The quality not the quantity of learning matters

In learning as in many other things quality is more important than quantity. Quite often students ask me for a rigid training schedule, hoping that following such a schedule will transform them into superlearners. While hard work and discipline are very important for any successful activity, there are other factors playing an equally important role. These factors are multiple, subtle and complex. They affect the quality of the experience, rather than the quantity of our effort or production. For further reading, I would recommend excellent and very diverse articles here, here, here, here, here and here.

The effect of luck on success

Events we cannot control may have a crucial effect on our lives. The first event is the most important one. Being born into a middle-class family in the United States or Europe, provides more opportunities than being born in a poor family in Africa or India. About 10% of the world population enjoys full access to all the benefits of the modern civilization, including technology and education. If you read this post, probably you have won this initial lottery or worked very very hard to fight against poor chances. A combination of genetics, parenting, and schooling shapes our brain and belief system: our IQ, social status, communication abilities… If you had bad math teachers during the first several years of school, you might hate math and think you are not good at it. The hobbies you had as a child affect not only specific skills but also the ability to step out of the comfort zone, trust and cooperate with others, and the confidence in yourself.

Different people different perspectives

We all start with a different combination of skills and by the time we are ready to do some serious learning or working this difference is getting bigger. The same training will have a huge positive effect on one person and very little effect on another. Educators know this and provide a portfolio of training exercises that leverage different skills, so that if some exercises fail others will deliver. Leaders also know this and build diverse teams, where the weaknesses of some members are compensated by strengths of others.

Since there is more than one way to achieve a goal, if you find the recommended way hard for you, you may consider the alternatives. Are you more comfortable with mental palaces or with mindmaps? You can remember pretty much anything either way, and you can choose which way is the best for you.

Know yourself

Some people know their own limitations, which is a good thing. Admitting your weaknesses is a sort of strength. We should leverage our strengths, and use various support systems to address our weaknesses. It is not very often that we have a weakness sufficiently big in the critical path of our activity, that we feel the urgency to strengthen it. For example, a person who has chosen a work of research and suffers from dyslexia should probably take our speedreading course. The training may take twice as long as for others, and it may cost more, but the effect of success is absolutely amazing: x20 improvement in reading speed and new opportunities.

Most of the time it is best to leverage our current skills to acquire new skills. Engineers who work with flowcharts and diagrams can easily use mindmaps, while designers might prefer mental palaces. We have an exercise for 20 words, and another exercise with 20 images. Quite often people succeed in one exercise and fail in the other. Is it bad? Not really. Typically we need to remember 20 objects in the way we find most comfortable for us.

Sound vs vision vs synaesthesia

Highly successful people significantly more often experience synaesthesia than the average. Opening the information for processing by many senses allows to utilize the strengths and weaknesses of each system, allows more nuances and provides a backup if one of the senses fails.

Typically the formal education focuses on the audio channel: repeating the words, finding rhymes, feeling the sonic vibrations. In speedreading we focus on the visual system, trying to bypass the slower processes. Meaningful learning often combines different channels. After speedreading we should spend some time thinking about what we just read, and that thinking should involve several modalities. Using visual and audio associations, active learning (hands-on, discussion, presentation), and spaced repetition (review what we read) adequately is important. For the long-term learning, it is usually more effective than mastering one of the learning skills.

Mastery vs adequacy

The amount of effort we spend to become very good in one skill is equivalent to the amount of effort required for adequacy in several skills. Which is more important? When we talk about speedreading, to achieve an adequate result the students should be adequate in many different skills. When we consider memorization, the focus is choosing your way and mastering it. In more general learning scenarios the answer is not a clear one.

Some things are obviously more important than others. Research skills are more important than music skills unless you are a top-notch performer. Adequacy of many skills will increase the common ground we find with others, the various ways we can cooperate with people, and our independence. Yet we do need to have some skills we mastered: as a source of confidence, competitive advantage in the job we have, our unique way to make the world a better place.

Typically, rare skills and skills we routinely work with may require mastery, but supporting skills and skills we can easily get help with may be ignored, or learned to some level of adequacy.

The main benefit of mastery

Why is mastery so important? Once we master a certain skill, we can perform the activity relatively effortlessly. The relevant brain centers are very old and actually predate humans. Muscle memory encoded directly in the brain is a good example of such ability. A professional tennis player may think about tactics and strategy, yet hitting the ball will be mostly instinctive. If the player needed to calculate the trajectory of the ball, the trajectory of the hand and the required force, he would probably miss the ball. I quote: “We don’t know exactly what the cerebellum is doing. But whatever it’s doing, it’s doing a lot of it”. Mastery may be required to offload some of the activities from our conscious mind to the cerebellum and make the execution automatic. This mastery opens our mind to thoughts of tactics and strategy. In a similar way, a good programmer is thinking about the code architecture and algorithmic efficiency, not about particular aspects of programming syntax and coding conventions, which are automatic.

The limitations of workload

There are only so many things we can do, and typically we can master fewer things than we think. There was a study, showing that students should not work more than 15 hours a week, working 5 more hours already results in reduced academic achievements. The students who work not necessarily learn less. They may learn even harder than their lazy peers. The quality of learning is reduced. Why? Several reasons, probably stress-related. The pressure on the cerebellum to perform, the need to switch focus between different tasks of high priority, split priorities during the sleep…

The emotional context

We learn better when we can relate to what we learn. However, if we get emotionally exhausted, we cannot function effectively. The same is true about stress. Some stress level is good, but more stress is damaging.

Learning or working a lot can be useless if during our work we are thinking about our own anxieties, trying to monitor our well-being and hoping to overcome utter boredom.

Finding inspiring stories

Quite often our students need to learn laws and protocols. This can be very boring and very exhausting unless you understand why the things are formulated the way they are. By analyzing various stories and use cases, we can relate to particular people. We usually have a much better memory for specific situations, than for abstract formulations.

In a similar way, we will probably feel aversion to abstract subjects, unless we find a good way to relate. Math can be very boring, unless we find our own way to relate. Some people feel the elegance of the formulations, but these people are few. Others can observe the people who see the beauty of math, and be inspired by the same things and by the personal stories of the people involved. This is a sort of communication, only the language is not exactly verbal.

The right medium

Finding our ideal medium makes us more connected and less stressed. Scientific peer-reviewed journals are a bed medium for any reasonable person. Quite often, the informal presentation of the same material in a conference is more revealing. Moreover, people will probably discuss with you provided you know how to open up a productive conversation. Not everyone will want to have a 5 min Skype talk, connect in Facebook or provide his phone number for whatsapp communication. Each person has his own preferences. For example, I prefer email over any other medium and will do my best to avoid any Skype conversations.

In the same way, I may buy video courses, but I will not watch them. I will readily read several books on the subject instead. Many people are just the opposite. The more different mediums you can stomach, the better off you will be.

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