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Learning to Learn

There's an interesting concept that's gotten a lot of traction over the past couple of years called "meta learning".  It's a term coined by one Donald B. Maudsley, who defined it as "the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized". Translated from Sciencese, Maudsley is talking about how we figure out ways to become more efficient at learning new information.

HR managers (you know, those overpaid dimwits you complain to about your coworker stealing your lunch?) like to call it "learnability". Most people with real jobs don't call it anything at all. In reality, though, it's an extremely useful thing to understand, together with the techniques you would use to get good at it.

Myself, I'm a decent-ish learner. Mostly, that's because I've had to learn things on my own quite often - I had to teach myself web design, app development, blog management, SEO and a fair number of other arbitrary, esoteric topics. I think that's one of the most important things to having a "high level of meta learning awareness", as Wikipedia puts it - experience. The easiest way to get good at learning things quickly and thoroughly is, oddly enough, to learn a lot of things quickly and thoroughly. However, that doesn't mean you've got to spend hours and hours researching random things on the internet. There are a few things you can do to learn whatever it is that you happen to be studying at the time that much better.

The first, and for me, most effective thing you can do while learning is to use the Feynman Technique. The Feynman Technique was devised by Richard Feynman, the late Nobel laureate with the fabulous haircut. The easiest way to use this is to get yourself a piece of paper - or, if you have access to technology devised after 1990, a Word document. Then, study the concept you want to learn. Write down an explanation of the concept. It'll be hard at first, and you'll probably want to resort to all manner of technical jargon, but as much as possible, don't. Try and explain it in simple language - Reddit's r/ExplainLikeI'mFive has some fantastic examples of how to do this. When you're done, read up on anything you felt unsure about. If you did end up getting technical at some point, try rewriting that portion of your explanation to be simpler. And that's it! The Feynman Technique will help you learn much faster and retain much more, too.

Another technique I personally use a lot is a little more specific, in that it relates to video courses. Online video courses are all the rage now, from KhanAcademy's math and science to Coursera's programming courses to MasterClass' ridiculously expensive courses on everything from cooking to comedy. Here's the problem, though: nobody's got three hours to sit in front of a computer and watch videos anymore. My solution to this: videos at double speed. Most sites now have a control to set playback speed. I usually keep the speed on the videos I'm watching somewhere between 1.5 and 2 times the original speed, depending on the complexity of the video I'm watching. If your course comes with captions, it usually helps  to turn those on, as well. I was able to complete a 4-week course on Coursera in about four hours using this technique.

The other thing that I've found works really well is flashcards, particularly digital ones. This technique is really more applicable to things you have to memorize than complex concepts, but I think it's worth a mention anyway, because it's saved my hide more times than I can count. A flashcard, incidentally, is a piece of paper with a question written on one side and the answer on the other. So, for instance, if you're trying to memorize countries and capitals, you could have, say, "Turkey" written on one side and "Ankara" on the other. Now, personally, I hate cutting paper to size and writing on it, so I'm rather more partial to digitized versions of this. Sites like let you create flashcards and memorize them online. There's also a tool called Anki, which I can't vouch for myself have heard great things about, which lets you create flashcards on your cellphone or tablet.

I think the best way to learn something is to learn about it on your own. You'll come across resources that you enjoy learning from, and you'll be able to remember what you learn. As such, I think these techniques are some of the most useful things I have ever learned. At any rate, I have a Coursera course to complete. Ciao.


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