Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

(Trying To) Study Textbooks Effectively: A Year of Experimentation

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An interesting post at LessWrong:

When I started studying the art of studying, I wanted to understand the role of book learning. How do we best learn from a textbook, scientific article, or nonfiction book? What can a student of average intelligence do to stay on top of their homework? Is it possible to improve your annual knowledge growth rate by one or two percent by learning how to learn? Should a motivated student take a maximizing or satisficing approach to their coursework? How many of the skills of a top scholar are strategic, collaborative, psychological, or involve merely a set of habits and technological proficiencies?

Fortunately, I started with the most esoteric of approaches, exploring visualization. I tried using a memory palace to memorize a textbook. It was vivid, fun, and creative. Exploring visualization helped me understand chemical diagrams, led me to invent a math problem, and made learning a lot more fun. But I simply couldn’t jam that much detailed technical knowledge into my head. The method didn’t help me pass my final exam, and I dropped it.

Posts from this era include Visual Babble and PruneUsing a memory palace to memorize a textbookThe point of a memory palaceVisualizing the textbook for fun and profit,

After that, I explored speed reading. I read the theory, experimented both with physical technique and speed reading apps, and kind of broke my reading habits developing this difficult-to-correct tendency to skim. This tendency to read too quickly persisted long after I’d dropped deliberate attempts at speed reading. I finally made some intellectual progress, which preceded correcting the reading habit itself, in The Comprehension Curve.

Then I explored the world of Anki and tried to use flashcards to memorize a textbook instead (or at least a few chapters). After simulating the sheer amount of flashcard review I’d have to do to keep a strategy like that up long-term, I dropped that too. I felt that forming memories of narrow facts (like the structure of RNA polymerase or the name of the 7th enzyme in glycolysis) was the costliest way to learn. And I found the achievement of world-class memory champions irrelevant to real-world learning, which just seems like an entirely different task.

Posts from this area (not all on flashcards specifically) include The Multi-Tower Study StrategyDefine Your Learning Goal: Competence Or Broad KnowledgeProgressive Highlighting: Picking What To Make Into FlashcardsGoldfish ReadingCurious Inquiry and Rigorous Training, and Using Flashcards for Deliberate Practice.

During this time, I also played around with “just reading,” without a conscious technique. Posts from this era include Check OK, babble-read, optimize (how I read textbooks)Wild Reading,

Notes are cheap. It takes a lot less time to write down a fact than to memorize it. But I went further. I developed an elaborate and carefully-specified system of shorthand notation to represent causal, temporal, and physical structures. It used Newick notation for tree structures, variants on arrow signs to articulate causation, sequence, combination, and more, templates to rewrite the stereotyped information presented by textbooks in a uniform format, and hyperlinks in Obsidian to represent the relationships between concepts.

Not only did I take notes on the textbook, I also took notes on each individual homework problem. I also developed notes for other problems. I wrote Question Notes for The Precipice. This means that for each paragraph in the book, I wrote down one question to which that paragraph was a valid answer.

I never published any posts on note-taking. Partly, note-taking itself scratched that itch. But more importantly, it was a very fast iterative cycle. My methods developed day by day, over the course of months. I was experimenting with different software apps, tweaking the templates I used, figuring out how to expand my particular method of shorthand to represent complex structures. After all the shifts I’d made on my previous experiments, I thought I would spare LessWrong the tedious minutiae of my developing thoughts on note-taking. I’m confident that crafting the perfect notes in an elaborate and precise shorthand system is no a panacaea, so I don’t know if it’s worth bothering.

Exploring note-taking was as useful as visualizing was fun. The rigid structure of my note-taking approach gave me clear guidance on what it means to “read” or “study” a textbook chapter. They became a useful reference for looking things up. The idea of bringing together any data, formula, charts, or techniques I needed to solve a problem, and then making a plan of attack before setting to work, was a big upgrade for my accuracy and sense of ease.

Yet when my note-taking . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 June 2021 at 12:26 pm

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