Tag Archives: studying

Why I’ve Decided To Be A Generalist (For Now)

the bird's eye view of a generalist

My blogging strategy goes against the advice of most experts.

A blog should stick to one topic and target one audience, right? As Blog Expert Jonathan Milligan puts it, you first need to decide who you want to help and how to help them. Focus is key.

But, as you might have noticed, I’m doing the exact opposite here. My current strategy is to tackle the big field of learning from all possible angles.

Learning is my passion, and I want to explore all its facets. In other words, I want to look at it through the eyes of

  • a knowledge worker
  • a manager
  • a teacher
  • a student
  • a parent
  • a child
  • a psychologist
  • a biologist
  • an economist
  • an anthropologist
  • etc.

With my Liberal Arts education, I’m a generalist by trade, and there are clear advantages to that.

First, it’s easier for generalists to be creative. Knowing a little about a lot provides us with a big picture and enables us to draw more connections. In this interconnected world, some even say the future belongs to generalists.

Also, according to a study that analyzed more than 80 000 forecasters, generalists are able to predict the future more accurately than specialists. That’s because specialists are often prisoners of their single perspective. In an unpredictable world like ours, the generalist may again have an edge here.

That being said, you can’t afford not to be a specialist either. For obvious reasons. When you have a problem, do you go see an expert or a jack-of-all-trades?

So where does this leave me?

My strategy is to continue exploring as many aspects of learning as possible till I’ve published 100 posts. This will give me a better grasp of this massive topic and enable me to test my options before I start narrowing them down.

Then I’ll select one specific area and drill down through it. I’m already pretty sure of the direction I’ll take, but I‘d rather carry on with my exploration before revealing anything here.

What’s the lesson for peak learners?

You’ve got to find the right balance between being a generalist and a specialist. After becoming an expert at something, you’ll see how your generalist skills will really grow in value.

The question is how to go about this. Some, like Marketing Strategist Dorie Clark, recommend mastering a niche first and expanding from there. Others, like me, prefer doing it the other way around, that is getting the big picture before picking a lane.

What’s important is to have both.

2 Reasons Why Learning a Second Language Is So Hard

second language acquisition

In my studies abroad and within my language-related work, I’ve heard plenty of second-language speakers. Yet I’ve only met one person who spoke my language as a second language with native-like fluency. I actually couldn’t believe it was his second language.

Why does learning a language seem so gleefully easy for babies, but so cruelly hard for adults? Why is it that the better you get at learning in general, the worse you perform in learning a language?

Here are your two culprits.

  1. The brain
  2. The learning process

For babies, learning means choosing. A three-year-old has about twice as many neural connections (synapses) as an adult. When synaptic pruning kicks in, weak connections get deleted while those that are used get a boost. So, as the brain gains in efficiency, it must let go of some opportunities.

This operation is obvious when it comes to language learning. A study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson shows that, if you miss the boat and don’t get early exposure to a language (yes, the famous critical period), you’ll likely never reach native-like proficiency (sorry).

For example, babies at birth have the amazing capacity to distinguish the sounds of all human languages, but as they grow up, their brain cleans out the unused connections, and this sensitivity to other languages gets radically reduced.

Similarly, it seems impossible to perfectly re-acquire a gender-category system if you didn’t develop it as a kid (unlike English, most European languages attribute gender to nouns).

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from the way babies master their native tongue.

Second language acquisition feels like climbing Mount Everest because we typically engage System 2 (see my post on this topic). When you study German in your living room or classroom, you emphasize that rational, deliberate and conscious learning process. You sit down and try to find ways to assimilate the material, right?

Children, on the other hand, master their native tongue exclusively through System 1, and don’t even need feedback about whether they’re getting it right. Unlike System 2, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, System 1 uses the limbic system, where the learning process is implicit, instinctive and spontaneous.

That’s why immersion is so effective. Of course, sheer exposure plays a big role, but this method also enables System 1 to kick in and open up a whole new type of learning.

So what’s the lesson for those trying to pick up a foreign language?

First, relax. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Your brain needs time to create new pathways. Also, bear in mind that some aspects of second-language learning have no critical period. Second, as peak learners now know, call upon the power of System 1 (stay tuned for more info on that).

4 Basic Strategies To Boost Learning Performance

how to be a top learner

Recently, one of my colleagues wanted to test my budding expertise and asked me to give him learning strategies you can’t live without, be it for improving dance moves, public speaking or language acquisition.

So here are four basic tricks given by Professor Monisha Pasupathi in How We Learn.

  1. Spread out your rehearsals
  2. Mix them up
  3. Draw the connections
  4. Sleep on it

Spacing out your rehearsals is the essential first step for anyone serious about learning. Leaving enough time between your practices or studying is like changing your Pentium computer for the latest iMac (sorry if you’re not into Macs). It just turbo-charges your performance. To know how much time is enough time, check my post on the topic.

Varying the way you learn is your second performance booster. Remember the old advice of sticking to a strict practice routine? Throw that out the window. You want to often change where, when and how you practice and study. For example, instead of always reviewing your Spanish with flashcards at the kitchen table, try finding the words in texts or talking about it to friends. Each change in your routine reinforces your learning by making it more independent from the context.

Using elaborative encoding in the third strategy applicable everywhere. This big word simply means that you need to connect your new material to what you already know, either deliberately by organizing it around past info and experience, or implicitly by using past movements to generate new ones. For more details, check my post on the topic.

Getting a good night’s sleep is your fourth power. Sleeping consolidates learning by helping the brain complete new neural connections forged through practice and study. Brain images show that the patterns of activities occurring while learning are reproduced during REM sleep (and it’s a good thing your body is paralyzed during that phase). Sleep is like an extra rehearsal at the brain level.

So that’s what I told my colleague. You want to reach peak learner status in your field? Start by making these habits part of your daily routine.

Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.

Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.

How To Become A Peak Learner In 3 Steps

how to optimize your brain

I went to university for seven years and earned four degrees. During that time, nobody ever taught me how to study, think or learn better. Like most people, I’ve learned how to learn by trial and error.

As a teacher now, I must admit with some embarrassment that I rarely tell my students how they can improve their learning.

Today, I want to break that cycle, and present three key steps to peak learning.

A peak learner is someone who is able to quickly change his/her knowledge, skills and behavior to fit his/her environment. More precisely, it’s someone who can maximize the speed and size of that change.

In order to get there, you need to work on three areas: awareness, behavior and competence, or ABC.

First, there’s no real learning without awareness. Whether you’re learning Spanish, golf, or how to be nicer, you need to hone your sense of observation to differentiate what works fine from what works great. Even if you’re already getting feedback from a coach or a teacher, evaluating correctly your learning practices and results is essential.

Do you want to turbo-boost your self-assessment capacity? Keep a personal journal.

Second, like any top athlete, you need to implement effective habits or behaviors into your life.

Here’s a short list of five practices required to maintain a high level of learning performance: note-taking, irrelevant information removal, time management, regular workout and sufficient sleep.

The last step is central to your quest. You must master some crucial strategies and competences.

Here are ten of them, which I will cover in greater depth in this blog: active recall, pretesting, self-testing, elaborate encoding, deliberate practice, visualization, semantic organization, optimal theory/practice ratio, optimal rehearsal intervals, working memory enhancement, and perceptual strengthening.

Knowledge workers have no choice but to become peak learners. The future arrives faster and faster, and the lifespan of your technical skills and knowledge is therefore getting shorter and shorter.

Becoming a peak learner is really your best competitive edge.