The most common misconception about learning

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Where Learners Think Learning Happens: Watching, Listening and Reading

Say you have the option to enroll in two different courses:

  1. Course A consists beautiful, HD videos from an excellent teacher, patiently explaining the entire course materials. There’s also a thick book full of illustrations and explanations.
  2. Course B has no videos or textbooks. Instead, it consists only of a big stack of questions and answers.

Which class should you attend?

Believe it or not, this isn’t as hypothetical a question as it sounds. During the MIT Challenge, I often had to make a similar choice: between classes which had excellent videos and instruction, and classes which had nothing, but did contain assignments with solution keys.

Given that choice, I always went with the second option.

Most students are under the misconception that passive input—watching, listening, reading—is where learning happens and practice is simply a check on that knowledge. In other words, I learn the class during the lecture and verify that I learned it during the homework.

The truth is actually closer to the opposite. The bulk of learning for almost any usable knowledge happens during practice. Watching, listening and reading are the supplementary activity, supporting practice by filling explanatory gaps and details.

Does This Mean You Should Skip Classes?

Unfortunately, no. While I do think the traditional emphasis placed on passive learning is overrated, the most effective strategy uses BOTH passive learning and practice. Even during the MIT Challenge, I always watched lectures and read the text whenever they were available.

Rather than delete passive instruction, I suggest changing how you use it in three ways:

#1: Minimal Pre-Practice Coverage

The first strategy is to do a shallower pass of the first part of the material, thereby allowing you to get to practice quicker. This can then be followed up by diving deeper, more selectively based on the feedback you get from practice.

A clear example of this was during the MIT Challenge: watch lectures at twice the normal speed, taking sparse notes. This isn’t the best way to absorb all the information, but it saves a lot of time and gets you to the real work of learning a lot faster.

Occasionally you can skip the initial coverage altogether—just dive into practice and go back to coverage as you need it. This was the dominant method in The Year Without English when we would often encounter vocabulary and grammatical problems in practice situations before covering them in classes/books.

#2: Selective Deep Listening/Reading

Accelerating the first pass of the material means there will probably be a lot of points that still confuse you, even after it is finished. That’s normal. The solution here is that, when you get feedback from your practice efforts that doesn’t make sense, you go back to the source and cover it again.

This has the added benefit that now you know exactly what you’re looking for. Without the feedback you derive from practice, it’s very difficult to ascertain what specific points are obvious and which are tricky that you need to be paying attention to. Doing a deep dive after getting that feedback is going to be much more efficient as a result.

#3: Interleave Practice with Theory

A third tip is to avoid bunching up all your theoretical learning at once and interleave practice efforts. Many classes do this already because they force homework assignments throughout the classes. However, self-education projects often don’t enforce this discipline.

Don’t wait until you’ve watched all the videos or read the entire book before you start using the ideas. Try to break up the watching/doing into smaller chunks which will help you as you learn newer material.

Examples in Action

Here’s a few examples of how you could change up your learning efforts to make them drastically more effective by reorganizing your time spent on passive instruction:

Case #1: Learning to Program

Typical method: Buy a book on a new programming language. Read it from cover-to-cover, then sit down and start trying to apply it.

Better method: Skim the book to see what kinds of things you can do with the language and how. Start a new programming project and do your best to get started. Go back to the book when you get stuck.

Case #2: Learning Calculus

Typical method: Watch all the lectures first. Still feel confused, watch even more videos. Finally start doing some problems (if at all).

Better method: Start with some problems. Whenever you don’t understand the answer, go to a video about the topic of the problem and watch carefully for the explanation. Repeat.

Case #3: Learning History

Typical method: Read a bunch of books. Never do anything with it.

Better method: Decide to write an essay about what you’re learning in history. Skim some books to create an outline. Read deeply from multiple sources to fill in the gaps in citations you need to finish off your essay.

Now It’s Your Turn

Practice doesn’t need to be hard though—to implement this idea, just think about ONE thing that you’re trying to learn and ask yourself if there is one way you could apply one of the three strategies we mentioned earlier (minimizing pre-practice coverage, selectively deepening post-practice coverage and interleaving practice with coverage).

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  • Jumo Sumo

    That isn’t fast I suppose . For a starter it’ll be quite hard

  • Matt

    One of my mechanical engineering professors would always say, “You all need to do the homework. If you aren’t doing the homework you should just drop this class right now. My job is to get you to do the homework.” He was right, I did the homework and got an A.

  • Kittie

    I think that although this saves time, it is more of a learning-to-pass-this-exam technique, not a I-apply-my-theoretical-knowledget technique…

  • Bjarke Tan

    But fast doesn’t have to mean easy

  • Scott Young

    This isn’t as damaging an accusation as it sounds.

    All learning is limited to some particular benchmark. Even if you do a conceptually-driven learning focus, you’ll still end up selectively focusing on learning some things over others. In my mind learning to a practice situation which corresponds to eventual use is as good a benchmark as any. When people make the accusation that people are “learning to the test” they mostly mean that the test does *not* correspond to the practice situation.

    Second, the research on practice is pretty unambiguous. Practice testing and distributed practice were the two most effective studying tactics in a comprehensive meta-analysis covering dozens of different studying methods.

  • Scott Young

    Hard, yes. Slow… well compared to what?

    A slow method is one that, for the time invested, doesn’t yield as much benefits. Passive learning definitely fits this bill. Reading and watching take a long time.

    Practice, on the other hand, is relatively fast for the results you get. The downside, of course, is that practice is also hard work. But, you weren’t really expecting that the best method would be effortless, were you?

  • Victor

    This post really resonates with me. I often act exactly as you describe in the article: watch the videos, read the books and dread the moment to do practice problems. But, it was always by doing practice problems that I progressed the most and developped my understanding of the topic. So thank you Scott for the reminder!

  • Jumo Sumo

    I’d get that, thanks 🙂 I’ve doubt now . If we go by sheer practicing I develop a FOMO (Fear of missing out ) the required pre-requisites for practicing
    Now there are a lot of questions which require use of multiple concepts , how do we tackle those without mastering pre-requisites ?
    I’m not challenging or something , this has been doubt for all my 19 years 🙂

  • Daniel Henriksen

    Spot on! I’ve recently applied #3 as a part of my learning system, and have experienced that writing short essays/articles/blogs about topics I wanted to learn more about or simply have been questioning, definitely have had a positive impact on my ability to absorb and retain information about that particular subject.