The Mastery Of Learning
A self-motivated, aggressive approach toward learning enables one to efficiently and quickly, master difficult skills. Such learning is called ultralearning. Ordinary people who are able to master skills at extraordinary speed are ultralearners. While their achievements and feats seem incomprehensible and intimidating at first, the strategies and techniques that enable these people to achieve them can be mastered by anyone with the determination to do so.
Scott H. Young analyses these techniques and strategies in his Ultralearning (2019), and shows how they can be implemented. He jots down the key principles that enable one to start one’s ultralearning project and see the results.
Personal Fulfilment And Professional Advantage
Ultralearner Benny Lewis, is a polyglot who has the ability to learn a new language in an average of 3 months. His self-directed learning skills enable him to master a new skill in a short timeframe with a strategic and aggressive approach to learning.
That said, ultralearning projects are often challenging and time-consuming. For instance, Eric Barone, an IT graduate working as a theatre usher, decided to start his own computer game project. While traditionally, it takes huge budgets, and a team of great professionals to make a successful computer game, Barone took 5 years to refine his game mechanics through rigorous trial and error.
In due course, Barone taught himself music composition, story writing, pixel art and sound design. After completion, his game, Stardew Valley, sold over three million copies in 2016, the year of its release, and put Barone on the Forbes’ ’30 under 30’ list.
While not everyone can land oneself on the Forbes lists, one can surely bring ‘unrealistic’ goals within one’s reach. Ultralearning is a path toward personal fulfilment and can help hone one’s professional edge, especially in a time when professional competitiveness is the need of the hour.
People need to adapt, upskill, and retrain in order to keep themselves in the competitive market. Today, medium-skilled jobs have the threat of automation looming over them, and hybridized skill sets have become more important than ever. Roles such as librarian/data analyst, accountant/Mandarin speaker, or architect/textile designer, are dotting the professional landscape.
Ultralearners have the ability to diversify their skill sets without taking the time off their current job pursuits. How do ultralearners then, manage it all?
Meta learning refers to the process of learning how to learn. It firstly involves establishing how the information in one’s chosen field of learning is structured, rather than starting to absorb information at random.
For instance, while learning how to write Mandarin Chinese, one has to pay attention to how the characters are organized by radicals – visual markers that show the relationship between the characters. Thus one would ideally begin with organizing principles such as radicals, rather than starting by memorizing the characters individually.
Metalearning, secondly involves looking at the bigger picture and then using that to devise an optimum learning strategy. Understanding the bigger picture is rather easier said than done, and it takes years for many to be able to see it. There are, however, some metalearning strategies that can be used as shortcuts.
The first strategy involves creating a metalearning map that breaks down the learning into 3 categories, namely,
- Concepts – things that need to be understood,
- Facts – things that need memorization, and
- Procedures – things that need to be done.
Different projects use one, more than one or all three categories. Projects such as learning a new programming language have a mixture of these three, whereas, learning a tennis serve involves focusing on the procedure. One has to focus the energies on the most heavily-weighted category that will facilitate perfection.
The second strategy is to identify the challenges in the learning process and then brainstorm techniques for overcoming those challenges. For example, if one requires a lot of memorizing facts, one can use spaced-repetition software that produces randomized memory tests and help optimize memorization.
The third strategy is to establish how one will learn. The best way is to use benchmarking, identifying people who have learnt the same skill before or looking for institutions that offer accreditation in the chosen study. Once identified, one can replicate their methods, and further identify tools, texts, syllabi, or online course texts that are required to learn.
Investing about 10% of one’s total learning time in metalearning is found to bring success. Metalearning offers a roadmap for an ultralearning project. One can then work on focused ultralearning.
Strategizing For Focus And Defending Against Distractions
Our life today is full of distractions. Right from the ping of a WhatsApp message, a like notification on Facebook, to binge-watching that Netflix series, the temptation to get swayed is tremendous. There are, however, some simple strategies that can help one avoid distractions and strengthen one’s power of focus.
The first challenge to focussing is getting focused in the first place! To get focused in the first place, one can use a simple timer/alarm. One can trick their own mind by setting, say, a three-minute timer, telling oneself to focus till the timer goes off. Chances are, that once the timer goes off, the momentum needed to focus is already acquired.
Further, one can use the Pomodoro technique to build on this strategy. The technique involves setting a timer for 20 minutes and working for those 20 minutes without stopping. Then after a five-minute break, starting to work for another 20 minutes.
The second challenge, once focus is found, is to be able to sustain it. External interruptions are like concentration suckers. In order to avoid them, one can control the work environment. For example, turning off the WIFI, or placing one’s phone in aeroplane mode. These strategies help in getting into an ‘autopilot’ mode of working.
However, if one isn’t fully engaged with the task at hand, one is less like to be able to retain new material. Here, interleaving, or deliberately alternating between modes of learning and material can be used. This involves tackling the task at hand in regularly-spaced short sessions. For example, if one needs to devote 10 hours a week to learning Mandarin Chinese, one can devote five 2-hour sessions a day rather than trying to do 10 hours a day in one shot. Additionally, one can switch between learning vocabulary or grammar, that is to focus on a different skill set/aspect of learning the language in each session.
While finding focus, mental arousal – one’s level of alertness and energy – plays an important role. High mental arousal helps in achieving narrow and intense focus which is great for tasks that are repetitive such as practising musical scales. On the other hand, low arousal creates a more relaxed and wide-ranged focus that works best for forming connections and lateral thinking. Such focus is best for more creative tasks.
One has to learn to hone one’s focus and be able to match one’s mental arousal to the tasks at hand for optimal ultralearning.
In the process of learning, sometimes, one experiences a failure to transfer, or, the inability to transfer what is learnt into actuality. For example, a person who has learnt the French language finds it difficult to actually converse while on a holiday in France. Similarly, it is seen that more often than not, formal education fails to optimize transfer.
Formal education sets an indirect path between one’s target environment – where the learned concepts and skills are applied – and the learning context. That said, when one rote learns the vocabulary of a language, transferring it into conversation (such as, asking Parisian directions in French) is completely different.
Ultralearners understand how to keep the path between the target environment and learning direct. Thus they acquire a quality called directness and practice it.
Just doing something, is the most direct way to learn it. It works for languages and coding too. In order to learn a language or learn to code, one has to speak it or write it, respectively. This manner of learning, by doing it is called project-based learning. Project-based learning doesn’t need any form of transfer, as it places the learning directly in one’s target environment.
Immersive learning, one of the most extreme yet effective types of project-based learning, requires total immersion in one’s target environment. For instance, a person who spends 3 months in France to learn the language employs immersive learning. However, not everyone can dedicate time for immersive learning. Moreover, not all types of learning can use the immersive learning approach. Imagine pilots using the immersive learning approach on the first day of their training! That’s why they train on flight simulators.
The next type of learning, the flight simulator method, uses the concept of flight simulator, that is, replicates the pressure and conditions of the target environment. For example, not everyone can spend 3 months in France to just learn a language, so many opt for a tutor from France who teaches the language online.
Thus, using the above techniques, one can upskill their learning, by creating a direct path from their learning to the target environment.
Once a path is established, one needs to drill down to perfect one’s technique. Drilling, is a honing technique that is effectively applied by ultralearners such as piano prodigies, elite athletes, etc, to perfect their skills.
Ideally, one starts with direct practice and then moves on to the drilling technique for the best results. For example, if a person is writing a code, one uses direct practice to identify the areas in learning that one wishes to drill. This direct-then-drill approach can continually be applied to hone a skill.
A rate-determining step in chemistry refers to the process that takes part in the chain reaction. In ultralearning, however, it refers to the step that unlocks the next level of knowledge. For instance, a person who has sound knowledge of accounting theory, but doesn’t have the skill in Excel to put them in practice, would apply drilling to learning Excel – the rate-determining step.
The design of one’s drilling depends on the area of learning that one wishes to apply the drilling technique to. One type of design is time-slicing – isolating one step from a more involved process, and then repeating that step until it is perfected. For example, one can drill their drive shot, if one wishes to perfect the golf game.
Another type of design is to separate one’s desired skills into cognitive components, and then drill each of them separately. Thus, while learning a language, one could drill vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or spelling separately.
It’s often difficult to drill while pursuing creative skills, or complex projects. Here one can try the third design, the copycat method, wherein one emulates someone’s tried and tested work, that one admires. For instance, if one is honing art skills, one could choose a painting that one admires and try to copy it as close as one can.
What is the point of all the aforementioned techniques if one isn’t able to recall or retrieve what is learnt quickly and efficiently?
Ultralearners mostly use two methods to improve their retrieval skills – reviewing, going over the material studied again, and recalling, recalling concepts and facts from memory.
According to a 2011 Purdue University study, recalling is more effective for long-term retention. However, most learners choose the reviewing strategy, due to the concept of the judgement of learning.
When one is able to understand something without difficulty, one judges that the concept is learned. Additionally, when one reads over something that is already learned, it creates the impression that the new information is grasped. Passive review strategies confirm the perception that learning is taking place successfully.
Perception, however, isn’t everything. When one struggles to recall any concept in the short term, one tends to remember the concept in the long term. This is known as desirable difficulty. The difficulty to recall a concept is desirable, and maximizes one’s chances of learned retention, proving the efficacy of recall.
There are a few methods to make learning more recall-focused.
- One method is free to recall, wherein one tries to recall and write down all that one can remember, with as much detail as possible, after a study session.
- The second method is to write questions, instead of making notes. For example, instead of writing, ‘The WWII started in 1939’, write, ‘When did the WWII start?’ Questions force recall better than notes.
- The third concrete method involves setting a task that tests everything that is learned. This method helps to recall specific concepts and skills in a targeted manner.
In ultralearning, feedback is a very important component. One has to be able to get a progress report of how their learning is actually improving skills. Additionally, it is equally important to be able to differentiate between different types and levels of feedback, and how to use strategies to acquire feedback.
While all feedback is useful, not all are equal. Hence feedback needs to be divided into 3 categories – outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback.
- Outcome Feedback – It is the most basic form of feedback that helps determine whether one has achieved the desired outcome or not. Applause after a speech is an example of outcome feedback. While such feedback is encouraging, no information can be derived from it.
- Informational Feedback – As the name suggests, informational feedback gives information. It is useful for highlighting mistakes and isolating problems. For example, if some people in the audience walk out in the middle of one’s speech, it is informational feedback that the speech isn’t engaging enough.
- Corrective Feedback – This type of feedback is the best type because, in addition to notifying one of the problems, it tells how one can fix it. For instance, a professional speechwriter in the audience is able to give details to the person giving the speech as to what were the positives, what went wrong, and how to fix it.
Besides understanding types of feedback, one has to also ensure that one is receiving enough feedback. Failure for feedback is a strategy that helps in understanding if one is getting enough feedback. essentially, if one is not pushing oneself to the point of failure, one stops getting corrective or informational feedback. Pushing oneself to the limit generates helpful feedback, and acting on that feedback, in turn, helps one push oneself to the limits.
Meta-feedback is another strategy that helps understand whether one’s learning method is helpful or not. This is done by testing one’s rate of learning. For example, timing how long it takes to learn and write one code.
Eliciting corrective and informational feedback is vital to adjust learning methods and improve one’s performance.
Strategic Memorization Sessions
Nigel Richards won the World French Scrabble Championships in the year 2016. He was able to commit 386,000, and Scrabble approved French words to memory, despite not speaking the language.
While one’s project might not need such a level of ultralearning and memorization, ultralearning does involve memorizing facts, procedures, formulae, etc. How does one make information ‘stick’ to memory?
One of the most effective strategies includes settling down on one memorization strategy and applying it at regular, closely spaced intervals throughout the project. It is vital that one uses a memorization system that is both suited to the type of project and easy to integrate.
Memorizing everything in one shot and cramming results in short-term results only. For memorization sessions to be successful, one has to space them out, ideally, a few days per week.
For memorizing simple concepts and facts, one can use the Spaced Repetition System. Flash cards that randomly test ones knowledge of chunks of information are useful. For more complex concepts, the focus should lie on regular repetition of key processes, and to recall information here, one can switch the flashcards to a refresher project – by putting skills into regular practice – or, by overlearning – pushing oneself beyond one’s limits. According to an Ohio Wesleyan University, 1991 study, pushing oneself beyond one’s skill level not only challenges one’s abilities, it also helps sharpen one’s lower-level skills.
For projects that are procedural in nature, simply doing, or practising regularly helps in retention.
Cultivating Intuitive Brilliance
Richard Feynman, the Physicist, was known for his flashes of ideas and uncanny intuition. However, what others saw as mysterious intuition, was actually a result of his deep understanding of physics, which enabled Feynman to intuit patterns and unexpected connections.
Feynman’s ability to get answers to solutions out of thin air is known as intuitive expertise. Developing intuitive expertise takes time and patience. However, there are a few strategies that can be employed to speed up the rate of acquiring it.
One has to start at the basics. Feynman, for example, would frustrate his students by bombarding them with ‘stupid questions’ about basic concepts. Feynman understood that people can progress to complex concepts even if they only have a basic knowledge of foundational concepts. That said, it is also impossible to achieve intuitive expertise without having sound and thorough knowledge of foundational concepts.
When learning is challenging, one can get a deeper grasp of the subject. Embracing the struggle that challenges provide, by resisting shortcuts, and choosing the more involving route in learning, can help one develop a deeper understanding. For example, a deep study of the strategies in the chess game help with a deeper understanding than simply learning a few classic moves does.
Things are bound to get challenging at some point. However, it is important to not give up. In such times, one can implement a struggle timer – forcing oneself to try and solve the obstacle for at least ten minutes, before looking for an easier way out. Deepening one’s understanding of the core concepts in the chosen field of study, by proving those concepts oneself, helps in getting a thorough understanding of the underlying patterns.
Simply accepting the work of experts in the field leads to a shallow understanding of concepts. Working through basic concepts oneself is the path to intuitive expertise.
Vincent van Gogh was known in art school as quite ‘unremarkable’. He was an art school dropout. What drove him to create the masterpieces such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers? Van Gogh was relentless when it came to his practice. He would tirelessly try different techniques and styles till he mastered them. He then experimented with those till he found his own style.
In ultralearning, the secret ingredient is experimentation. It can make an accomplished practitioner an innovator. Experimentation is, however, overwhelming at the outset. To start off, one can try the ‘copy and create’ technique. It involves emulating an expert’s work, and using it as a stepping stone for one’s own unique ideas. For example, if one wants to learn to cook Chinese, one can choose a few classic dishes and follow the recipes exactly. Once the recipes are perfected, one can add their own improvisations to it.
Another method to boost experimentation is to limit it. While it might sound contradictory, setting limits can actually blossom creativity, as limitations can push one to try something new. For example, a painter can decide to paint only in shades of one colour.
The final strategy is to hybridize two techniques, skills, or materials, to get different results. For example, Scott Adams was an engineer who like to doodle, before he created the comic Dilbert. While he wasn’t exceeding great at either, he hybridized those skills to come up with a completely different and successful talent.
Ultralearning is a self-directed and aggressive learning style that can help in mastering any skills in a short span of time. Using strategies such as meta-learning, optimizing focus, directness, drilling, retrieval and feedback, one can start their own ultralearning project, and benefit from a hybridized skill set.