LH2L: Report

As I am finishing the 3rd Week of Coursera’s Learning How to Learn (shortly LH2L), I am briefly documenting my experience with the course, partly as a Final Project. I’ll also discuss my own attempts at implementing some of the advice.

The course has generated quite a lot of “You Don’t Say!” moments for me. Some things are pretty obvious, others are more subtle.

Here is the stuff I found most interesting:

  • Mind Palace: the right approach. In BBC’s Sherlock, there is a beautiful depiction of this memorization technique. When I first saw it, I was quite surprised to find out that this technique actually exists and even has its own Wikipedia page, albeit with a different name. And a different usage pattern. As depicted in the TV series, Mind Palace is a very detailed imaginary place where you store your memories, giving them physical form in your imagination. However, Wikipedia basically suggests using them to memorize a linear sequence of related things by translating that sequence into a route in a familiar location between familiar stop positions. This kind of usage seems to be very narrow. What is more important, in my first reading of the article I completely ignored the “familiar” part, and failed trying to create a sufficiently detailed depiction of an imaginary palace. (Type: storage warehouse. View: from inside only. Configuration: long rows of shelves. General color: gray. Lighting: scattered, mostly dim. Size: vague. Where to put stuff: did not get to that point.) In contrast, LH2L suggests taking your apartment / workplace / school / university and building on top of that. While I cannot use any of these suggestions as a permanent solution for various reasons (don’t like my apartment / not currently working / left school a while ago / university is way too large), my preliminary attempts at putting imaginary stuff around in my room indicate that this should work. (Hell, I almost see a huge pack of bananas sitting on the couch next to me, a leftover from a grocery list.)
  • Self-testing. Learn something. Then stop to make sure that you actually learned that. This is quite obvious theoretically, but taking actual steps toward this is hard in practice. Especially when you have to involve other people.
    • Recall. Pause to bring up the memory of what you just learned. Quick and unreliable. (So, I was reading about Advanced Glycation End-products, one of the types of damage human bodies accumulate as they age.)
    • Exercise. Do problems. Ask specific questions. (What exactly are AGEs? — Mostly, they are the products of a reaction between glucose and proteins. — Mostly? — There is something else, but I’m not sure what. — How are they harmful? — They make tissue less flexible. — By what mechanism? — I don’t think that was explained in detail. — Can we undo the damage? — Yes and no, there is an experimental drug which was successful in mouse, dog and monkey trials, but showed no effect on humans. At the time of the book’s writing, researchers were still figuring out why.)
    • Teach. Explain the material to a friend. (Hey, there is this nasty thing that might kill you eventually…) This is the one I personally found most helpful.
  • The Pomodoro. Instead of long periods of wavering focus spanning several hours, focus intensely without any distractions, then take a small break. And repeat. The course suggests focusing for 25 minutes without specifying how long breaks should be. 25 minutes sounds too small, so I’m currently trying 32/8 schedule (using Workrave), as suggested by the Less Wrong Study Hall. Furthermore, focusing itself is really really crucial when working on something that may be imprecise.

A bunch of things mentioned in the course seemed completely obvious to me. Briefly, that’s chunking (the idea of splitting ideas into nice little self-contained boxes, much like object-oriented programming), using metaphor/visualization (supply concepts with explanations which trigger many different senses; in fact, there is a closely related involuntary thing called synesthesia), and transfer (stuff that is learned for use in one area can be unexpectedly useful in a completely different one).