What School Never Taught Me About Learning: If It’s Easy, You’re Doing It Wrong

I went a long time through middle school, high school, and college with A’s, without ever evaluating myself and my “scholarly” progress outside those letters. But late in high school and early college, I began to develop deep interests in certain subjects over others and that’s when I think my learning really began.

How to Get an A

The basic fact I was never told about learning is that whatever it takes to get an A is usually far less than what it takes to learn the material to a degree where it influences your future research in a related subject.

To generalize, here’s what it takes to get an A:

  1. Read the assigned chapters in the book before lecture.
  2. Attend lecture.
  3. Do the assigned homework problems.

Okay that sounds obvious, and I did just that for years. There were days when the homework was challenging and I had to struggle for a long time to get through it, but most of the time the homework was trivial. By “trivial” I don’t mean it took 5 minutes to do. I mean that it was just about applying the things learned through reading the textbook, without hitting the wall at any point. The reason people struggle with homework I think is they fall behind a little early on (usually due to procrastination) on the three steps above, and it’s often exceptionally difficult to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

So basically, to get an A: read the book and don’t fall behind.

How to Actually Learn

The gap between what it takes to get an A and what it takes to learn is sometimes not that wide, but more often than not (in my experience) is wide as hell. So, to actually learn the material, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Read the assigned chapters in the book before lecture, and… understand all the hard-to-understand details you would skim over in the above reading. In math-related fields, those details would usually be things like proofs.
  2. Attend lecture and… ask questions, and write down things you didn’t quite understand, so that you can answer them yourself by carefully thinking through it later.
  3. Do the assigned homework problems, and… do all the problems in the same chapter that you don’t immediately know how to solve. And do the problems that require actually implementing something in code.

proof-then-a-miracle-happensSuper extra step 4: if you really want to learn the material, a great challenge is to actually teach it. In math-related fields, that means you have to be able to prove the main theorems of the field in front of a live (skeptical) audience.

These are things most of us figure out if we stick around long enough in academia, but  the problem is that teachers do not encourage it early on (in my experience). Moreover, the challenge is not just in knowing how to study, but also on how to manage your time such that you get good grades AND also are able to focus on a subject you are particularly interested in. I struggled with this time management aspect in my later graduate studies as I would obsessively pursue particular problems, leaving all other (often) easy but important tasks on the back burner.

A lot of obvious stuff here. Really, the bottom line is: if learning is easy, you’re doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be hard. The goal is to extract as much pleasure as possible from the joy of discovery so that you have enough left over to last through the droughts of confusion and failed attempts at understanding.

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