Learn Like a Machine
According to Google, my cousin’s daughter is my “first cousin once removed.” She was born blind and, at the time I’m writing this, she is at the age to begin learning how to read. As I was visiting my parents’ place, my “twin” cousin and his daughter were also visiting. After hearing words like “braille keyboard” and “braille typewriter”, I realized that I have always had a level of curiosity about how braille works. On a Sunday afternoon, I knew nothing about how to interpret the embossed dots into letters. I knew it had to have some sort of pattern, but that was about it.
The 6-keyed typewriter has three keys on the left, three keys on the right, and one larger key in the center (the space bar). If you press the center-most key on the left side, the typewriter designed for a young child vocalizes “A.” This is true for any combination of keys that translates to a letter.
After about 15 minutes of hearing letters uttered in a voice designed to teach children, I decided to search online for a graphic to visualize the letters. For some reason, I expected the pattern to be much more complex than it was. Either way, I memorized the pattern that afternoon and quizzed myself in the weeks to come.
The fact of the matter is, you are reading this because you believe your methods of learning can be improved. One thing I can tell you right off the bat is that, if you are studying your topic of interest at all, you are in a league above most. The fact that you are investigating methods of increasing the pursuit and retention of knowledge is commendable.
Many people stop learning once they reach a certain level of achievement. Some common plateaus include feeling “too old to learn”, reaching a certain level of success (which is defined by the individual), or even a lack of motivation to learn. Most of the time, we get to a point to where we don’t see the point in learning something new. Especially with search engines having the answers for us at any given time. Whip out your smartphone, ask the intelligent device a question, and voila! You have your answer. Whereas this is handy to achieve an instant ‘need’, it’s not exactly a healthy practice. Our brains become dependent on the devices that give us these quick answers.
“I’m freeing up the space in my brain for what is important,” you may say. The human brain has about a billion neurons, each with the capability of making about a thousand connections to other neurons. Each neuron can store many memories on its own, exponentially increasing the capacity to a number that we can’t even fathom. There are debates as to whether the brain has a capacity or not. The real argument proposed by this mindset is “I don’t want to learn that” or “I’m not interested in that”. I accept that argument. There are things I don’t want to learn about – at least not yet. My question then becomes “What do you want to learn?”
Well, that brings us to the reason you’re reading this. You have things you want to learn. I have a method of learning things fast and retaining that information. This post outlines – as best as I can define – my method of learning.
Okay, so you found a resource that has information that you want to remember. This could be a lecture from a professor, a website, a book, a person, or anything else. The first thing you need to do is prepare yourself to receive the information. I’m not talking about meditating for an hour or gulping down an energy shot beforehand. I’m talking about arranging your mental and physical environment in a way that allows the information to be absorbed efficiently.
I’m a web developer. Being familiar with a lot of different programming languages is part of my job. In one of the jobs I have held, there was a person who had been coding since he was a child. This meant he was very knowledgeable, yet opinionated with languages he was familiar with. I was competent, writing code that ‘worked’ in one of the languages we collaborated in. When the time came for him to look at the code that I had written, he had many suggestions that he demanded from my work. My initial reaction was to push back, indicating that my code worked! “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” I began to resent him for telling me how to code after all the hard work I had done.
I didn’t realize that the suggestions he was asserting not only made the code more readable but improved the code’s functionality. After a few sessions of reviewing the code with him, he showed me that the people who designed the language made the same suggestions that he had made. My pride was getting in the way of growth in my career.
You know things. I’m sure you know many things. This does not mean that you get to act like you know more than the resource providing the information. You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run. Your goal is to absorb information from the resource. You’re not learning anything if you think you know it all already. It’s good to get into the habit of doing this at any time you think you can glean information from a resource.
When learning, we gain more information – and develop stronger relationships with the people we collaborate with – when we humble ourselves; even in situations when we are well-versed in the topic. There is opportunity for growth in every situation. A lot of the time, we need to stifle the pride we have for our own accomplishments and experiences to make room to absorb more information in that topic.
Everyone has a different note-taking style. Whether it’s a paper notebook, a tablet, a smart phone, a video, or an audio recording, it’s important to have some way to collect the information that you intend to retain. Whatever medium you decide on to absorb the information about your topic from, be sure that you have a reliable medium to absorb it from – not only now, but later as well. This is non-negotiable. You absolutely must have a way to verify that your retention of the information is accurate.
Fortunately for most circumstances, there are many online resources to record information. If you choose paper, you can take a picture of it and, if you don’t have your photos automatically backed up, you can easily set this up. I won’t go into the details of this here, as I’m sure you can find this information if you don’t already know how.
To increase the level of interest you have in the information you wish to consume, you should have some questions about it. Record the initial thoughts you have about the topic using your medium of choice, phrasing them as questions. For example, as I was learning how to read and write Japanese, my initial thoughts about it were vague:
- Characters somehow translate to sounds.
- Some characters look like each other, but others look completely different.
- When people speak in Japanese, it sounds like one word.
Then, I turned them into questions:
- What is the structure of the sounds for the language?
- How do people remember which characters mean what?
- How can I differentiate between words?
Doing this gives you something to look for as the information comes in. As more information comes in, you can add to the thoughts that you have and form more questions about the topic. Questions keep us interested and reeling for more information.
What do you want to achieve by learning more about your topic? If you don’t know the answer to this question, you may want to consider answering it first. A lot of the time, though, we have a crystal-clear answer to this question. With clearly defined goals, you can identify specific points to jot down in your choice of note-taking medium. Later, we can measure whether we hit our goals, comparing the knowledge we gained against what we write down in the beginning.
Short-term goals are just as important as long-term goals. Short term goals give us the opportunity to reward ourselves along the way to the big goals. Long-term goals create a sense of purpose to achieve the short-term goals.
In learning Japanese, I had both:
- Long-term goals
- Carry on a conversation without referencing a translator.
- Watch and understand anime without subtitles.
- Short-term goals
- Read and write characters without reference.
- Interpret characters as sounds.
- Greet people.
- Talk about the weather.
- Ask for directions.
…and so on. Notice how I had more short-term goals than long-term. Also notice how the short-term goals build from the knowledge gained from the previous goal. This structure is likely familiar to you. Good teachers set up their curriculum incrementally, so as not to overwhelm their students. It would be ridiculous to set the expectation of understanding a show in a different language by the second day of study.
Receive the Information
Now comes the time to actually collect data. This is the most important step, but it is also the most malleable step. There are a few mediums of recording information, and everyone is different when it comes to their preferences when it comes to this. Different minds retain information using different styles, as well.
As you’re collecting information, there are some fundamentals that need to be addressed.
Shut Up and Listen
I touched on this before, but it really is crucial. You’re not listening when you’re talking. This applies to your mindset, too. If you’re constantly trying to prove the information right or wrong, you can’t be taking it in at the same time. You may be able to hear what is being said, but you’re not really listening. In this step of the process, your goal is to receive and document the information for later. If you want to learn more about the topic, you need to have information to dig through and process. So, subvert your ego and turn your mind into listen mode.
Take out your note-taking medium of choice and record what your resource provides. There are many ways to take notes, but I’ll list a few to give you some ideas of how to do this effectively.
Using an outline creates a hierarchical structure of the data, indenting as finer details are presented. This makes the data look organized and may make it easier to review later. One thing to keep in mind if you choose this structure is – when you move on to another topic or subtopic, leave plenty of space. You may be presented with more information later on that should be categorized within that topic or subtopic.
This may have an actual name, but I’m calling it the “topic” system. Using this system, you’ll write down a topic that you know you’ll receive information about, leave quite a bit of space (skip to the next page if you’re using paper), then write another topic you know will be covered. Fill in the empty space with the details from the information received. This method can be used to compile information from different resources.
When all else fails and you can’t exactly create a structure for the data coming in, simply write down the facts as they are presented and then skip to the next line. The important thing is to collect the information so you have it to reference later.
Now that you’re listening to what the resource has to say, you can engage with the information it’s providing. This is where your learning style comes into play. Every learning style has its own nuances, but everyone can leverage their learning style to better engage their minds during a learning session, regardless of how the resource presents that information.
Of course, everyone has a preference for how they like to receive information, but that does not mean that you have to only receive that information in that particular way. If you do this, you are only restricting your own growth. You don’t control how someone presents their information, but you do control how you receive it. That being said, you should work with your strengths and play to the weaknesses of your learning style.
The four main learning styles are described in the acronym “VARK“. If you don’t know your learning style, take the quiz! Or, if you want to obtain more in-depth information about your learning style, check out the VARK articles.
Check out this post that delineates some of the nuances of the different learning styles. Don’t feel limited to only one learning style. We are all a blend of unique qualities, often jumping into different “modes” to metabolize different types of information from different resources.
The important thing is that you record the information so you can reference it later. The style that you identify with most is most likely to be the best way for you to record the information.
All right. Now we have information – and hopefully in a form that works well with your learning style. There are a few things you can do to make the best use of the information you have.
Look back to the questions you wrote down earlier in the process. Look through the information you have collected and try to answer those questions. Usually, the questions we have before digging in to the data are of a more fundamental nature. Once the fundamentals have been answered, new, more in-depth questions arise. Answer those, too. Keep doing this until you start to get into the questions that will take more time to answer. Most of the time, this process doesn’t take very long. Spend no more than an hour doing this.
Remember the goals you made at the start of this process? Now that you have been exposed to the fundamentals of your topic, look at those goals again and refine them. With a new baseline of knowledge about the subject, you can weave in the knowledge you have gained. Remind yourself to do this when you feel you have hit a new plateau of knowledge. Stepping back and re-examining the goals you have, making, or replacing old goals with new ones is key to this whole process.
Commit to Memory
Think about something that you already know that relates to a piece of new information and connect the two. A lot of people do this to remember the names of people they just met. The key here is to make it meaningful to you. You’re the one learning, so you’re the one who needs to become familiar with what the information means. You can leverage your learning style to make this easier – check out this post.
There’s no way around it – if you want to memorize something, you have to expose yourself to the material. Some memories will form easier than others. For the things that I just can’t remember, I have found that using the information in a context that I am familiar with helps to overcome the humdrum and monotony of the repetition – or try to make it fail.
If you have a two-dimensional perception of the information, it will be more difficult to relate it to what you already know. Dissect it; figure it out; truly know it; make it your own. Attempting to make the piece of information fail applies it to something practical, bringing it from being a piece of information to being a piece of knowledge, an experience that you can hold on to – a memory. One good example of this was when I was learning how to write in Hiragana. I would take English words that I was familiar with, then sound them out in the syllabary.
Repetition is one reliable way to commit something to memory, but it’s not the only way. A change in the balance of neurochemicals will substantially reduce the number of repetitions required to form a new memory. This means that, if you experience an impactful event after performing a repetition, you will learn faster. Some practical examples of how to do this include doing push-ups, drinking coffee, exposing yourself to cold water, or even taking a nap. I rotate through these examples periodically, to keep them fresh. This is not an exhaustive list of examples – only a few that I have found to be effective. If you have an interest in delving deeper into how this works, please check out this podcast episode.
People often overlook the importance of reflection after a learning session. Reflection isn’t just looking back at what we have learned. It includes comparing our newly acquired knowledge against the goals that we set for ourselves. This is what tests or quizzes are intended to accomplish. I know, duh. It has been said, though, that we need reminding as much as we need educating. I say this because we often get flustered and nervous when we are faced with a test when, in fact, we could be excited to show ourselves how far we have come since the beginning. This is why I suggest writing down your initial thoughts. You can use it to look back and see how much you have learned. If you do this, it will increase the likelihood that you become more motivated to continue making new goals and continue to learn new things.
If you have followed the process up to this point, you have at least learned something. There are many ways to reflect on and measure what you have learned. I’m not going to hate on any of them, but I do have some suggestions based on what works for me.
Take one of your goals and create a quiz for yourself on it. You can do this on a larger scale, combining different questions pertaining to different goals to compile a test for yourself as well.
For example, one of my goals when learning how to write Japanese was to “read and write characters without reference”. To make this into a quiz, I would take words from a Japanese dictionary and sound out the words using the characters. I may not have known what the words meant, but I could at least sound them out. That’s a step in the right direction!
Making a quiz for yourself allows you to customize it for the outcome that you create for yourself. One thing to keep in mind if you choose this method is that you have to be hard on yourself. It’s easy to allow yourself to fudge a little bit. Resist that proclivity. You will stunt your own growth if you allow yourself too much leeway.
As I mentioned before, the replication of what you have learned in a context that makes it real for you will increase the likelihood that you will remember it. In keeping with the example of when I was learning Japanese, I would attempt to construct the next sentence that I would speak aloud in Japanese, then actually say it aloud.
With languages, it’s more effective if you’re doing this with people who are also learning that language, but it’s not necessary. People might think you’re weird for speaking in a different language, but most people respect that you’re attempting to learn it. I know, because I do this all the time! I will say, though, that if you do this, you really need to have a reliable way to check yourself. Online translations often miss cultural nuances.
Continue to intake information, refine your goals, apply the information, and reflect on what you have learned. This is my process.
Remember to stay humble, tempering your pride, excitement, and experience with the knowledge that there is always going to be something that you can learn about a subject.
Thank you for reading.