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Learning How to Learn (Part 2): How Do You Learn

Last week I developed the idea of prerequisites to learning how to learn, namely curiosity, motivation and time. All three aspects are necessary for us to be driven to learn and retain a lasting understanding of any subject, yet they only point us in the right direction for learning. They don't actually get us to our destination. To go the distance, and actually do so efficiently and effectively, you should learn the best ways that you learn, and that is a deeply personal experience.

The best way I can describe this personal awareness is to tell you how I learn, as an example. I am certainly not advocating this approach to everyone because everyone learns differently. This approach works for me, but it may not work for you. Let's say I want to learn a new programming language. How about JavaScript, for the sake of a concrete example, since I'm learning that language right now. I got a couple books on it, one moderately large, and one ridiculously large. I'll read through those, and do some more reading on the internet at w3schools.com and jQuery.com. I always read at least two different sources on a subject because different authors hit the subject from different angles, and that diverse treatment helps me make better connections in my brain. I remember things better that way. So foremost, I learn by reading. A lot.

Then I'll think up a project that I can do in JavaScript, like a card game or a paint program or even a script that parses my Amazon wishlists and finds all of the publication dates and page lengths of the books and writes them out to an XML file so I can sort them by title or date or length. You know, something more useful that Amazon's lists don't already do. The important thing is to come up with a project that I'm interested in - a project that will do something significant with the language - and then do it. So I learn by reading a lot and then doing.

If I want to further solidify my understanding, I can discuss with other people what JavaScript is good for. What are its trade-offs? What features really stand out? What features should be avoided or used with caution so I don't shoot myself in the foot? Once I have a decent foundation, these discussions can take my understanding to the next level. And that's about it. I learn by reading a lot, then doing, and sometimes discussing.

This realization of my learning style came together for me after that Grey-box Systems course in graduate school. That course was all about reading and discussing and a final research project that really showed me how I learn best. I learned faster and more profoundly than I ever had before. My head was buzzing with the mental connections that were being made. The course also made me more aware of the ways that I don't learn nearly as well.

I do not learn well in lectures or training courses. In those situations, I can't go at my own pace. I can't delve into topics that I find particularly interesting. I can't stop the proceedings to work something out that I didn't fully understand. I end up getting bored and my mind wanders to what I could be doing instead. In college I could never fully grasp why most professors would constantly rehash the material that I had just read in the textbook without ever deviating or expounding on it with their own experience or insight. The best ones did do this, but they were the exception.

Training courses are even worse because they are short and trivial by design. I attended a two-day MATLAB course a couple years ago, and I didn't learn anything that I hadn't already learned in the first couple hours of reading the documentation and experimenting with the program. When the course ended without covering any of the more advanced features that I was hoping to learn, I asked the trainer what the best resources would be to pursue MATLAB in more depth. He suggested some more training courses that were offered in other major cities. That was not terribly helpful, considering my learning style, so I found some more books and online references, and that suited me much better. I actively avoid training courses now.

Even worse than training courses are online educational or training videos. I simply cannot stand these things. Sure, with a video I can pause or skip around at will, but how can I know where the interesting bits are, if they even exist. The lecturer has no idea how the audience is responding since there is no interaction whatsoever. Online videos succeed in completely removing the one aspect of lectures that I find remotely useful - asking questions to go into an interesting topic in more depth. The few times I've tried watching them, I end up watching the time tick away on the position slider while trying earnestly not to pull my hair out.

I'm sure each of these ways of learning are invaluable to other people because everyone learns differently. I'm sure there are plenty of people that can't stand reading to understand concepts and get lost when experimenting on their own. They may find lectures and guidance and coaching extremely helpful, and that is a great way for them to learn.

My wife learns in a completely different way than I do. She takes copious amounts of notes. I am astounded by the volume of notes that she can take, and she can remember where she's written stuff on any given topic. This is all entirely foreign to me. Even if I could continue to follow a lecture while taking notes, which I can't, I would never find a use for the notes after I'd taken them anyway. She has a chronological memory, though, and she can pull up old notes in her notebooks quite easily to refresh her memory on something. I bet the act of taking notes also helps her more fully understand what she's hearing. I know plenty of people learn that way, it just never worked for me.

What is even stranger to me is the way my wife learns by asking questions, and I mean a lot of questions. If it were me, I would be expending so much mental energy coming up with all of those questions that I would quickly become thoroughly confused about what we were even talking about anymore. I'm still trying to figure out how her extensive questioning works exactly, but I do know that it works well for her. She is wickedly smart when it comes to understanding human interaction and emotions, and this way of learning probably accentuates that ability. She can easily interpret underlying motives and concerns in group settings of which I am completely unaware. So her ways of learning are completely different than mine, and incredibly effective for her.

These methods are certainly not the only ways that we learn. Learning styles is its own field of pedagogical research, although studies on proving the beneficial link between learning style and student are mostly inconclusive. Learning a bit about the research may help give you ideas for how you learn best, but I pretty much came to the realization on my own. I'm sure you already have a pretty good idea of how you learn best as well. I imagine the research was running into problems with the prerequisites to learning because they would have to standardize what was being learned, likely on some mundane topic. If you aren't interested in the topic, how you learn it isn't going to make one whit of difference. However, if you really want to learn something, I'm convinced that how you learn it can mean the difference between frustratingly slow progress and quick, clear understanding. I encourage you to experiment with your learning style on something that you have been meaning to teach yourself lately. Go on and find out how you learn best. I'd love to hear about it.