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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: The Learning Brain

The Learning Brain is  The Great Courses series on how your brain learns material. By coincidence, I audited this course while also reading How to Become a Straight-A student, so the two complemented each other, with this course providing the theoretical background, while Newport's book provided a practical approach.

The theoretical approach has much to recommend it. For instance, rereading a textbook is known to be useless (Newport also appears to know this, but never explains why in his book). It turns out that it's far easier to recognize material you've read than to retrieve it. In order to pass exams or truly internalize the material, you need to master retrieving it, so the best approach is to test yourself. Similarly, highlighting material is inferior to explaining the material in your own words, which in turn is inferior to mastering the material to the point where you can teach others.

Polk goes beyond what Newport does by providing further details: here's how much spacing in between study sessions you'll need to maximize effectiveness. Even better, here's how you learn implicit skills (such as playing tennis, golf or the piano) so you can maximize performance. It turns out that randomizing your skills gives you worse performance at the time of practice but will improve performance in the long run. This is counter to most practice: for instance, many tennis players will go to the court and practice forehands, then backends, then serves. Professor Polk's approach would have you randomize which one to do. (I've found this to be true in swimming pools: most people would practice one stroke for 15 minutes, then another, then another --- I myself tend to interleave my strokes for precisely the reason Polk provides)

There's great stuff about the neurobiology behind all this learning, and in addition, there's also a section on aging and how to prevent it from affecting your brain, but of course you know the answer to that: a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and good sleep.

What I haven't seen elsewhere in this course is a study on human motivation. There's a ton of studies showing how the US falls far behind many other developed countries (and also many developing countries) despite having some of the highest per-capita spending on schools and students. It turns out that the reason is student motivation. Unlike many other countries, the USA had the highest number of students who agreed that "doing well in school is not important to succeeding in life", as well as many who worried that doing too well in school would stigmatize them socially! (Obviously, the sample for these studies drew from far more school districts than those you find in Silicon Valley) The material covers both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with results you might have read about or heard about from elsewhere.

Needless to say, this is a great course (pun intended) and well worth your time. Recommended!

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