If you’ve been kind enough to read any of my previous posts, you will know that I am all about continuous learning. I remember hearing a long time ago that when we stop learning, we start dying. That may have been a bit over-the-top, but I think you get the main point. If we stop reading, listening, observing, and critically thinking, then we stop understanding others, we get stuck in our own thoughts, we lose our creativity, and we become trapped in a negative feedback loop.
You also may be like me – you might have your workload in front of you of books (or textbooks), online courses, 50+ video YouTube playlists, and an infinite funnel of articles and projects to work through. But how do we make sure the time we are spending now actually solidifies our understanding of a subject? What’s to keep us from forgetting what we read tomorrow, next week, next year? This is where concrete learning comes in.
What is Concrete Learning?
Concrete learning is your unique learning routine where you are not just passively learning, but actively recalling information over long periods of time. Don’t confuse this concept with knowledge or wisdom, which is the practical application of your learning. Also, there is a similar term out called concrete learners, who are people that use physical senses to learn something (like a lab, a project, etc.). Concrete learning is the process of solidifying your learning so that you can recall it later on.
Where to start
Everyone learns differently. Some of us have to see everything visually while others are fine with written word or lectures. When I was teaching guitar to students from age 5 to 50, there was never a one-size-fits-all. I had students who bought books, some bought CD’s of music they wanted to learn, and some just bought the coolest guitar on the shelf. Whatever motivates you to get started is fine. Maybe you buy a couple of textbooks on a subject, maybe you enroll in an online course, or maybe there’s a few of you who bought a whole kit to start learning something in depth (Hello, Harry Potter wand to learn programming!). The important thing is to start. Once you find your motivator, you will want to bottle that up because you are in for a long-haul.
Journal Now, Journal During, Journal At The End
When you get the butterflies to pick up something new (“I am going to learn Python this year!”), the best way to start is to have a reflection of the “what’s” – what you are excited about, what does your journey look like from here, what do you hope to be doing in a year, etc. You can do this through traditional journaling or put your journey up on YouTube for others (who knows, you might make some money off of it!). Either way, capture this moment. And this doesn’t have to be for big projects, it can be for something kind of small, though I wouldn’t put too much effort in this if it was less than a one-week journey. Sometimes this initial journaling reveals something very important – we are studying the wrong thing! If we said we want to study Python programming to be a Data Scientist, that is great, but just knowing Python doesn’t make you a Data Scientist. Journaling allows us to reveal and analyze our own thoughts as well as giving us a snapshot of ourselves to refer back to.
During your journey, you will need to be constantly journaling but for a completely different reason. I recommend journaling your learning. This could be literally writing down “Today I learned x,y,z” about a topic, and this should be done as soon as you get done with a learning session. This does two amazing things for us: Again, it gives us a snapshot of our journey, and two, it enforces recall of the topic. Richard Feynman recommends you write down what you’ve learned immediately after a class, but I have found success even if I did it that night or the next morning. It forces you to use your learning and re-write it.
Personally, I have started about 5 different learning journals over the past couple of years. This is something I know works, but for me, it’s hard to get it just right given the varied topics that I might study. I am still finding my own personal balance of writing down words and phrases in Russian, writing programming concepts, and also mathematical concepts in one journal. On the other hand, I also find it tedious to maintain three separate journals. We are all trying to figure out this thing called life…
And no one is ever done with a topic. Just as soon as you think you are done, there will be new techniques, new applications, or you just have to constantly keep yourself fresh. (We used to have students ask “How long does it take to master guitar?” and our response was always “I’ll let you know when I get there…”). However, much like any class or project, there has to be a logical close. Same for our journal. We have to decide that this chapter or book can be closed to open a new one. And trust me, you do not want to mix concepts you learned 5 years ago with more advance topics you are learning today. Searching through that would take more time than it is worth. I recommend finding the spot to say “when I reach X, I will start fresh.” This also forces us to reflect and make sure the journey we are on is still the right one (see Python programming example 3 paragraphs above).
Beyond the Journal: Memory
I mentioned a couple of posts back that our brain does not have great storage. This is a bit of a fib. We can’t store memory like a computer can, but our brain can retain and recall amazing details (see the story about Jill Price). There are even people way more gifted than me that are able to memorize and recall the order of a deck of cards in less than a minute. Our brain is smart in that it keeps what is important and tucks away from active recall what is not. Much like anything, active recall is a skill that can be developed over time.
You might remember from elementary school all the wonderful songs and mnemonics you had to learn to memorize something. Most of us learn the ABC’s through a song. And who doesn’t remember the order of the solar system by the phrase “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”? These are little memory/recall tricks that you can still use. I will say, it’s hard to come up with a song about Integral Calculus, but I am sure if you do, it will stick with you forever. Another amazing memory trick is your “virtual house”. This is the idea that if you imagine a house (your house, the house you grew up in; doesn’t matter just a house you know well) and you imagine that there is something you are learning within a room in that house, you will likely recall that more easily the next time you come across it (see example at the end of this post). That’s because we are great at processing spatial information. If we can tie concepts and our learning to our spatial brains, then we will more likely recall that information and much more easily.
Timing is Everything: Flashcards
One program I cannot hype enough is the flash card program Anki. It’s free, it’s extremely customizable, and lots of users have already built some robust decks on there. One thing that Anki does extremely well, though, is not just giving you flashcards, it uses a timing algorithm to know when to show you certain flashcards. Below is a chart on the Forgetting Curve. While this one has Days across the x-axis, you can really replace that with any interval of time (weeks, months, years). Anki uses this same idea to show you a card that you may think is easy in a week from now, and if you don’t use it in a week or answer incorrectly, it will show you that card more frequently next time. It remembers what you struggled with (based on your input), and uses that information to help you recall it later.
Now, this program is great, but it goes back to what I said before. If you can recall the information you just learned immediately after your class, you will have a higher probability of recalling it later. Using Anki, you can then quiz yourself on that topic to increase your recall even more. And doing a review at the end of the week, at the end of the month, and at the end of the semester practically guarantees that you will remember what you have learned for years. It’s all about timing.
Tying it all together
This post is not intended to be a run-down of all possible educational materials and techniques, but instead to highlight one important topic: Learning and active recall is a process. We all have different styles for the initial input of learning – some are fine with videos or articles, others need hands-on instructors. But it’s beyond that initial input where these techniques can really help: Journaling your learning is one of the strongest methods as it also causes you to reflect on yourself; Flash cards are great for testing your knowledge; And the virtual house is an amazing memory technique, especially for really difficult subjects. Finally, you need practice recalling what you have learned at regular intervals. Through the process of concrete learning, you will be able to recall information for years!
Bonus: Virtual House Example
So, I wanted to highlight my own personal example of a virtual house. Just because you have never seen my house, doesn’t mean you won’t get the basic idea, but there may be some specific details that throw you off. That’s okay. For any of those gaps, I want you to try to imagine something similar within your own house. For this example, I am going to tie it to a topic I was learning a while ago: Differential Calculus rules.
If I imagine myself looking at my house from my driveway, I can start walking towards my front door. As I walk up the driveway, I see a sign with x^3 written on it and a hammer laying in the yard. I take the hammer, hit the x^3 sign, and it becomes 2x^2. I hit it again and it becomes 4x. (This gives me f’’(x) using the power rule.)
Next, I walk up to my front door and notice I have two doors that are connected by a chain (storm door and an actual front door). I imagine on the storm door there is a g() written and on the inside door there is an f(x) written. Since f(x) is inside g(), I know that I need to work on g() in order to fully close both doors. So I take my hammer to g() and then to f(x) in order to close both doors. If closing both doors is h(x), then this gives me h’(x) = g’(f(x)) * f’(x). This is the chain rule!
Those that have not taken calculus may be completely confused by the above two paragraphs. For those of you that have taken calculus, I hope you were able to follow along and felt a moment of déjà vu looking at the two rules. Regardless of your mathematics experience, you can take a similar concept and apply it!