Some handy hints from a book review

In the bid to get through more books per year, I’ve followed the approach of seen cited in various podcasts, to read 20 pages a day.

My reason or this is simply to get through some of my bookcase this year, rather than just letting the collection grow or gather dust. I find books often provide a better structure on subjects than articles which make me gather the parts together myself.

During a pre-Christmas rummage through a charity shop in Melbourne., I spotted a copy of “Double Your Learning Power” by Geoffrey A. Dudley, and wondered if there might be pointers in there for those of us that often have to learn new info on the job.

The basics don’t change — much..

The first thing that struck me about this was how well it has aged. This book was published in 1986, yet those of you who have studied the “Learning how to to Learn” (LHTL) mooc, might be surprised at how much material remains relevant today.

Most crucially, using recall rather than passively reading was known even then.

I’ve distilled some points I found of interest, the book does tend to repeat itself but just like the excellent “Make It Stick” published a lot later in April 2014, it makes no apologies for doing so, in fact that’s essential for re-enforcing points. I found the material a little dry, but it did give me some ideas based on my own experience and the strategies suggested in learning how to learn, which I’ve laid out below.

Find your motivation, and leverage the Zeigarnik Effect

Does this subject interest me, or am I just interested in what doors it might open?

The first thing to say, is that there’s no shame in learning something if the latter in the case. Perhaps you have to study an exam for a promotion, or perhaps like I’ve tried myself, you are learning some ‘dry’ fundamentals on a subject for use in different contexts later.

Leverage the Zeigarnik Effect

Something I was unaware of was a phenomenon known as the Zeignark Effect, whereby people better remember tasks that are yet to be completed. Likewise David Allen makes mention of ‘Open Loops’1, where unless you make a list of things, some part of your consciousness gnaws away at you.

This is where the motivation itself comes in 2. Apparently, if a subject interests you, then you should be leaving your studies incomplete, i.e. finishing your tasks before there’s a natural break in the subject. This apparently leaves you wanting more, and more crucially making an imprint in your memory.

On the other hand, if your main motivation is not the subject for the subjects sake, then you should be setting study sessions that allow you to complete a block each time your study. In this instance, the success of completion outweighs the sense of curiosity for more material.

So for a subject like Domain Driven Design which interests me, I should leave chapters and sections incomplete between study sessions. Whereas subjects I find dry should be in self-contained blocks so as to leave me getting a ‘small win’ every session to keep me coming back for more.

Exercise in morning and study before bed

Well, more the second one. I’ve heard a few recent articles including this easy to read one saying study before bed is the way to go. These (much) more recent articles have come to the same conclusion as the book. The book’s explanation is that memories are always at risk of being lost when other stimulus is present to interfere — studying and going to sleep reduces this interference.

As for exercise, my thoughts are to get it dome first thing so you can’t make excuses to yourself later in the day. Since it also has benefits in getting oxygen to the brain according to this technical article and this more accessible one, this leaves you in the best state to receive your ‘reminders’, which you need to top up the memory.

Spaced repetition

I don’t think I can cover this better than “LHTL” , suffice it to say that the importance of this is important today as it was stated to be in 1986. The key takeaways from the spaced repetition section are that little and often is a better way (see my learning tests article for a strategy to remind yourself of when to study) and that you should seek to understand rather than regurgitate the material 3

It seems that some of the strategies have become outdated though as “Learning how to Learn” and “Mindshift” both suggest that differing environments for study prevent you from going into exam panic mode when you’re outside of your comfortable study environment, whereas the book recommends we use the same place for study each time.

Also we are told that that over-learning is a good strategy, but “Learning How to Learn” warns about the perils of mistaking familiarity on a text with understanding and comprehension of a subject4.

Its more efficient to learn a subject in one go, rather than piece by piece

Or the “Law of whole learning”5. This confused me initially. ‘Learning how to learn’ tells us we should build a bit at a time, like not trying to bench 150kg when we’ve never pushed 40kg, or trying to build a house without foundations. But “Double your Learning Power” reckons it’s more efficient to try to learn whole poems at a time, and not stanzas, or even in the case of one study, Morse code. I think my head would explode if I tried to go through an entire section on certain computer Science textbooks in one go.

Thinking about it, perhaps the ‘learning in one go’ merely refers to the size of the chunk. If we build and enrich chunks of learning, then maybe in this case we are learning everything in one go.. to the correct level of detail. Each new study session is a complete event, building on the time before. That’s what I’ll be trying to do (remembering to divide my syllabus depending on interest in the subject for its own sake, or for some indirect gain).

Use enriched material to liven up dry material

Similar to the above, the revision strategy chapter mentions trying to keep subjects’ fresh’ by bringing in newly learned material to complement the previous material, effectively overlaying your previous studies with deeper knowledge and additional facts to the time when you first studied. Since the book also cites spaced recall as the path to efficient mastery of a subject, hopefully these articles on “chunking” and “setting up a learning plan” might give some concrete ideas on how to progressively enhance your content.

Conclusion

I was quite impressed at how many of the points from this book I could relate back to the “Learning How to Learn” Course, which speaks well for both how relevant this book remains, and how well researched “Learning How to Learn” is.

1Allen,David “Open Loops.” Getting Things Done. London England: Hatchette Digital, 2001. Location 325/Page 11. Digital (Kindle).

2Dudley, Geoffrey A. “Memory for Completed and Uncompleted Tasks (Zeigarnik Effect).” Double Your Learning Power. Glasgow, Great Britain: Thorsons, 1986. Pages 83–86. Print

3Dudley, Geoffrey A. “How can we Remember?” Double Your Learning Power. Glasgow, Great Britain: Thorsons, 1986. Pages 159–162. Print

4https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/lecture/BuFzf/illusions-of-competence

5Dudley, Geoffrey A. “The Law of Whole Learning.” Double Your Learning Power. Glasgow, Great Britain: Thorsons, 1986. Pages 80–81. Print

By James