Learning, Fast and Slow

Learning, Fast and Slow

July 22, 2018

When I was younger, I prided myself in being fast. In being a learning machine.

There was a time I’d borrow three books from the school library everyday, and return them the next day, after I’d finished them. I’d finish most books and magazines in a single sitting.

When computers started to interest me, I’d always pick books that say “Learn X in 24 hours” or “Learn X in a weekend”, because why would you learn slowly when you can do it fast?

But as I get older, I increasingly see virtue in learning slowly.

Micro and Macro Learning #

Part of this, I think, is that the nature of the learning that is expected of me has changed somewhat.

As a student, I had very specific tasks to accomplish. At the most micro level it was my homework, zooming out a bit it is specific syllabus for certain subjects. It was clear which chapters to focus on, which problems to solve.. although there’s always a bit of a guessing game as to what sort of problems may come up in exams.

As an adult, especially as I gain more experience, what’s expected of me has become less of how I’d solve a particular problem, but in finding out which are the right problems to focus efforts on. Finding them is no easy task, because it is more open-ended. In most cases no one book will tell me what to do – it is a myriad of resources (books, blogs, talking to people), and a lot of thinking that would lead me to a direction that feels right.

In other words, there’s been a shift from a specific or micro kind of learning to a more macro one, and I foresee this trend continuing. The former would be pretty well-served with quick study sessions, while the latter needs more thinking time in between, and therefore better served with the slower kind.

This does not mean fast learning doesn’t suit me at all anymore. After finding out (or at least perceiving I have done so) which problems to solve, at times I need to either do it or help others do it – again a micro-learning task, for which I still go for quick sessions.

What it does mean is that procrastinating on these macro tasks and doing them at the last minute does not work for me anymore, as I’ve learnt that I need the time to let them sink in, and let me play with various ideas and inputs.

Short-term and Long-term Learning #

When I was in school, it mattered less if I still remembered my study materials a few months, a year down the line, or more. For most of the subjects I was taking, I didn’t even know how they’d come in handy, as the world was still one big mystery.

That’s not to say that it isn’t now – just a tad less. Now I have a better feel for what skill or knowledge I want to have stick with me for years – which I want to let compound, with additional units I acquire.

Quick learning sessions often result in knowledge that I forget rather shortly after too. Interspersing them with diffuse-mode thinking, using them in various contexts, and testing my recall (things I learnt from Learning How to Learn) – these make concepts stick better and longer.