How to effectively study

Alan Turing Statue

Alan Turning : “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

You never stop learning, which means you never stop studying. Sometimes the hardest things to learn are those that don’t have a concrete test or exam at the end. How do you know how well you did in a race if there are no hurdles, laps, timer or finish line? That’s part of being an adult, and actually a part of a Human Factors model where your “comfort zone” must be stretched into an area where you are uncomfortable, but, as it turns out, competent.

A good way to stretch yourself in the direction of learning something new is not just to read the manual. Humans are designed to learn through doing, so doing examples and writing example exams is generally more effective than just linear reading.



In learning through doing, we are getting feedback. We have a model in our minds of how things “should” work and we are testing that model against the reality of the questions or experiments. People are great at seeing the difference between what they were expecting and the outcome, and are are designed to fine tune and iterate their internal model so that what they expect is what they get.

Just reading the manual is like doing half an interaction – you don’t even get the feedback until the text or “Performance Day” comes, and at that point the feedback is the real deal and you never had time to fine-tune. Think of it this way a blindfolded master painter is not going to make a good painting from memory – they need the feedback from seeing what they are doing. A musician must hear what they are playing to adjust and perfect, even driving down a straight highway can’t be done for long without feedback.

You want to get your the majority of iterative learning out of the way before the Performance Day comes. This means having a realistic model of Performance Day to test yourself against, whether it is a blank canvas or a sample exam with answers. You can’t fool yourself by changing parameters like time, tools, and tasks – you will not truly be testing yourself.

At the same time, you can’t learn everything at once. If what you are learning is vastly different from your current skills, i.e. way out of your comfort zone, you have no tools for growing, because everything is new, there is no scaffolding to hang the feedback from. Its like trying to build a bridge too far out over the water without putting in any supports, Incrementalism needed – the new stuff has to be “bite sized”. This makes iterative learning even more important because it can steadily stretch you a bit at a time, a little more on each iteration. Like the levels in a videogame, level 1 isn’t the hardest, and level 2 is not vastly harder than level 1 but level 1 and 10 are worlds apart.

So from this we can get some general rules for effective studying.

In summary – they are:

(1) get a goal,
(2) get a simulation,
(3) get the ‘books’,
(4) iterate to to make an Error Signal,
(5) Use the Error Signal to tune your mental model
(6) know when your Error Signal is too big to use
(7) challenge a ‘final test’
(8) teach, and,
(9) compete

Now in some detail:

  1. Have a look at a real life example of what you have to do – land a plane? change a light switch? Write a multiple choice exam for your boat license? What’s the end game here, how crazy do the skills look from your vantage point at the start?
  2. Find a simulation – practice exam, light switch parts, flight simulator, something that will give you feedback in a realistic way.
  3. Find the linear documents. Understand that this will not make you an expert by reading. It is like the bridge top that goes over the supports that you build through doing the experiments on the simulation. If you are lucky, this will have some quizzes or simulations or feedback mechanisms built in. Don’t ignore the exercises.
  4. Now it’s time to alternate between using (2) and (3). Because you will be doing this a lot it actually doesn’t matter which one you start with. Go fiddle with the light switch parts for a bit, or fly a few practice landings in the simulator – plan and expect to be horrible at it and do not get discouraged. Your job here is to generate, as engineers call it, a strong ‘error signal’ the difference between what you expect and what you get.
  5. Use the error signal to guide your incremental learning. Just like hiking through the woods, you are using the compass reading you took a second ago (the error signal) to plan your next 50 paces. What matters here is that you really understand the Error Signal. You don’t have to understand the subject, just carefully note the difference between what you expected and what you got from doing the simulation. By being very mindful of this, you will start to automatically refine your internal model to be closer to the real model of how things work. How? Well, this is the good part: you are human and human brains are very well suited to form, correct and update internal models of the outside world. We do it subconsciously, we are designed for it, and this is why experts can predict outcomes much better than people who have simply “memorized the book” – their internal models closely match the outside reality.
  6. Now what if the Error Signal is just too big? You’re frustrated, you’re overwhelmed, you’re baffled. You don’t even know how to ask Why because the outcome didn’t match your expectations from your internal model, and doesn’t even match some of your nascent other internal models which your subconscious may have been brewing for you. Well this is a symptom of over-stretching from your comfort zone past your competency zone – you’ve tried to build too much road out from your last bridge support. But you can use this as an Error Signal, too. The error is a bit different – it means “scale back the bite your have bitten off”.  This is why schools have grades, pilots have licenses, and textbooks have chapters. They already have cut up the steak for you into bite sized pieces, at least for the “Average Learner”. If you are learning on your own, this means re-reading the part of the manual that matters, checking out a few more YouTube videos, asking another person, or even skipping the chapter and revisiting, as that information might fit into your mental model later when it has grown. It is often best to learn the same piece of information from multiple perspectives, because you will immediately see where the ‘heart’ of the idea is, and what is peripheral to it. Again this is a human brain thing – it builds models based on examples, so if one example isn’t enough, feed it more examples with some commonality.
  7. Finally, take the practice test – do a simulation designed to match as closely as possible the real deal. If you run into (6) take a step back and remove some reality so things better fit your mental model.
  8. Further growth, or lack of it – It is possible to become good enough at something that you feel you’ve mastered it. When you feel you are an expert, that is when you may have some illusions about your expertise. You are in most danger of hubris. For example pilots with approximately 300  hours of flight experience tend to have more accident that those with less, all things being otherwise equal. The reason is that students know that there are surprises – they are on the lookout for errors, they are deliberate in action, and they do not trust their instincts. They are humble and everything is new, so nothing is taken for granted. What does ‘For Granted’ really mean psychologically? It means you have integrated an aspect of the skill into your mental model to such a degree that it is assumed, automatic, and subconscious. You stop looking for the Error Signal, and therefore stop refining that part of your mental model. If you stopped before the model perfectly matches reality (which is very common simply due to statistics) you will eventually be surprised by a “Gotcha” some edge-case or rare situation that makes you and reality disagree.  Of course these Gotchas will definitely get your attention, and tell you that it is time to readjust your mental model. So is there a way that you can find the Gotchas before it is too late? Yes:
  9. One great way is to expose yourself to people who are learning what you already believe you have mastered. In fact it does not hurt to be the one doing the teaching. They and you have on difference – you have an establish mental model of the subject, they are in the iterative process of honing theirs. You may have stopped asking your own questions because your model fits reality so well, that they simply never come up. Although the students are learning the same subject or skill as you, they will each be honing their own internal models in their own totally unique way. Their own path to their own mental model, and though it may be similar to yours in the end, their Error Signals and the questions (“Why?”) that they generate of most likely different from those you may have had. They will, in fact often be surprising, insightful, and eye opening. You wont’ have the answer for everything and that’s the big opportunity. Exposing yourself to other people’s Error Signals when yours have reduced to a whisper allows you to keep learning rapidly.
  10. Another method is to challenge yourself against other experts – engage your models against one another (Chess?, Sail racing), enter into competitions (photography, hackathons). You will find that given the same test, each expert will use their own internal model to achieve the best outcome. If you are that expert, good for you. But better yet, if you are not, you can see their outcome versus yours and even though all of you are experts with tiny whispers of Error signal, those whispers are amplified when relative performance is the aim. Competition amplified the Error Signals and points in new directions to hone your internal models. You don’t have to be competing against another expert – cooperative teamwork accomplishes something very similar – by seeing how people work through the problems and how this is different than how you do it, you will also be generating a strong Error Signal to learn from. So teamwork, competition all amplify Error Signals for experts.

A final little note about learning and expertise is this: can you handle the emotional hit of an Error Signal? The other part of being human is that it hurts like hell to be wrong, to be blind-sided, to be criticized and to lose. Even hearing those words can be painful. To that I have to counter with this:

  1. The drill sergeant perspective: better to fail in training than on Performance Day
  2. The Feedback on Feedback: every Criticism can in turn be criticized – meaning, you will know if the feedback is valid, you will know it instinctively and as much as it might be painful, you will know it’s right. Working to address it will make you stronger, but never criticism-free. Just know the difference between valid and invalid criticism, either through your instincts or through getting it from more than one source and looking for some consensus.
  3. Don’t let the Error Signal echo: Your own criticisms will generally be worse, more minute, finer grained, and comprehensive than any external entity – you know every effort, every tiny error you’ve made, and because you are human, these stand out more than the total effort you have made, or total expertise you have.  Take this as a desire to further improve, and don’t see the errors as devaluing your past work – use them to improve your next piece of work. You will look back on your past work with much kinder eyes once you’ve put some distance between you and the minutiae; you might even be lucky enough to see it in the same light as other people. Remember feedback usually hinges on one small point – humans have a way of smearing negative feedback across an entire Effort, and this does a disservice to the Effort and the Error Signal, both of which are in fact much more useful when considered focused and targeted.
  4. Don’t let your comfort Zone Contract to nothing: If you are not expanding your expertise, the Error Signals, criticisms, will always be the same, because the misalignment between you inner model and reality remain the same. What this does psychologically is contract your comfort zone – the home base from which you launch all your expeditions into the Stretch Zone of new learning, skills and of course, errors. You have a choice: stay dynamic and always be growing, such that setbacks will be countered with new skills and experience, or harden your existing (and likely imperfect model) by ignoring Error Signals. You can tell that the second option loses in the end – you will be eroded into a tiny comfort zone with no will to extend into the Stretch Zone.

So make the Stretch Zone familiar territory using some of the methods here. There really is no viable alternative in the long run. You don’t have to site at the start line deciding what Errors to make either – just start and see what the first batch of feedback brings in – it’s the only way to know if you are on the right track.



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