Learning How to Learn (And 20+ Studies)

I’ve been interested in cognitive science and effective learning methods for years. I’ve read multiple books and articles and put many ideas to test. So I thought I’d synthesize my notes into the blog post, add references to scientific studies, and share it with you.

TL;DR

Effective Learning Strategies

  • Distributed learning: study less in each session but more frequently
  • Active recall: actively test your knowledge and skills
  • Distributed recall: space the tests in time and adjust the intervals based on performance
  • Interleaving: practice multiple related yet different skills/concepts simultaneously
  • Elaborative interrogation (quiz-and-recall): ask yourself questions and use the material you’ve learned to answer them
  • Self-explanation and the Feynman technique: explain what you’ve just learned in simple terms

Physiology and Brain’s Health

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition

Disclaimer and Introduction

I have no formal background in cognitive science or neuroscience and this has been more of a side interest. My understanding is limited and I still need to learn how to effectively and consistently apply all these ideas to practice.

That being said, I found some of the methods described in this article very useful. For example, I’ve used them to learn foreign languages, the basics of programming, and various disciplines covered during the two-year MBA program.

Effective Learning Strategies

Strategy #1: Distributed (Spaced) Learning Practice

In short, it’s better to distribute one’s practice over a period of time than cram it into one day.

In one study elementary school students were asked to study in one of the three ways: massed, clumped, and spaced.

  • Massed = four lessons at a time
  • Clumped = two lessons on one day and two lessons on the next day
  • Spaced = one lesson per day for four days

The “spaced” group performed best, followed by the “clumped” group:

Another study compared comprehension scores under three different conditions:

  1. Read a text once (“single”)
  2. Read a text twice (“massed”)
  3. Read a text twice with a week-long gap (“distributed”)

When tested immediately, the second group performed best. But when tested with a delay of two days, the third group performed best.

This method is also superior for learning motor skills.

How to apply this in practice:

Create a learning schedule or find time to practice a little bit every day or every few days instead of cramming all your learning into one or just a few days.

If you’d like to learn more, read the Wikipedia article on distributed practice.

Strategy #2: Active Recall (Retrieval) Practice

It might be more effective to actively retrieve the information you’ve already learned than passively re-read or try to learn it once again.

One study that compared a method that emphasized study sessions with a method that emphasized tests and found the latter to be more effective for delayed recall.

  • SSSS = four study sessions
  • SSST = three study sessions, followed by one test
  • STTT = one study session, followed by three tests

Even imagining that you might be tested on the material you’re learning might help improve the recall.

How to apply this in practice:

If a few days ago you learned how past tense works in the Spanish language, try to remember the rules or even test yourself on your knowledge — instead of simply re-reading the same material once again.

You can read more about the active recall practice on Wikipedia.

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Monthly newsletter: technology, startups, business growth and marketing

Monthly Newsletter: Issue 3

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max


Now, get a cup of coffee and enjoy!

Technology and Startups

Growth and Marketing

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Monthly newsletter: technology, startups, business growth and marketing

Monthly Newsletter: Issue 2

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max


Now, get a cup of coffee and enjoy!

Technology and Startups

Growth and Marketing

  • Intercom on Marketing (ebook). A good intro to marketing and, in particular, product marketing that will be interesting to those who are relatively inexperienced.
  • How to Design Marketing Campaigns. Basics of marketing segmentation, messaging hierarchy, and campaign management – this article will be useful to those who’re new to marketing or looking for a refresher.
  • HubSpot’s Pricing Page Redesign → MQL Conversions 165%↑ & Free Sign-Ups 89%↑. How: research first – usability testing, internal feedback, and customer intelligence; then design based on insights and A/B test.
  • What’s next in growth?” (video) talk by Andrew Chen who leads the rider growth at Uber. Andrew recommends you ignore “growth hacks” and focus on fundamentals that worked for decades. E.g. user referrals, shareable content, and using discounts to jumpstart demand for new products.

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Monthly Newsletter: Issue 1

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max

Technology and Startups

  • Ten-year Futures – a presentation by A16z. New technologies enable new use cases. Seeing them, as well as non-obvious “second order” effects, is key. E.g. mobile enabled Instagram, Instacart, and ride-sharing.
  • Decrypting Crypto – another presentation by A16z. Bitcoin is a combination of three old technologies: hashcash, public key cryptography, and distributed ledger. Value of cryptocurrencies goes beyond the traditional store of value and medium of exchange. E.g. tokens can help bootstrap new protocol-level innovation and incentivize developers, customers, and investors to contribute.
  • AlphaGo Zero masters the game of Go from scratch. The ML algorithm learned the game without any pre-existing understanding of rules or strategies. Building a general or at least a-little-bit-less-narrow AI appears to be a big priority for DeepMind. Perhaps this can count as a small step in this direction?
  • Delivering blood with drones in Rwanda – a TED talk by the founder of Zipline. What an amazing application of new technology and a case study in social entrepreneurship.
  • Tacotron 2 is a new text-to-speech technology by Google that is (almost?) indistinguishable from a human voice. If Google manages to make it less computationally demanding and ship it as part of the Android OS, all kinds of interesting use cases will be made possible. I personally will listen to more of my Pocket articles in audio.
  • Magic Leap is launching its SDK, shipping in 2018. AR/VR is already quite a saturated market. It’s not entirely clear yet how hyped Magic Leap technology will compare to Microsoft HoloLens, as well as to VR headsets: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is yet another mind-expanding book:

“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.”

Book Notes: Waking Up by Sam Harris

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

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Moonwalking With Einstein Book Review: Memory and Mnemonics

I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.

moonwalking ith-einstein the art and science of remembering everything by joshua foer

 

Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.

 

Interesting facts and ideas

  • Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
  • One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
  • Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
  • Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
  • Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
  • We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
  • Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.

Mnemonic techniques:

  • Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
  • “Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
  • Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
  • Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
  • Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
  • Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
  • Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
  • In essense, deliberate practise is  an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
  •  Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
  • Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
  • Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
  • The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
  • Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book:

Book Notes: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Feynman is one of the brightest physicists of the 20th century who also happened to be a talented lecturer and an author of a book which is fun to read. Here are some excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” that I found interesting:

Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman - book review & quotes

On freedom:

So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel heed by a need to maintain your position In the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Isn’t it a modern luxury that very few of us can afford?

On pointless communication

When it came time to evaluate the conference at the end, the others told how much they got out of it, how successful it was, and so on. When they asked me, I said, “This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!

On mindfulness and watching your thoughts become dreams:

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:

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TED-conference alternatives: best edutainment videos from PopTech conference, Singularity University, Learning Without Frontiers & OpenCulture

Yes, we all love TED. They probably have the best collection of video presentations online with most of them being either inspirational or insightful. But is it all there is?

Actually, there are few places where you can find some edutainment videos for you dinner watching. Here are the main alternatives to TED I stumbled upon and some introductory videos that I personally liked that can help you get started.

1. PopTech

According to the website:

PopTech is a unique innovation network – a global community of cutting-edge leaders, thinkers, and doers from many different disciplines, who come together to explore the social impact of new technologies, the forces of change shaping our future, and new approaches to solving the world’s most significant challenges. We are known for our thriving community of thought-leaders, breakthrough innovation programs, visionary annual conferences and deep media and storytelling capabilities.

A good video to start from: Sebastian Seung’s Connectome.

2. Learning Without Frontiers

According to the website:

Learning Without Frontiers is a global platform for disruptive thinkers and practitioners from the education, digital media, technology and entertainment sectors who come together to explore how new disruptive technologies can drive radical efficiencies and improvements in learning whilst providing equality of access.

A good video to start from: Gordon Brown’s Pirate’s Dilemma.

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23andme review

23andme can decode your DNA using a sample of your saliva and offer you quite a few insights into your nature. 23andme is the biotechnology company that was founded in 2008 by Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki (who also happens to be Sergey Brin’s wife).

I personally tried it couple of months ago and received my results around a couple of weeks ago and decided to write a brief review. So, what exactly can 23andme offer?

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