by doing or building things is effective.

There are some caveats with this method of learning. Firstly, many tools abstract away enough details that you can build something without actually understanding how it works. For example, it's easy for anyone to build a website without understanding how a website even works. That said, it's hard to build something reliable and stable without a deep understanding. There's no way anyone can build a website that can take a million users without understanding how websites work.

Building things provides a high level of focus and a clear learning path (ie, learn only what is needed to build your thing). The other edge to this sword is that it restricts exploratory learning. It's harder to bump into new ideas and delve into tangents when you are focusing on building things.
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Quizzing


Quizzing yourself is known to be incredibly effective, if not the most effective way of learning something. I've yet to add this in my learning toolbox though. The primary blocker for me is that it's difficult for the kind of unstructured and exploratory learning that I'm often required to do. Writing down quizzes or flashcards for myself is quite tedious. This is a lot more useful when you have a reference textbook that already provides you with questions to solve.

Two other axes of learning

Time.

Learning occurs through spaced repetition of recalling things. That needs time. I used to undervalue giving myself time to learn something properly. When I try to learn something hard, my first attempt usually goes poorly. But simply maintaining my interest and perseverance in understanding a topic for a long enough time helps me learn it eventually. The main skill that I'm employed for today, programming, took me years to get a hang of. It's easy for me to forget that because programming feels natural to me now.

My main lesson is to not give up something that I haven't understood. I instead give it time.

Curiosity.

Curiosity for me defines the ceiling for how well I can learn and master something. All the things in the world that I failed to learn were due to me not having enough curiosity for them. I often found myself rediscovering and enjoying topics from subjects I hated at school. That is because school is designed to kill your curiosity about all that is amazing about the world. I'd likely have learnt a lot more back then if I had my present levels of curiosity for learning random things.

If you want to drink from the fountain of knowledge, never let your curiosity die.

Appendix: Anecdote about writing

Anecdotally, writing also helps with retaining things in my memory. I had a course in college where I was struggling to pass—the instructor expected me to cite the answers as was in the book. Any attempt to rephrase the key ideas in my own words was met with severe attrition in my mark sheet. I wrote a giant book summary blog post on one of the course reference books (actually an interesting book, btw). I managed to pass with a C grade.