Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Learn Better – book notes

behaviour book

Learn Better, by Ulrich Bosner is an interesting, valuable book, that is too long. The information would fit comfortably into 50 pages, but you can’t sell a book that short. Amazon is fixing this, but I have a strong preference for paper books over e-books. Anyway, here are my notes.

The core ideas

There are two big ideas in Learn Better:

I. Learning is a skill which you can improve at

Carol Dweck’s Mindset claims that individuals who believe this (versus thinking the ability to learn is fixed and innate) live “a more successful life”. If you picked up a book called “Learn Better”, I’m guessing you already think you can learn better, so hey, you’re half way there already.

In noticed the same viewpoint in a large study of high-school valedictorians: “The top students readily identified themselves as ‘school smart’. Academic talent, to them, meant the ability to excel at academic learning and school tasks such as note taking, memorization, and testing. Many of them clearly attributed their success primarily to effort rather than ability.”

II. Learning is a generative activity

You don’t learn by loading information from somewhere into your brain. You have to create it. To learn, you must do.

Tangent: I found this interesting because of the similarities with memory. We often think of memory as a video camera, yet recalling a memory is a creative activity. I’d highly recommend Elizabeth Loftus’s The myth of repressed memory which explains this very well.

What does “generative” mean here? What kind of activities must you do to learn?

  • Take notes in your own words as you read (I’m doing it now!).
  • Summarize.
  • Tell other people what you learned (even imaginary other people); this is what we do in programming with the rubber duck.
  • Take practice quizzes.

How to learn better

  1. Find value

    Make the learning relevant and meaningful to you, useful to the things you care about. Often we are lucky enough to be only learning things we care about, but if not, can you apply what you’re learning to a hobby? Can it improve your life in some way?

  2. Create targets

    Focus. Have clear goals of what you want to learn. Write down some question before you start studying, and try to answer those questions.

    Make the goals small stepping stones to mastery. There’s a whole literature about goals, of which the summary is making them S.M.A.R.T.

  3. Develop knowledge and skills

    Practice. Set time aside to practice practice practice. Practice is a first-approximation of the answer to life, the universe and anything, so, do it. Do it again.

    Active reading: What is this text about? What point is the author trying to make? Any confusing points? Before you read a book, read the back cover, the contents page, scan the index, flip through it, to try to create a rough internal map of where you are headed. How to read a book covers this section.

    Practice quizzes (including self quizzes). At university I would do the last three year’s exams for that class as practices in the week before the real exam, and it was very helpful.

    Summarize. Explain the content to an imaginary other person (self explaining) in your own words.

    Practice what you need to say out loud. Without notes.

    Get feedback. Benchmark your performance.

    Social: learn with others.

    Spread learning over time. Make the flashcard pile larger to space out learning. One word per card.

  4. Relate skills

    Instead of trying to “learn Xing”, focus on trying to “think like an Xer”.

    Make sense of the field: create an analogy, compare to existing knowledge. Build relationships within and without the content.

    Ask hypotheticals. “What if…?”.

    Draw a concept map of the field.

  5. Rethink

    Do I really know what I think I know? How has my understanding changed over time? What do I need to learn next?

    Talk about your new knowledge with people from other disciplines, expose yourself to diverse ways of thinking.

How to teach better

Learn Better has an great appendix section (“Tool Kits”), with a subsection for “Parents, Teachers and Managers”. These are my notes from there.

Teach learning itself. Teach that learning is a skill, teach the techniques aggregated in Learn Better.

Set expectations. Praise the process.

Space out the learning over weeks, months.

Promote focus. Distraction-free environments (e.g. not open-plan offices). Present fewer, simpler ideas: repeat them.

Support mistakes. Errors promote learning, are a normal, valuable part of the process. This is the idea of “failing forward”.

Let the learner struggle. In parenting they tell you not to do anything for a child that the child can do for themselves.

Use analogies.

Promote review. How well do they know the content? Focus them on the areas they know the least for most benefit in their learning.

Problem solving

In the Epilogue, the author uses situation awareness in pilots as an analogy for learning; airline pilots need it, they used to believe it was innate, now they realize in can be learned and explicitly train for it.

What I found interesting, and we’re going off topic here, is how very relevant this is to my job. A big part of being a software engineer is figuring out why things happened (another title for this part of our job is Site Reliability Engineer), and situation awareness describes how I do it.

You need sufficient background knowledge (Linux, TCP/IP, the programming language), an understanding of current conditions (machines, processes, threads), and the ability to put those together into a mental model to generate predictions about the future. Or, in short, perception, comprehension, projection.

There’s a definite feeling when you have done enough “perception” to have a chance at “comprehension”, and it’s futile to try to move forward until then. “Projection” is different in I.T. systems than in airlines because we can test our predictions, and feed that back into “perception” iteratively.

No doubt this is all covered in operations / S.R.E. literature, but I was pleased to find the similarities.

You can get better at learning, and you learn by doing. So go explain these ideas to someone else.