Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Learn By Practicing

One of the mistakes students repeatedly make when studying for an exam is to simply read over the textbook or their notes over and over, and think that they know the material and are sufficiently prepared for their test. A few books I have been reading lately discuss this issue in more detail, particularly an excellent book on study tips and learning quantitative skills - A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra. The better strategy for studying is instead to test your learning - try to solve problems on your own or answer sample test questions. This is harder, but it cements your understanding better.

In the same vein, I realize that even as adults we seem to keep making this same mistake. We read dozens of self-help books, that sound great and make big promises about how the material will change our life. Even after reading and re-reading the book however, we are no closer to solving our problems, or changing our life (or finances or weight or relationships, whatever the purview of the book). I am myself definitely guilty of this quite often, and sometimes conclude that such books can't possibly help me to change myself.

But maybe the problem lies in this same fallacy that reading equals learning - "the illusion of fluency" is how some academics term it. Learning anything, whether its calculus, or assertiveness, requires re-tooling your brain in a sense. You may have pre-conceived notions, or previous habits that need to changed - maybe the habit of looking at a maths textbook and deciding that you just aren't smart enough to tackle it, or reverting to passiveness when faced with a situation where you would like to be more assertive, but don't know how. It takes effort to get through one calculus problem at a time, getting the hang of first the easy techniques and tackling harder problems, till you change how you approach math.

It is the same principle I think with learning new things as an adult that we don't traditionally think of as "learning" - new skills in the workplace, better inter-personal skills, even something as simple as managing one's time better or overcoming procrastination - we don't usually associate any of this in the same category as learning the history of the civil war or calculus - but essentially for the brain - its the same thing. We need to practice the new skill, fail at it or not do as well as we had hoped, take a step back and evaluate where we went wrong, and attempt it again. Maybe every time we read a book that promises to change some aspect of our life, we need to remember that simply reading the book will not help us - soon we will have forgotten most of it - we need to set aside time to implement the information - however imperfectly - and that will be far more effective than deluding ourselves that just because we understand what to do, we now will be able to do it (the skill we are hoping to learn). Just like reading the recipe for making apple pie doesn't get me any closer to baking
one, reading how to be an effective time-manager (or leader or public speaker or whatever), doesn't get me closer to actually getting more done unless I start to put in practice what I read.

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