A practical approach to learning faster

Except for my early childhood in Bangalore, I grew up in an environment where English wasn’t used for day-to-day conversations either at home or in school. So my English vocabulary was limited mostly to commonplace words.

But unfortunately, all the newspapers and novels I would read were in English. Naturally, every few sentences, I would run into a word I did not understand.

That posed a dilemma – “Should I stop reading, find the meaning in the Oxford dictionary, and then resume reading? Or should I just continue?”

The purist approach would have been to stop and check the meaning in a dictionary. But honestly, it was too much of a hassle. So I would keep reading as long as I had an overall sense of the story.

So that should have left my vocabulary full of gaping holes, right? Not really. In fact, my lazy approach turned out to be the most efficient one.

Had I stopped reading every time to check the dictionary meaning, the flow would have been disrupted. When I had gotten back to reading, I would have had to again recreate the context and restart. I would have probably quit out of frustration. Also, it would have been hard to remember the word’s meaning without the context.

On the other hand, by keeping on reading, the context itself gave a rough idea of the word’s meaning. And once you encountered the word a few times, you got a fairly accurate sense of the word.

I am pretty confident that I have looked up not more than 1% of the words in my vocabulary.

So what does that tell us about learning?

There are two ways to learn:

1. The first approach is what I would call the ‘purist approach.’ Here, you go through the learning process sequentially, understanding each step before going to the next. When learning any topic, you cover the prerequisites, then the theory, and then try some applications or exercises.

2. The second approach is what I call the ‘muddle through’ approach. As long as you have some idea, get headlong into the most experiential part of the learning – in English, it might be reading a book; in math, it will be problem-solving; in computer science, it might be writing code.

And this second ‘muddle through’ approach is the one that really works. In fact, not knowing this practically destroyed my college grades. There, in college, I adopted the purist approach. My study strategy was:

1. First read textbooks to ‘really’ understand the theory.

2. Then, and only then, once I knew the theory, try out some problems.

3. Finally, when fully ready, do the assignment problem sheets given by the instructor.

But once I started reading the textbooks, before I realized it, the semester was over. I never ever got past step 1.

On the other hand, my classmates who did really well just directly tackled the assignment problem sheets, regardless of whether they fully understood the concepts. When they got stuck at some point, they clarified that particular concept from the lecture notes or the textbook and moved on.

In this latter approach, the concepts would reveal themselves to you randomly. Imagine a picture revealed pixel by pixel – initially, you see nothing. But as pixels light up here and there, you slowly start seeing a pattern. And soon, you have a clear image.

This is the most efficient approach to learning.

So should we ignore all theories and directly get into ‘application’ (e.g., problem-solving)?

Here, some caution is in order. In the first example I gave, had my knowledge of English been practically non-existent, a novel would have felt like gibberish. But since I knew enough to have a rough understanding of what I was reading, my mind connected the missing dots.

Similarly, whether it is for computer science, math, or any other applied subject, you need to have some basic knowledge. However, don’t wait for deep understanding – at the earliest opportunity, dive into the application. And one by one, as the bits and pieces of knowledge reveal themselves, you will get the overall picture.

Mind you, this process will feel very uncomfortable. Our mind hates uncertainty. But it works.

So the next time, when you are learning an application-oriented subject, dive into the application as soon as feasible. Then do back and forth between application and theory. That is the best way to learn.

Like all ideas I have shared, you don’t have to take this at face value. Try it and see for yourself.

Hope you get some value for the time you invested in reading this article. Thank you for your readership and support.


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