Testing... 1, 2. Testing

Is this brain on? An exploration of learning by trial.

“Exam” — By qperello, Alberto G CC-BY-2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“Exam” — By qperello, Alberto G CC-BY-2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This is going to sound a little pointless. I assure you, it's not. Today, I took a retest. That's totally normal; the weird bit is that I aced the thing the first time.

That may seem masochistic. That may very well be, but that isn't why I needlessly re-took a quiz that I passed the first time around.

I'm often engaged in independent studies. Coursera, and other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a huge help. If you haven’t already, I suggest you enroll in one you've got some interest in (for example, Python coding).  Even if you don’t have much time, most of them don’t ask a whole lot from you. Coursera is just one MOOC platform, of many. Find one that best suits you. You can often be awarded a verifiable certification, sometimes for a nominal fee and others for free. You get the opportunity to learn from great minds and the best Professors in a given field - without the albatross of student loans and exorbitant for-profit tuition. Even if you don’t own a computer, this is the kind of thing Libraries were meant for.

Practice Makes Perfect (or, Repetition Creates Relevance)

You've heard it a billion times . It feels like being brushed off when having problems learning. “Practice makes perfect,” they say. Every teacher, instructor, textbook; Every form of learning tells you this. It's a real thing. Like learning a language as a child, it’s repeated interminably until it's a basic function.

It never seems to work. That's because they've all neglected to explain just how practice makes perfect. Alexis Ohanian of Reddit fame put it best:

"Sucking is the first step of being good at something."

Owing to the "Spacing Effect," there's a particular method to the apparent madness of repeating the same actions for a different effect. In 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus posited that repetitive reviews and studies work far better if properly spaced. He turned out to be absolutely correct, as gut feelings usually are. Since the turn of the century, there have been many attempts at a good implementation of the concept. For some reason or another (I suspect the counter-intuitive nature of it) it never really caught on.

There actually is a potentially great implementation that's been around since the 1970s. I can confidently assert that you've used it many times, incorrectly; it's the familiar flash card.

In the early ‘70s, Sebastian Leitner wrote and published “How to Learn to Learn,” not to be confused with the similarly titled book by a certain charleton. Leitner introduced the concept of utilizing cards, in a series of categorizations. Each category representing whether the previous review or exam of the information on the card was successful or not. In this manner, the user of Leitner's method could easily determine what had been already mastered, and what still needed reinforcing. 

Now, it isn't the 1970s, or even the 1900s anymore! So, let's stand on those giant shoulders and bring in some technology. A schedule algorithm for when to review the failed cards implements Leitner's the philosophy with considerably better efficiency. I’m a fan of the free Anki software.  Give it a shot. Also, try combining it with the Pomodoro technique. An example is Pomotodo, but you could even use a physical timer. More on that in an upcoming article.

Spaced repetition is the absolute best method of learning just about anything, with what feels like very minimal effort.  Math, Science, and foreign languages all benefit hugely from this; even non-academic skills can be learned in this manner. Of course, an effective learner adopts various methods in combination.

It very well may feel like a waste of time at first. You're putting hours and hours into something without even cramming.  Physiologically, your brain is actually rewiring and reinforcing connections, making repeated actions into easier and easier chunks for your mind. Consider the walking process - even try doing it deliberately. It's much harder than you would think; but your brain can handle all the math and physics involved with zero conscious effort. Recall becomes more fluent, and those connections you’re building are useful in other - possibly unrelated - situations.

Learning for Mastery

The first time, I didn't get a perfect score; he problem is that I was expecting to. That means I was falling victim to the "illusion of competence". I’m glad that I was, too. With the score I got, I knew where my weak points were.

A day later, I tried again. I got 12 of 12 this time … but I wasn't satisfied. I had shown that I could remember the material I studied, at least with a prompt (the quiz itself). I wanted to do it again just to prove to myself that I actually a firm grasp on the novel skill. 

Most of us are taught in elementary and high school to pass standardized, memorization tests. This may be the worst thing for education in history. The part that matters is always the test. You probably had friends who would wait until the last second and then cram everything in right before the test — or, you may have been guilty of this yourself.

You'll probably pass the test without actually learning.

John Leech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Leech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s related with many other facets of learning, and why the old metaphor "the brain is a muscle" is an apt one. You already know what the effects of sitting around doing nothing for years on end, and one day decide you should bench press a thousand pounds. It's just the same as procrastinating until the night before that all-important final exam, and then cram. Failure to learn is what you’re asking for either way, and it won’t be pretty.

That quiz I mentioned way back at the beginning of this article - I decided to take full advantage of the three allowed re-takes. I put time into flashcard studying, removing the cards that seemed obvious. In the end, that letter grade or the number between 0.0 and 4.0 is worthless. I got a passing score each time; but what I came away with was a lasting impression of the concepts I learned. Concepts that went into this very article, actually.

I hope you learned something new about yourself.

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