Learning to learn

Do you remember when facts and knowledge were valuable? Maybe I am remembering a society that never existed, which is quite likely, but I always thought that pathological liers were prohibited from significant stakes in society. Looking at politics, this is clearly not the case.

I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been writing for months straight now. I am certainly in a rut. The other day, during some routine procrastination, I realised that I haven’t put enough thought into the process of learning. Maybe if I had spent some time figuring out how I learn best, I would have saved myself a lot of time over the years. I do appreciate the irony of only thinking about how to learn mere moments before finishing with formal education, but as they say, the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago and the second-best time is now.

The first thing I did when I realised I should focus on the process of learning is head on over to Google Scholar and searched for research on learning. However, prior to that, I wrote down my opinions on learning, and my thoughts were essentially this.

“The only thing I know that works is committing time to the thing I am trying to learn. Very rarely do I set out to learn something and understand the key principles from the start.”

Learning to code is a good recent example, I have been learning for the last five years, and I am only now understanding key principles that if I had understood them from the start, I would be a much better coder by now. I looked at the key principles, read them and tried to understand them, but I had no domain experience at that time so the ideas didn’t become organised in my mind in a manner that could be useful.

Whilst researching how people learn, one of the most repeated ideas I came across is the idea that the difference between novices and experts is how the information is organised within one’s brain. Novices can remember facts, but experts have ideas organised in such a way that they can relate ideas to other ideas and see patterns where a novice cannot.

Broadly, two things define an expert from what I have learnt, A large body of knowledge within the subject, and crucially, the knowledge is organised around important concepts.

As far As I can tell, time is the most important factor in all of this, and whenever we decide to embark on the discovery of knowledge, we should prime ourselves to understand that it will take a lot of effort to get to where we want to be. Often, I find myself getting frustrated as I don’t pick things up quickly, but the hubris of thinking like this should be more embarrassing than the failure to grasp perceived simple concepts. Why should I be able to learn things quickly? At all other times, the acquisition of knowledge has taken years. What I should do when this situation occurs is reflect on the long-term impact of learning, but this is often hard to do once you’re already annoyed.

The thing I have learnt about learning is that I should try and be mindful whilst engaging in it to try and understand concepts a bit more before moving on, but ultimately know that it is just about putting in effort over a long enough time.

I wish I could make an article saying here are the three tricks experts use to learn things fast. But there are no shortcuts, and there is no single best way to tackle a problem; otherwise, all schools around the world we are exactly the same.

For me personally, I have added some notes to my daily to-do list that remind me to focus on the process more than the outcome. Hopefully, this will stop me from wandering so much.

The best way to become better than someone at something is to have spent more time doing that particular thing than your adversary — that is the secret.

Here are some further reading if you’re interested in the topic.

A book on learning

Points I got from this book:

  1. Pre-existing knowledge: ‘the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe’; ‘Research on expertise in areas such as chess,history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter
  2. Active learning: ‘To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:(a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.’; ‘But knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient’

And here is a technical post about how memory is formed.

Are there any educators out there that have anything to say on the topic, or anyone that has developed a strategy to learning and progression? Please share your advice.


Published by Louis

Spend less than you earn, Invest the surplus, avoid debt. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

19 thoughts on “Learning to learn

  1. In addition to the points you make, I’ve found that applying new knowledge helps me organize it and link concepts together to form expertise. Experience, especially acquired simultaneously with new knowledge, is key for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Learning is certainly a difficult “thing” on its own. I believe that people go through life never actually knowing or understanding how they learn, but there is also little insight into the process. So, if you don’t know that you don’t know something, then does it really matter? Anyway, very thought provoking post and good to reflect on, for sure!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I did some studying in education. “Metacognition” and “active learning” where the big words to focus on for those classes. We were taught on how to cultivate both, and a lot of what you’re describing would make a number of teachers happy–learning about the learning process. Especially the comment on learning fast–indeed! Why should anyone learn “fast”? Being at-pace for you is the most important part. Or finding what works for you. I used to think I was terrible at math. Then I realized I just didn’t pick it up as quickly as the others, and once I realized that, it became a very fun topic for me.

    The study of learning and how people learn is certainly fascinating. Thanks for the book link!


  4. Learning takes time, and more often we learn the how’s before we understand the why’s. In your example of coding, we mostly start out with memorizing the command and syntax. Only later do we understand how they work.

    Good luck with your PhD and a little scheduled procrastination is not a completely bad thing. Hahaha! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not an educator, rather one that is being educated. I am in the first year of a Master of Arts (Creative Writing and Literature). I have learnt over my 57 year life span that one can learn a lot inside AND outside of the classroom. I went back to University when I was 52. I thought that a lot of the younger students in my class would shun me as being an old fuddy duddy. Much to my surprise, I was accepted as a wise old bloke whose opinion was not only valid but worthwhile. The difference in being a mature aged student and one fresh from high school is that I was there to learn because I wanted to be, not because I needed a degree for a job. Literature is my first love followed by Creative writing, although the master program that I have joined seems to have the other emphasis. I don’t mind, its making me a more thoughtful and organised writer. I still have a number of works on the go, but I have to concentrate on university work first, then enjoy my creative writing ( poetry and short story writing next). The style of teaching I enjoy most is interactive tutorials rather than lecture style learning. I do enjoy some level of casualness, but like a teacher who is in charge so the lecture flows freely and student participation is encouraged as long as it is on topic. Anyway, I am looking forward to my continued study and look forward to the experience of being a PhD student too.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Haven’t looked at their data yet, but read last Saturday’s Times report on Seneca Learning with interest.
    Ph.D truncated * – but my perhaps my M.Sc was in the right territory for O.U. teaching in data analysis.
    The course material was structured far more effectively than most first degree teaching – delivered in the traditional way.
    Living with, now married to a coder/software writer, I recognise the application of these tools to what is otherwise a totally different area – field archaeology, reverse engineering.
    Hope your Ph.D goes well

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One of the things I have found throughout my PhD that I’m sure you’ve experienced too is that you learn faster when two conditions hold: (1) you are trying to use what you learn to serve some end (in my case, proving theorems), and (2) you actively grapple with the material rather than just passively read/hear it.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, precisely! In fact rather ashemedly, if someone is explaining something in a lab meeting that I know I will never use, I have given up trying to understand as I know it will be gone from my brain by the end of the day.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. With this comment I will not be sharing a particular useful strategy on learning – I’m just adding my thought to it.
    One of the important aspects in lifelong learning is: never be completley satisfied with what you know and stay aware that what you do know is just a small part of everything that you can learn on the subject. This of course doesn’t mean that anyone should deprecate or belittle his or her knowledge! I just think that staying humble in this way means that you will keep your curiosity on and explore and learn further. It also means that when we come across a difficulty in the learning process, we won’t back down and ignore it, instead we will try and stretch our brain until we get it. This is in fact something I have to keep reminding myself, because I tend to get a little lazy sometimes.
    Then there’s the field (school, study, profession) one comes from. I guess the best way to learn is going through organized, institutionalized process with pedagouge’s guidance to cover all parts of the subject. Student’s work doesn’t stop there; he gets equipped with tools to work further on his own and deepen his knowledge.
    With self-teaching, we are on our own and progress of course depends on each individual. I believe that there are awesome self-taughts (can that be a noun?) out there. But I personally stick with the basics when it comes to areas outside of my field. I studied humanities…and I am getting to know botany “for a hobby”. I will probably never fully understand cell structure in its core, but I very much like reading botany literature on the popular level – getting to know the beauty of nature. (I realise that this is contrary to “brain-stretching” I mentioned earlier. But I guess there are limits to it? Or to put it more optimistically – maybe through time, I will go more into details. And also, like you said – does learning really have to be fast?)
    Great post, you gave us a lot of material to think about. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ll throw in my 2 cents. As a math major, I find that the best way for me to really learn something is to turn my confusion into questions, and my questions into answers. That sounds extremely obvious in hindsight, but it’s the best way to summarize how I learn. If I notice that I’m confused, I generate a question, in full language and a) either try to immediately answer it, and if a) proves fruitless, then I b) log it and move on. But logging the unanswered questions seems to help too. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience of learning while on a PhD. 🙂

    I think it’s key to keep the big picture in mind and how the details fit into that overarching theme/aim. So I suppose as you say it’s realising and understanding what those keystones are which helps you connect your knowledge on a subject together. Great post! Thanks for making me think about it…


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