There are many reasons to study. Some people study to get a degree and find a job. Others study because of their curiosity. When we study to fill in the gap in our capabilities and reach a bigger goal, I would call it a strategic studying. Here I discuss the way I handle strategic studying. For this article I suggest also reading here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Gaps in understanding
Finding the gaps in our understanding is hard. It requires attention to details, understanding of the big picture and inquisitive mind. This is a rare combination for a single human being, but not uncommon for a good team. Then there is an element of luck. We find out some small detail that we cannot explain well enough. With some luck, we record the information and discuss it with our friends. Alternatively, our friends come to us with such information: a paradox, a rumor, a trend.
Through independent research or by talking to our friends we find other people with similar questions or experiences. And then we understand that there is a huge opportunity, only we do not have the tools to explore it: we need to learn some new and untrivial theory.
Mapping the new territories
Before we can explore the new territory we need to map it. Quite possibly we do not even know what to look for. Personally, at this point, I use brute force research. I try to find the most influencing works in the relevant areas and review them quickly. At the beginning, I cannot understand what I read. I get fragments of ideas, words, names. I write down everything I find worthwhile and read further. As I read more, I get to the fundamental resources in the relevant field of knowledge: the founding fathers of the relevant research and their monumental works. Once I read these few works, I usually can trace the way the research developed and the turns it took. However, I do not trust my understanding.
Quite often I can build a hands-on project and experience myself all the new tools and ideas, with their limitations as I perceive them.
I go to whatever experts I can find and ask them the most fundamental questions I have. Then I ask the most practical and applicative questions. I try to find the new in the details of what they tell until I understand quite well what I need to know.
There is a good practice to draw what we learn to make it more tangible. Usually we can make schematics, presentation, or illustrations. The more we draw, the better is our intuitive understanding of the subject, the big picture.
At that point, I realize that there are books, online courses or workshops that cover the subject. I allocate the required resources. Many subjects require months of hard work. And I start learning.
Apparently, testing is the best way to make sure we learn. Most of the online courses come with quizzes. If I can build a project, it is another great way to challenge my understanding. Quite often I simply tell the subject to my friends and try to answer the questions as well as I can. Finally, it is possible to formulate questions to me myself, which should be great except I cannot make it work.
I let the new knowledge percolate in my mind for a couple of days and then test myself again. This is a form of spaced repetition, that is apparently very effective. Quite often after retesting, I need to reread the materials to restructure them in my mind or fill in the gaps. Rereading is typically very fast, effective and emotionally rewarding process, since this time we read for a certain goal and get satisfaction from reaching it.
Certification itself should not be the goal. In worst case scenario, we can take the certification exam again, but if we forget to learn something we will likely never learn it again.
The systematic study can be very dull and demotivating and we may need to revert this effect.
Revisiting the places of memory
After the systematic study, it is a good practice to revisit the first attempts to learn the subject and evaluate the original effort. It is a good idea to use sandwich feedback approach: find something good, notice the errors, and then focus on the good things again.
There are several ways to revisit the memories:
- Recover original and dormant memories. At this point, we often forget the original curiosity, motivations, and understandings, the very things that inspired us and motivated us. When we revisit the old materials, we can regain a large amount of motivation and energy.
- Adding to personal memory. When we learn new things we are often too excited to notice what we experience or to sort though the experiences. When we revisit the materials, we see how they redefine our perception of ourselves and our convictions, our experiences and our autobiographical memories.
- Correcting the mistakes of memory. Memory mistakes are often. Things we trusted to be true fail simple tests. It is best to correct these errors yourself before other people start correcting you.
- Detecting patterns. Some behavioral and cognitive patterns we notice in hindsight. Was our emotional response wrong? Have we been procrastinating or impulsive? Did we overestimate or underestimate the problem? We tend to make the same sort of mistakes, so we may as well be prepared with remedies.
Either way, when revisiting the old memories we should gain motivation, new perspectives, a correct understanding of the subject and tips for the next time we want to learn something.
Touch it, feel it
Quite often we need some sort of preliminary qualification before we get access to the real deal.
The cerebellum is central to how we form memories. The main function of the cerebellum has to do with motoric skills. The size of this major player in our brain is getting smaller as we get more digital. So it is increasingly important to get some hands-on experiences, otherwise, we will probably forget what we learned.
Immersion is the best way to amplify the new skills. Full-time involvement in the project, frequent discussions with team members, online reading – it is best if we learn from as many directions as possible.
When we learn the best practices at the job, we should be critical. Most people are quite satisfied with suboptimal methodologies and do not want to improve. It is important always to look for ways of doing our job better. There will be critics, so let the results talk.
We know we have acquired a new skill when we do not notice doing it. Just before that we dream about the skill. When we dream of something, we gain further hands-on experience. Neural networks occasionally are taught to “dream” their examples, which allegedly improves the efficiency of the network’s training x3. When we train neural networks we feed them the original example, the original example with some noise, the original example rescaled, and so on. When we dream, our brain does the same trick to us. Lucid dreams seem to be as real as training in the most advanced simulator.