Re-learning to learn

Apr 30, 2020


knitting materials on a desk
knitting materials on a desk
knitting materials on a desk

I have a good chunk of extra time now because of the pandemic. I took an art history class, I’m learning Spanish, and I’m trying to finally tackle some of the more ambitious books on my shelf (ok floor).

But I’m also feeling so scatterbrained, because of the pandemic stress and also just our general information overload culture. I feel like I need to knit my attention span back together again.

I was struck by a video in a Brian Collins tweet called “How to Remember Everything You Learn” by Will Schoder. It said there are three main techniques for moving things from working memory (which can only handle 2-4 things at a time) into long-term memory.

  1. Recall — after consuming something, take a break and try to recall it

  2. Feynman technique — basically: teach it

    • write an explanation for someone else

    • when stuck, go back and re-learn until you can explain off-book

    • keep simplifying using analogies (long-term understanding is composed of schemas)

  3. Spaced repetition — the brain is a muscle, practice recall every few days for best effect

So: eliminate multitasking, distraction, and information overload. As he quotes of Charlie Munger: “Our job is to find a few intelligent things to do, not keep up with every damn thing in the world.” And don’t expect to retain anything on the first pass. (Most of the language-learning apps apparently use spaced repetition now, I’m using Babbel and it starts every lesson with a review of various previous lessons.)

I added The Shallows, a source for the above, to my reading list.

The video reminded me of Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book.” The Farnham Street blog has an article version I often review. To paraphrase, Adler lists four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary Reading — basic word comprehension

  2. Inspectional Reading — two types to evaluate material:

    • Systematic skimming — A quick check of the book by (1) reading the preface; (2) studying the TOC; (3) scanning the index; and (4) reading the inside jacket.

    • Superficial reading — Just read it. Then, if you want to understand it…

  3. Analytical Reading — four steps to digest the content:

    • Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

    • State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

    • Outline its major parts in their order and relation, then outline each part

    • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

  4. Syntopical / Comparative Reading — five steps to fill in the gaps:

    • Identify relevant passages in all books

    • Translate the terminology and keywords used by the author into your own language

    • Frame your questions (making sure they speak to the information the authors have covered)

    • Define the issues (the questions with multiple answers)

    • Have a conversation with the opposing answers

So, if I tackle these denser books (if you’re curious: Introduction to African Civilizations; Gödel Escher Bach; About Face; Designing for the Digital Age; Basics of Qualitative Research) and want to remember them, there are a number of steps I could take (from simplest to more involved):

  1. Pause at the end of each chapter and try to recall it

  2. Highlight relevant passages for later comparative reading

    • in Kindle, it’s easy to highlight (and I really hope Sawyer Hollenshead builds his highlight-aggregation tool for the masses so it’s easy to tag and compare them)

    • in paper books, I’m torn bc I don’t like writing in them. I’ve been meaning to try Carly Ayres’ tactic of adding post-it arrow flags (color-coded according to personal logic) and then transposing the info later.

  3. Analyze the book once I’m finished — topics, one-sentence summary, outline of parts, definition of purpose — but where?

    • I started to do this with my Digital Product Design book reviews sheet; I should resuscitate it.

    • I’m currently addicted to Notion, I have a tagged table of all the books I’ve read (and a dream of having all my Kindle highlights there too)

  4. Explain it to unfamiliar audiences — find analogies and keep simplifying

    • Blog posts are a great format for initial overviews (and more amateur-friendly than teaching)

    • Book clubs or other nerdy gatherings are a great way to force the off-the-cuff part. And a great way to gather suggestions of related or contradicting information

  5. Review topics I care about at regular intervals

    • Establish a set of topical tags in my note-taking tools, so that it’s possible to make more connections among sources

    • Occasionally revisit a tag to review new additions, compare them with the old, and formulate questions.

    • Hash through the conflicting answers, and develop an informed opinion through that process.

    • Share it with a community to continue the discussion, clarify my expression, widen my scope, and deepen my understanding

Wish me luck and give me a shout if you want to book club any of the above!

Update: Just found this post on How to Take Good Notes (for students, academics, and nonfiction writers) that has additional relevant methods.

More notes