An Introduction to Effective Learning

An overview of the mechanics of memory, learning and the implementation of knowledge.

This is Version 1 of this article, published on Apr 14, 2023.


Alignment and Preparation

There is but a single objective when learning: to enhance your capabilities. This is done through increasing the depth of understanding so that it is more widely applicable and practical. The pitfall with this however is that it is difficult to measure. As a result we turn to the number of videos watched, projects created, books read etc. But these are vanity metrics, metrics that do not signify progress to the real goal. There is correlation between the amount of knowledge consumed and the proficiency of an individual, but it is not the purest measure of progress: it can be faked. Progressing towards a vanity metric may then lead to an exaggerated focus on the wrong thing and not the real focus: to enhance your capabilities. This hinders progress.

An example of this can be illustrated in weightlifting. Where, for this example, an individual wants to gain muscle mass. In the pursuit of gaining muscle mass, it is inevitable that the weight you lift increases as you become stronger. The amount you lift can be a proxy — vanity metric — for growth in muscle mass. This is because it is easily tracked. But if you then turn your focus to lifting as heavy as possible, or at least more than you realistically should, you become detached from the real metric that you should be optimizing for. That is, muscle activation.

In questioning and deconstructing our goals we can recognize and discard vanity metrics that we may otherwise optimize for. This ensures a strong focus conducive to our goals.

On alignment of a goal we must then make ourselves aware that meaningful progress takes time. We should be expecting and willing to spend a long amount of time to get the results we desire. The magnitude of a result compounds proportionate to the effort put into it. The more time we are willing to allow for achievement, the greater the achievement will be.

Storing and Preserving Information

In order to learn effectively it is important to understand the process of learning. To learn a topic is to form and subsequently store memories of relation. When actively studying or working on something, it is loaded into the short term memory as a chunk of information. A chunk of information begins as a single concept and then grows as it is connected to related concepts that are subsequently loaded in. The brain can, on average, hold 4 chunks of information at any one time in short term memory. The formation of chunks increases the efficiency of information recollection, allowing the retrieval of a piece of information to directly lead to more, associated pieces of information. To effectively grow a chunk, it is not enough to simply know of connections between pieces of information, the connections must be understood. By removing distractions and having a singular focus on the information present, you can direct more cognitive effect towards it. This increases efficiency in understanding relations and, by extension, developing chunks.

Once you have formed and developed a chunk, it can be safely moved from your short term memory to your long term memory when it is no longer of active concern. Long term memory is where the majority of learned information is stored so that it can be later called upon. It is important to frequently recall information stored in the long term memory. In doing so, you develop it’s associated neural pathways making the road easier to traverse in future, that is, making it easier to recall. Liken it to the creation of a path through an unexplored jungle. The more you traverse this same path, the more well trodden it will be and so the easier it will be to follow in the future. Conversely, should you not recall the information for an extended period of time, the path begins to overgrow once again: gradually covering your tracks and making it once again harder to traverse.

To combat the deterioration of neural pathways to information that has been stored in long term memory, there is a technique known as spaced repetition. That is, to wander the previously trodden path at regular intervals. Recall the stored information frequently so that it’s memory is not forgotten and is instead solidified. The solidification of memories affords longevity in learning.

Solving Problems and Forming Abstract Ideas

There are two mutually exclusive modes of thinking, focused mode and diffused mode. The focused mode is used for problem solving and getting answers by connecting closely-connected learned information. This is used when a single topic is the subject of study. The diffused mode is used for learning new information and the creation of abstract ideas through the connection of loosely-connected learned information. This is used when there is no topic of study, where your brain wanders freely, such as when walking or showering.

To continue the previous analogy, the focused mode is akin to wandering a distinct path and, when encountered with an alternate path at a crossing, moving on to the alternate path and seeing where it leads. The diffused mode is going off a distinct path into the wilderness and upon finding a new path, tracing it’s connection to the initial one.

It is essential to use both modes of thinking when learning. In doing so, you can effectively understand a topic and then connect it to other learned information: merging the associated chunks. The merging of chunks allows for ease in the transfer and application of knowledge between distinct areas.

The Basics of Health

High quality sleep is a necessity for performance in all areas. In the context of learning, sleep refreshes the brain and allows it to be consistently performant. During sleep we store memories, solidify understanding and create novel connections. Without sleep this will not occur as effectively, if at all — understanding of learned information would be either lost or reduced and isolated. One should aim for 8 hours of sleep a night. This, however, translates to a recommend 9 hours of ‘sleep opportunity’ — time in bed. This is to account for the time it takes to go to sleep and for a sleep efficiency of sub 100%.

Further practices to improve sleep include:

The food that we intake can be thought of as fuel, the same way petrol is for cars. If you planned to drive somewhere with little-to-no fuel or low-quality fuel, you are likely to encounter issues. Regarding the amount to eat, find your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) through the use of an online TDEE estimator. To maintain your current weight, aim for the suggested caloric intake. To gain or lose weight, eat in a surplus or deficit of 3-500 calories respectively. Regarding what to eat, you want healthy, single-ingredient foods and nothing that is processed or refined. It is also important to follow a time-restricted eating schedule to a maximum of 12 hours, that is to eat all your food for the day in a sub-12 hour eating window (e.g. 7AM → 7PM). Water is non-caloric and so does not interrupt your fast (it can be drank outside of your eating window). Aim for 2-3L a day to remain hydrated and adjust as required.

Exercise and play are conducive to body and brain health which afford longevity. Engage in these frequently – almost, if not every, day – to ensure that you can last to see efforts compound. For exercise selection, there are innumerable forms of exercise and no single one is best. Various people have various preferences. Finding a form of exercise that you enjoy is the only way for participation to be sustainable in the long term.

Finally, you want to include both cold and heat exposure to increase cognitive performance and energy. For cold exposure this is the equivalent of a 2 minute cold shower a day. For heat exposure this the equivalent of 1 hour in a sauna across a week.

The Basics of Focus

The ability to focus on a task is reliant on precursors to engaging in said task. You should minimize distractions and be wary of the cognitive overhead they produce. All tasks and information take up time and energy. Expenditure of time and energy on that which is not conducive to your goal presents on opportunity cost — the loss of potential benefits from choosing one alternative over another. This is because what was expended could have been otherwise utilized in that which is conducive. Extending this is the notion of context switching — the cognitive overhead generated when switching tasks. A small diversion of attention can force you to replace one of the chunks loaded into your short term memory. When then moving back to your initial task you must first load in the replaced chunk and apply the contextual understanding, a process which takes 20 to 30 minutes.

The Basics of Study

Firstly, it is important not to fall into illusions of competence — to trick yourself into thinking you have a good understanding of something when you don’t. To remedy this it is important to test your knowledge through application regularly.

It is important to take an active role in studying so that you remain engaged with the information being presented and are thus more likely to gain a deeper understanding. Active participation can be depicted as the writing and subsequent summarization and review of notes, the implementation of concepts and the creation of projects.

The utilization of multiple-sensory-learning (learning through multiples senses) increases your capacity to intake information and store it for later recollection. An example of this would be to watch a video and read the subtitles (visual) while listening (audio).

Metaphor and analogy are useful tools when conceptualizing information as they present a relation to a scenario that is already understood and so can be utilized. The result is something that is more memorable and less abstract.


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