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Connecting Patterns in Learning

29 Nov 2020 | rants

I recently read an interesting book about learning called A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. In the book, she explained different strategies that influence learning and how to do it more effectively. One particular phrase stood out to me:

Good chunks form neural patterns that resonate, not only within the subject we’re working in, but with other subjects and areas of our lives. The abstraction helps you transfer ideas from one area to another.

As I read this, I understood that pattern recognition was a vital part of how I learned. The funny thing is that it’s an automatic process. I wish I could do a brain dump of all the information I learned and connect them one at a time.

How I Learned Back Then

Let’s talk about math for a bit. Math is a required subject in school. But for me the relationship was forced. When I was in fourth grade in Vietnam, the teacher made the class memorized the multiplication table. Then we had to recite it every morning so the numbers burn into our brains through pure repetition. It wasn’t pleasant but we had to do it.

The process intensified as I went to middle school. How I learned Algebra was by solving the problems repeatedly after the teacher showed the class how to do it. I received good grades not because I was smarter but because I did those problems hundreds of time and even take extra classes from the teacher after school. The math patterns I developed was limited to only the problems I’m required to solve.

How It Changed for Me

When I went to college in the U.S., there was a lot more emphasis on independent learning. Lectures and materials were provided but it was up to me on how to use them. I was overconfident and thought it was the same as high school. Of course, I was smacked in the face by the sharp increase in difficulty and my grades bombed. My old method of churning out problems after problems was not working anymore. The course load demanded more efficient study methods.

So I started coming to office hours more often. I studied and worked on assignments with classmates together. These approaches helped me get better grades and that was enough for me back then. But now that I’m learning by myself during the pandemic, I thought about how working with other people improved my learning. I came to the realization that the exprience of others are patterns that I could compare and contrast to my own.

When I write papers together with my classmates, even if the topics were different, the way they approach it gave me new insights. The teaching assistants were there to look over my drafts and point out errors in my assumptions or suggest different resources related to that topic. Those are things I would never be able to understand on my own because I didn’t have their experience.

Replicating Diverse Patterns

Since I’m not in school anymore, it’s significantly more difficult to find others to study or work together. My friends and I have less time to see each other due to work and other obligations. The effect compounded with the current raging pandemic. I had to find other ways to diversify my own learning.

I started reading books about different topics to improve the breadth of my knowledge. Reading how the author uses the evidence to support their claim is very interesting. Even if the study or evidence used are the same ones that many different authors use, the variety of explanations imprinted the concept into my mind more clearly.

Even for things like learning programming. Sometimes I would just pick one resource and go through the whole thing. At the end, I foolishly told myself that I understood the concepts, only to be stumped when the same problem presented itself in different form later. I used to be frustrated and questioned my own intelligence and effort when that happened. Now I try to take things slower and actually go back to simple concepts when I get stuck.

I shifted my perspective from speed running through the learning process to laying down one good brick at a time. To me now, not being able to apply something I learned just means that the concept haven’t solidified in my mind yet. Taking the time to find different materials explaining the same concept is more beneficial in my long term learning.

I also started to appreciate the more rounded education experience in my college years. I used to think that I did not need to take psychology or literature if I don’t plan to go into those fields. Now the thought is amusing because writing a blog post about how I learn is pretty much a different form of those two classes. Having a more diverse knowledge and exprience allowed me to blend and transfer different skills together to do what I want.

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