On Learning.6 min read

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else

I love to learn. I don’t mean memorising or rote learning although there are certainly some overlaps between those and actual learning.

Learning to me is the process of taking something new and foreign and making it easily understandable to the conscious mind, to the extent that I am able to access it with ease, and use it to create more knowledge and new ideas. Learning to me has always been a bittersweet experience, where in each moment the struggle seems so intense and unbearable, but yet I continue on because deep down within me I know that the glorious moment of ‘eureka’ is not far off ahead. Learning has always been the perfect balance of play and work to me – filled with the joy and fruits of labour yet not overloaded with the mundaneness of menial work.

Experimenting with different learning methods

” We Learn…
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss
80% of what we experience
95% of what we teach others.”
– William Glasser

Not many people think about it, but learning how to learn is actually incredibly important. Far too often we are bored by learning or find it hard to achieve what we expect of ourselves because we have used poor learning methods to begin with. For one, teaching and sharing knowledge with others is probably the single best way to learn something because it just requires so much focus and a deep understanding of the subject matter to be able to teach. The question then is, if we are not able to find someone to teach to, how can we create the experience of ‘teaching’ ourselves?

Teaching yourself.

The process of teaching can largely be interpreted as a few separate processes. First, teachers have to prepare the material for the lesson. This might involve creating slides, videos, audio clips, written notes, quizzes or anything that can act as an aid to a student’s learning. In order to do this, teachers first have to gain a good understanding of the material themselves. Usually, this is a given in schools, as teachers are chosen from a qualified education background. However, even with a good understanding of the material, teachers will still have to consider what approach to take when tackling the subject matter and this depends a lot on the desired outcomes of the course and the assumed knowledge of the students.

But when it comes to teaching yourself, the process of preparation is a lot less clear. How do you actually begin? For one, we have the benefit of having actual teachers in school who will feed us with audio and visual information regarding our subject. While these do not seem like much and often we find ourselves confused during lectures or tutorials, they are important in priming the brain for a deeper interaction with the material covered. The time that we feel like we are struggling the most, is when we are actually learning the most, just that we might not necessarily realise it at a conscious level.

The next step then will be to organise this information and to optimise on the delivery of the lesson to ourselves. There are many ways one can do this. For some topics, summaries in the form of mind-maps can work well (personally I use a piece of white paper and a pen or sometimes MindMeister),


Here’s how a Mindmap in MindMeister looks like.

for others, flashcards with questions and answers could be effective. (by the way, here’s an amazing flashcard app on the Mac that I chanced upon recently: Mental Case) For those of you who are more social, you might consider having focused discussion groups with a couple of friends. This last method is extremely helpful for the essay based subjects (do remember to prepare questions and do sufficient reading beforehand).

Flashcards also serve a dual purpose of being an effective way to quiz ourselves. When we are trying to teach something to others, we will always be faced with questions from our students so the key here is to match that experience by quizzing ourselves. This is the third process of teaching – testing. The idea of testing can be scary to most students because they associate it to concepts such as failure or being not good enough. That way of thinking completely misses the point. Testing when coupled with instant feedback is actually one of the best ways to learn (I talk more about this in an article I wrote in my Econoception Newsletter Issue 4 a couple of weeks back) because like what Daniel Coyle writes in the quote at the start of this post, testing allows us to practice deeply and make quick course corrections in our learning. Other ways in which you can test yourself fairly quickly are to do practice questions, to do quick-writes and to write essay outlines.

We are all learning.

Perhaps at this point I should clarify that I am definitely no expert on this matter, but am in fact a learner just like you. I am constantly reevaluating my own learning strategies and trying to think of better and more efficient ways to learn. Technology has been a great help in this area and I am grateful that we now have so many tools available to aid our learning.

That being said, I do have a little bit of experience up my sleeve, as I have taught economics tuition for about one and a half years in total before embarking on university studies. Some of the methods that I mention in the newsletter and in the article above definitely do work because they have produced results for me and for many of my students, although I must add that I was very fortunate to have some really enthusiastic and hardworking students. Out of 9 JC2 students that I had taught, 6 of them got As in their A-levels and one student from RJ actually (to my pleasant surprise) managed to top the level for prelims while starting out from Ds.

Let me leave you with a quote

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Till next time, dream economics.

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