Make It Stick

Brown, Peter C.; Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge (Mass.); London: The Belknap Press.

If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better. Similarly, if they interleave the study of different topics, they learn each better than if they had studied them one at a time in sequence. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: viii)
In my experience this happens by itself: if you've acquired a certain topic or the ideas of a specific author thoroughly then returning to them is virtually impossible because you begin to notice the same topics (or hints or suggestions toward it) and familiar ideas in different sources.
Retrieval practice - recalling facts or concepts or events from memory - is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes. While the brain is not a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, the neural pathways that make up a body of learning do get stronger, when the memory is retrieved and the learning is practiced. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 2)
My preferred way of review is of course by way of re-writing. It's one thing to recall what you read, it's another thing to write it down. Not only are you recalling the piece of information, you are now also verbalizing and externalizing it, and by doing so insuring that you'll be able to do that again in the future. There's also an underlining assumption that memory itself is malleable while written text is not. That is, you may remember incorrectly, but having something written down enables you to revisit the idea in more detail. // But I get the point about retrieval involving an intermediary period. I recall that a good method for such retrival is to read something in the morning and writing down what you remember of it in the evening, thus assuring that you write down what is most important to you, and at the same time that you will be able to remember it further on.
If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind. However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 3)
Exactly my point above. I don't think it's enough to simply re-write something (although I often do that too). You must also consider what the new piece of information means to you personally, e.g. why you consider it important, what future applications it may have, what ideas it is similar, different or contiguous to, etc.
Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning. For example, the more of the unfolding story of history you know, the more of it you can learn. And the more ways you give that story meaning, say by connecting it to your understanding of human ambition and the untidiness of fate, the better the story stays with you. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 4)
This I feel intuitively when I think of my knowledge of history. I may be bad at math and numbers generally, but dates (e.g. years) stick to my mind well because I have already established a framework by learning when the major events in human history took place. From then on it's quite easy to notice that every piece of music (e.g. albums) and every piece of writing (e.g. books) come with a date attached. It's a matter of organizing them into the general retrospective framework so a more general picture starts to form of what kind of music was made in a certain decade or cluster of years and what kind of books were written at a specific epoch and in which area of expertise.
People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 4)
This, I believe, is best achieved by keeping a blog (such as this one). When the aim of making notes is not only intrinsic (making notes for the sake of making notes) but also extrinsic (making notes because of a compulsion to grow the blog) there's perhaps more willingness to pursue note-keeping. And, again, it's a cumulative process: once you've got a handle on it the skill just grows and grows.
Nor does all that passes as research meet the standards of science, such as having appropriate control conditions to assure that the results of an investigation are objective and generalizable. The best empirical studies are experimental in nature: the researcher develops a hypothesis and then tests it through a set of experiments that must meet rigorous criteria for design and objectivity. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 7)
This is, by and large, the problem with The Alternative - the inductive definitions are neat and all, but they are not empirical and thus serve little purpose for modern psychology (my argument is that modern psychologists have little reason for revisiting The Alternative other than conducting a historical overview of early philosophical psychology).
Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 7)
No pain, no gain. It makes intuitive sense that more effort leads to better results. That's part of why I prefer to read the books and articles myself rather than have a lecturer hand me down easy bulletpoints. (One other part of it is that I think that if I read the texts myself I can and will come to my own conclusions which may be different from the lecturers').
Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 9)
This is undoubtedly true, but it has a downside. Namely, when the subject matter is something abstract and impersonal it may become difficult to learn. Furthermore, feeling no connection to it, you may start to rationalize your lack of interest, e.g. "I don't need this!" and "Why do I have to study this?" until you've conditioned yourself to the point of being unable to make anything of it.
The fallacy in thinking that repetitive exposure builds memory has been well established through a series of investigations going back to the mid-1960s, when the psychologist Endel Tulving at the University of Toronto began testing people on their ability to remember lists of common English nouns. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 11)
That guy!
Like most research, these studies stood on the shoulders of earlier work by others; some showed that when the same text is read multiple times the same inferences are made and the same connections between topics are formed, and others suggested modest benefits from rereading. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 12)
This I can attest to. It is also the reason why I so rarely re-read a book or an article. I mostly do it when I really like the style of writing (Morris's Signs, Language, and Behavior), like the ideas (Lotman's Kultuurimärgid), or like the author (Randviir's Mapping the World).
What’s the conclusion? It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 13)
Yup. It again seems intuitable that there's no point in reading the same text twice in a row. Unless it's a very complicated text that demands a hermeneutic circle kind of deal, then you're not really gaining anything new of it. But from my perspective this seems obvious only because my method consists of note-taking, so if I have already read and noted there's little reason to do it again right away.
Don’t let yourself be fooled. The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 14)
These three aspects are: (1) the meaning of the new information; (2) what future use can be made of it; and (3) what it means to you according to your stock of knowledge. These three seem intimately interconnected.
The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know. Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision making. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 14)
Contrast this aspect of metacognition with Clay's complete knowledge (e.g. the knowledge that I know something, or something to that effect). This introduces yet another variable: that the completeness of the knowledge may be illusive or uncertive.
When they hear a lecture or read a text that is a paragon of clarity, the ease with which they follow the argument gives them the feeling that they already know it and don’t need to study it. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 15)
I see this as a fault in certain texts. That is, some texts are such paragons of clarity that it's almost impossible to pull anything out of them - they don't constitute any kind of hindrance that would make you stop and think. Lately I experienced this with the introduction of Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading. The text was so clear and casual that it was very difficult to find anything to hold on to. Although well written and definitely having made good points, it took intentional effort to come away with any notes.
The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 18)
The first task I have relegated to this blog which in effect keeps track of what I've read, what I've learned from what I've read, and what possible use I could make of what I've learned. It's reconsolidation that my own memory has to do (as opposed to the "auxiliary memory" of the blog). My preferred route of consolidation, again, is writing. That is exactly why I've taken it upon myself to start writing short theses (e.g. unconnected paragraphs) on The Alternative for the purpose of finally molding these notes into a bachelor's thesis. It is by writing that I bring together things that I know (the active ideas I have in my mind) with the things that I'm supposed to know (the verbatim text and notes in this blog).
One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 19)
This is a good point. For practical application I imagine I could write my note-theses by posing questions and then attempting to answer them (perhaps first from the top of my head and then with the help of textual material).
Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 25)
Reflection is also a high-energy activity that fatigues you pretty quickly.
In its most common form, testing is used to measure learning and assign grades in school, but we’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future. In his essay on memory, Aristotle wrote: “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.” Francis Bacon wrote about this phenomenon, as did the psychologist William James. Today, we know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material does. This is the testing effect, also known as the retrieval-practice effect. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 26)
The practical import that I see here would be to write down what you know. I did this last spring with some topics I had been holding on to. It turned out that despite the topic (it was regulators) being a large one, very concise argumentation came from the top of my head. Much later when I had to start fleshing it out I discovered that I had very little to add. Summing it up like that had crystallized it.
To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 26)
No pain, no gain.
Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 28)
Tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short-answer test, or simply practice with flashcards, appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false tests. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 39)
This is something that can be done autodidactically.
Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 45)
This raises the question: what kind of feedback can spaced out practice afford? And how relevant is feedback at all?
We harbor deep convictions that we learn better through single-minded focus and dogged repetition, and these beliefs are validated time and again by the visible improvement that comes during “practice-practice-practice.” But scientists call this heightened performance during the acquisition phase of a skill “momentary strength” and distinguish it from “underlying habit strength.” The very techniques that build habit strength, like spacing, interleaving, and variation, slow visible acquisition and fail to deliver the improvement during practice that helps to motivate and reinforce our efforts. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 61)
E.g. short-term and long-term habits.
Arguably, interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep, and durable learning, what in motor skills shows up as underlying habit strength. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 63)
This is why I complement re-typing notes with my own comments. It seems to fulfill basically the same function.
The process of strengthening these mental representations for long-term memory is called consolidation. New learning is labile: its meaning is not fully formed and therefore is easily altered. In consolidation, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces. This may occur over several hours or longer and involves deep processing of the new material, during which scientists believe that the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences and to other knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Prior knowledge is a prerequisite for making sense of new learning, and forming those connections is an important task of consolidation. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 71)
Previously I had only known about the consolidation between long- and short term memory.
An apt analogy for how the brain consolidates new learning may be the experience of composing an essay. The first draft is rangy, imprecise. You discover what you want to say by trying to write it. After a couple of revisions you have sharpened the piece and cut away some of the extraneous points. You put it aside to let it ferment. When you pick it up again a day or two later, what you want to say has become clearer in your mind. Perhaps you now perceive that there are three main points you are making. You connect them to examples and supporting information familiar to your audience. You rearrange and draw together the elements of your argument to make it more effective and elegant. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 72)
Exactly what I have to and am trying to do with my notes on The Alternative.
Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 75)
These are the exact three aspects enumerated above.
If you have ever immersed yourself in writing stories of your past, picturing the people and places of earlier days, you may have been surprised by the memories that started flooding back, things long forgotten now coming to mind. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 77)
Something to do.
Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest skills in sports. It takes less than half a second for a ball to reach home plate. In this instant, the batter must execute a complex combination of perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 78)
Huh. Firstness → Thirdness → Secondness.
Massed practice gives us the warm sensation of mastery because we’re looping information through short-term memory without having to reconstruct the learning from long-term memory. But just as with rereading as a study strategy, the fluency gained through massed practice is transitory, and our sense of mastery is illusory. It’s the effortful process of reconstructing the knowledge that triggers reconsolidation and deeper learning. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 80)
This makes so much sense.
With enough effortful practice, a complex set of interrelated ideas or a sequence of motor skills fuse into a meaningful whole, forming a mental model somewhat akin to a “brain app”. Learning to drive a car involves a host of simultaneous actions that require all of our powers of concentration and dexterity while we are learning them. But over time, these combinations of cognition and motor skills - for example, the perceptions and maneuvers required to parallel park or manipulate a stick shift - become ingrained as sets of mental models associated with driving. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 81)
In George Herbert Mead's parlance, this concerns the topic of the truncated act.
In testing, being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still. Overcoming these mild difficulties is a form of active learning, where students engage in higher-order thinking tasks rather than passively receiving knowledge conferred by others. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 85)
From now on, whenever possible, I will attempt to write a short essay on my notes some time after the notes are finished. I took a day off from reading Bernie Sanders' The Speech (2011), and when I'm done with this book I will write a short summary for it (preferably in my native language as well, to increase the difficulty). If I have the energy (willpower) to do it, I'll do the same for this, too.
Reflection can involve several cognitive activities we have discussed that lead to stronger learning. These include retrieval (recalling recently learned knowledge to mind), elaboration (for example, connecting new knowledge to what you already know), and generation (for example, rephrasing key ideas in your own words or visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time). (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 87)
Commenting is a method of elaboration. Translating key ideas into Estonian would be generation. Re-telling what I've read and learned to another person would be a variant of retrieval. I've found that after I've read a good text I tend to re-tell it to whoever is willing to listen. Furthermore, the pieces of information that I do re-tell have a tendency to stick in my memory longer and more strongly.
Dweck’s work shows that people who believe that their intellectual ability is fixed from birth, wired in their genes, tend to avoid challenges at which they may not succeed, because failure would appear to be an indication of lesser native ability. By contrast, people who are helped to understand that effort and learning change the brain, and that their intellectual abilities lie to a large degree within their own control, are more likely to tackle difficult challenges and persist at them. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 90)
That is indeed what I believe in. But I also believe in substances (nootropics) that can aid one in tackling difficult challenges (memory and concentration are cognitive domains that can be improved by various efforts, among them the "low-hanging fruits" like good sleep and regular exercise).
Learning always builds on a store of prior knowledge. We interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 98)
When I recounted this point to a friend he asked: how is it possible to learn something completely new then? Well, one answer would be that nothing is absolutely, intrinsically, unequivocally new. A better answer would be to qualify that best learning is achieved by building on a store of prior knowledge.
Long-term memory capacity is virtually limitless: the more you know, the more possible connections you have for adding new knowledge. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 98)
This idea I like very much. It is also an impetus to learn as much as possible. Learning is, after all, a lifelong process.
Because of the vast capacity of long-term memory, having the ability to locate and recall what you know when you need it is key; your facility for calling up what you know depends on the repeated use of the information (to keep retrieval routes strong) and on your establishing powerful retrieval cues that can reactivate the memories. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 98)
I find that these go hand in hand and for an avid learner are impossible to avoid. Even for subjects that virtually lack "keywords" the mind concocts retrieval cues in the form of notable quotes, sometimes even visual images.
Our understanding of the world is shaped by a hunger for narrative that rises out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events. When surprising things happen, we search for an explanation. The urge to resolve ambiguity can be surprisingly potent, even when the subject is inconsequential. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 107)
Yup. It is sometimes impossible to avoid narrativization. The phrase, "hunger for narrative", is worth remembering.
We gravitate to the narratives that best explain our emotions. In this way, narrative and memory become one. The memories we organize meaningfully become those that are better remembered. Narrative provides not only meaning but also a mental framework for imbuing future experiences and information with meaning, in effect shaping new memories to fit our established constructs of the world and ourselves. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 109)
What I'm especially interested in is the "object" of emotion, which is not equal to the "stimulus", as it is called in modern psychology but rather something like a vice-stimulus. That is, ofter we create narratives to explain our emotions when the real cause or reason is beyond of grasp and comprehension. Some call that rationalization.
Thus the narrative of memory becomes central to our intuitions regarding the judgments we make and the actions we take. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 109)
What about the feelings we... bake.
Memory can be distorted in many ways. People interpret a story in light of their world knowledge, imposing order where none had been present so as to make a more logical story. Memory is a reconstruction. We cannot remember every aspect of an event, so we remember those elements that have greatest emotional significance for us, and we fill in the gaps with details of our own that are consistent with our narrative but may be wrong. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 110)
In learning, especially, I have found memory untrustworthy. That is why I attempt to fix as much as possible in writing. This is characteristic of a desire for "minimal distortion" as Ivanov (1976b: 323) calls it (see quotes in the blog's sidebar).
What psychologists call the curse of knowledge is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task that we have already mastered. Teachers often suffer this illusion - the calculus instructor who finds calculus so easy that she can no longer place herself in the shoes of the student who is just starting out and struggling with the subject. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 113)
This book is filled with vivid terminology. I've had my fair share of exactly the experience with calculus instructors they describe. But I previously knew about the phenomenon or something like it under the name idiomorphizing (modelled after anthropomorphizing), e.g. when we assume of another that they are like us (in this case, that the other must know what we know).
In the obverse of the social influence effect, humans are predisposed to assume that others share their beliefs, a process called the false consensus effect. We generally fail to recognize the idiosyncratic nature of our personal understanding of the world and interpretation of events and that ours differ from others’. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 115)
This effect was very apparent when legalization of gay marriage was on the public agenda last year. We even discussed exactly this phenomenon without knowing how to call it. That is, before the topic become popular and problematic I presumed that most people were on board with legalizing gay marriage. And on the other side, a lot of people who argued against it presumed that most people don't want gays to get married, that representatives who drafted the law are somehow paid off by foreigners and betraying the people, etc. Right now, after reading Bernie Sanders' The Speech I am again under the influence of this effect by assuming what Sanders constantly affirms: that he is standing for the beliefs, desires and demands of most Americans.
This presumption by the professor that her students will readily follow something complex that appears fundamental in her own mind is a metacognitive error, a misjudgment of the matchup between what she knows and what her students know. Mazur says that the person who knows best what a student is struggling with in assimilating new concepts is not the professor, it’s another student. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 117)
The only reason I got through those damn calculus classes was because my deskmate helped me. Somehow, he was able to teach me what the instructor was supposed to, but couldn't (she didn't even bother).
Far better is to create a mental model of the material that integrates the various ideas across a text, connects them to what you already know, and enables you to draw inferences. How ably you can explain a text is an excellent cue for judging comprehension, because you must recall the salient points from memory, put them into your own words, and explain why they are significant - how they relate to the larger subject. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 124)
That's an apt description of what I do in this blog by default. What I'm lacking is the integrative aspect - writing essayistic conclusions to my posts which are otherwise just quotes and comments. Although re-typing quotes and writing comments help me recall the salient points and to put them in my own words, this process could be more effective if "integrated" into a review-like section aftel a period of time.
[Lieutenant Catherine Johnson of the Minneapolis Police Department:] Action beats reaction every time. That’s one mantra that’s drilled into our minds. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 127)
That's also the kind of thinking that gets unarmed people, sometimes kids, killed by cops.
When he is asked how he accounts for his success, the lessons he cites are deceptively simple: go where the competition isn’t, dig deep, ask the right questions, see the big picture, take risks, be honest. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 136)
In my case: take up an unforgotten philosophy book, learn it thoroughly, look at how it relates to semiotics, conjecture how it could benefit semiotics, write a readable thesis, and do it in a transparent way that can be replicated and taken further.
The stories we create to understand ourselves become the narratives of our lives, explaining the accidents and choices that have brought us where we are: what I’m good at, what I care about most, and where I’m headed. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 138)
When I was a teenager and read self-help books I believed in these kinds of ideas and engaged in self-descriptive practices to bolster my self-confidence and sense of purpose. Nowadays I'm not sure how wise that is, but then again I haven't tried it in a while. Maybe it would be a good idea to attempt an honest self-description again. I'm afraid only that rationalizations and wishful thinking could make it deceitful and lead to self-confidence based on lies. That's part of why I haven't done it. But the self is too complex a topic to muse here.
Intrapersonal intelligence: ability to understand one’s self and make accurate judgments of one’s knowledge, abilities, and effectiveness; (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 145)
Huh. I did not know about this term. EBSCO search results seem rather interesting. I'll consider taking some articles up for reading.
There do appear to be cognitive differences in how we learn, though not the ones recommended by advocates of learning styles. One of these differences is the idea mentioned earlier that psychologists call structure building: the act, as we encounter new material, of extracting the salient ideas and constructing a coherent mental framework out of them. These frameworks are sometimes called mental models or mental maps. High structure-builders learn new material better than low structure-builders. The latter have difficulty setting aside irrelevant or competing information, and as a result they tend to hang on to too many concepts to be condensed into a workable model (or overall structure) that can serve as a foundation for further learning. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 151)
Damn. After reading the first part of this paragraph I thought, yeah, I'm good with new material and extracting salient ideas. But the second part hit close to home: I also collect irrelevant and competing information, I do hang on to too many concepts and if I did have a "model" in this sense, it would appear to be too large to be operative. That's why I can't write papers - I have too much information on any given subject, most of it being irrelevant, and I am unable to throw out the irrelevant parts because I like having them in there. That why all my writings, no matter how short, contain more than an average amount of references. It's all cluttered.
Distill the underlying principles; build the structure. If you’re an example learner, study examples two at a time or more, rather than one by one, asking yourself in what ways they are alike and different. Are the differences such that they require different solutions, or are the similarities such that they respond to a common solution? Break your idea or desired competency down into its component parts. If you think you are a low structure-builder or an example learner trying to learn new material, pause periodically and ask what the central ideas are, what the rules are. Describe each idea and recall the related points. Which are the big ideas, and which are supporting concepts or nuances? If you were to test yourself on the main ideas, how would you describe them? What kind of scaffold or framework can you imagine that holds these central ideas together? (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 156)
The questioning method seems presently most productive. Perhaps I could write a dialogue (like Bateson's metalogues) to try to elucitade the most relevant questions.
Structure is all around us and available to us through the poet’s medium of metaphor. A tree, with its roots, trunk, and branches. A river. A village, encompassing streets and blocks, houses and stores and offices. The structure of the village explains how these elements are interconnected so that the village has a life and a significance that would not exist if these elements were scattered randomly across an empty landscape. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 161)
Got it. Search for stucture metaphors that work best for you.
Another fundamental sign of the brain’s enduring mutability is the discovery that the hippocampus, where we consolidate learning and memory, is able to generate new neurons throughout life. This phenomenon, called neurogenesis, is thought to play a central role in the brain’s ability to recover from physical injury and in humans’ lifelong ability to learn. The relationship of neurogenesis to learning and memory is a new field of inquiry, but already scientists have shown that the activity of associative learning (that is, of learning and remembering the relationship between unrelated items, such as names and faces) stimulates an increase in the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 170)
Now that I think about it, my melomaniac tendencies to listen to new music constantly and to read as much as possible are methods of inciting neurogenesis. Much like teachers and cab drivers who are under a barrage of new information due to their occupation, I have somehow chosen to produce this effect intentionally by exploring new cultural products.
Studies of the brains of experts show enhanced myelination of the axons related to the area of expertise but not elsewhere in the brain. Observed myelination changes in piano virtuosos are specific to piano virtuosity. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 178)
When a mathematician goes to sleep he does not stop being a mathematician, for parts of her brain contain crystallized knowledge of mathematics.
Dweck came to see that some students aim at performance goals, while others strive toward learning goals. In the first case, you’re working to validate your ability. In the second, you’re working to acquire new knowledge or skills. People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder. “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, ‘ability’ feels like something static that lies inside of you, whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Dweck says. Learning goals trigger entirely different chains of thought and action from performance goals. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 180)
Disappointingly, this blog seems more like a performance goal. In another field, I just realized that my physical exercise regime was performative last year because I did the same routine all the time. This year I'm stretching and trying to improve. The key factor in this change of mindset came from me learning from reddit that stretching does not work so much on the muscles as it does on the nervous system - that when you stretch and feel pain you are telling your brain "I can do this" and next time it won't be as painful. I now know that stretching does not produce mechanical results, but depend on a kind of learning - over which I have more control.
Some examples of simple mnemonic devices are acronyms, like “ROY G BIV” for the colors of the rainbow, and reverse acronyms, as in “I Value Xylophones Like Cows Dig Milk” for the ascending value of Roman numerals from 1 to 1000 (e.g., V = 5; D = 500). (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 185)
I am disappointed that there is not a band named like that (e.g. I Wrote Haikus About Cannibalism in Your Yearbook).
Mark Twain wrote about his personal experiences with this phenomenon in an article published by Harper’s. In his days on the speaking circuit, Twain used a list of partial sentences to prompt himself through the different phases of his remarks, but he found the system unsatisfactory - when you glance at snippets of text, they all look alike. He experimented with alternatives, finally hitting on the idea of outlining his speech in a series of crude pencil sketches. The sketches did the job. A haystack with a snake under it told him where to start his story about his adventures in Nevada’s Carson Valley. An umbrella tilted against a stiff wind took him to the next part of his story, the fierce winds that blew down out of the Sierras at about two o’clock every afternoon. And so on. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 185)
I suddenly recall that I used to doodle for mnemonic purposes frequently as a kid, and even aced some russian language tests later because me and my deskmate drew icons to associate them with words. I should probably consider this method for learning german language now.
McPhee’s solution to this problem? [of writer's block] He writes a letter to his mother. He tells her how miserable he feels, what hopes he’d had for the subject about which he wants to write (a bear), but that he has no idea how to go about it and, really, it seems that he’s not cut out to be a writer after all. He would like to put across the sheer size of the bear, and how utterly lazy it is, preferring to sleep fifteen hours a day, and so on. “And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.” (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 219)
That's the exact idea I had for writing my thesis: to write informal, unconnected, paragraphs for the blog, detailing what I want to say and why, and then just remove the unnecessary parts and tie it all together.
Your grasp of unfamiliar material often starts out feeling clumsy and approximate. But once you engage the mind in trying to make sense of something new, the mind begins to “knit” at the problem on its own. You don’t engage the mind by reading a text over and over again or by passively watching PowerPoint slides. You engage it by making the effort to explain the material yourself, in your own words - connecting the facts, making it vivid, relating it to what you already know. Learning, like writing, is an act of engagement. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014: 220)
Here's the answer to that odd question, above, of how to learn something completely new: engage your mind and make sense of it.


arided said...

Thanks for sharing this blog post with me, I just got around to reading it now. I have the sense that some shared questions and discussion (as we're doing in another context) would help wash out any residual "performance goals." That is, I might try to sound clever when I write something, or even try to ask smart-sounding questions, but you'll pick up on what's interesting to you, and we'll go from there.

Dialectic and dialogic are themes that aren't discussed that much in the quotes & notes above, although they are not far away.

"When the aim of making notes is not only intrinsic (making notes for the sake of making notes) but also extrinsic (making notes because of a compulsion to grow the blog) there's perhaps more willingness to pursue note-keeping."

It seems that the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is somewhat related to that old standby, phatics. (I hope you don't mind me bleeding a bit of that conversation in here!)

"my argument is that modern psychologists have little reason for revisiting The Alternative other than conducting a historical overview of early philosophical psychology"

It occurred to me that an interesting way to present this (if you were writing a history of science thesis...) would be by looking at the research studies that have taken place over the 1900s that end up "superseding" the 19th C. book. However that's just a brainstorm, not a suggestion!

"doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time."

This got me wondering about what happens when we write -- because when I write, I seem to go over the same passages again and again. Yes, I make slight changes, but I wonder if this is the most efficient way of "learning"? We both seem to have a strong "folk" sensibility that writing as an effective learning tool/aid, but I wonder if there are ways to optimise the process. (Again, I like the method we've starting to develop of sharing short MS's and commenting on those, that seems to be a 2-person scaled-up variant of the generative process you plan to use for the thesis.)

"(1) the meaning of the new information; (2) what future use can be made of it; and (3) what it means to you according to your stock of knowledge."

Very similar to the Csikszentmihalyi definition of creativity I quoted in "Ethics of Phatics".

arided said...

[Continuing... I ran into a character limit.]

"scientists believe that the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences and to other knowledge already stored in long-term memory."

This made me think about what makes for "good" writing. Enjoyable? Maybe. Difficult? Maybe! So, do classic works of literature or science writing manage to walk a path that balances these different modalities? I'm thinking for instance of Franz Kafka, who I really enjoy reading, but who is often very strange and unnerving and makes you think. Or Marvin Minsky, who writes in a very clear manner, but often includes lots of concepts that you have to "take home" with you to make any sense of. Both of these authors seem to create "toolkits" for thinking as much as anything else, but they do a remarkable job of presenting the toolkit in an engaging way.

Anyway, the thought I had was: is it possible for an author or a teacher to lead the reader or student onto a path of effective learning? I think it is, just as much as it is for one person to apply the exercises you've noted above. I was wondering if the methods in the book I mentioned to you about "Writing Science" would "check out" from the point of view of "Making it Stick". Whatever the methods are perhaps we can aim to employ them in our writing :-)

"nothing is absolutely, intrinsically, unequivocally new."

(Also regarding your last quote/note above: Cf. Chomsky.)

"That's also the kind of thinking that gets unarmed people, sometimes kids, killed by cops."

Without the context I can't be sure I'm interpreting the statement right, but I've spent a lot of time in Minneapolis so I'm inclined to give the police officer who was quoted in the book the benefit of the doubt. Yes, you might find some trigger happy cops who "actively" go around shooting people, but I think the majority of the cases I've heard about in the last year or so are "reactive" -- for instance, encountering someone in the dark in a stairwell and shooting them. An "active" person in that setting might... use a flashlight and ask some questions first (for example).

"After reading the first part of this paragraph I thought, yeah, I'm good with new material and extracting salient ideas. But the second part hit close to home"

I had the same feeling. For instance, my PhD thesis suffered from many footnotes, at first. My advisors encouraged me to "move the footnotes to endnotes, and then get rid of them." Which I did. A bigger concern for me is how I make sense of the difficulties and conflicts in every day life. I think that conceptual or intellectual stuff is easier for me than emotional stuff. In school/university, it's possible to push the emotional stuff aside. But that strategy doesn't work very well in life, and probably isn't ideal in academic settings either (even if it works as a survival strategy).

Last thing: Great idea about the drawings vis a vis language studies!

arided said...

I may have been wrong to give the Minneapolis police the benefit of the doubt...


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