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分类: IT职场

2013-09-28 19:43:05

The Drilldown Method: A Strategy for Learning Faster

During the yearlong pursuit, I perfected a method for peeling those layers of deep understanding faster. I’ve since used it on topics in math, biology, physics, economics and engineering. With just a few modifications, it also works well for practical skills such as programming, design or languages.

Here’s the basic structure of the method:

  1. Coverage
  2. Practice
  3. Insight

I’ll explain each stage and how you can go through them as efficiently as possible, while giving detailed examples of how I used them in actual classes.

Stage One: Coverage

You can’t plan an attack if you don’t have a map of the terrain. Therefore the first step in learning anything deeply, is to get a general sense of what you need to learn.

For a class, this means watching lectures or reading textbooks. For self-learning it might mean reading several books on the topic and doing research.

A mistake students often make is believing this stage is the most important. In many ways this is the least efficient stage because the amount you can learn per unit of time invested is much lower. I often found it useful to speed up this part so that I would have more time to spend on the latter two steps.

If you’re watching video lectures, a great way to do this is to watch them at 1.5x or 2x the speed. This can be done easily by downloading the video and then using the speed-up feature on a player like . I’d watch semester-long courses in two days, via this method.

If you’re reading a book, I would recommend against highlighting. This is processes the information at a low level of depth and is inefficient in the long run. A better method would be to take sparse notes while reading, or do a one-paragraph summary after you read each major section.

Here’s an example of  while doing readings for a class in machine vision.

Stage Two: Practice

Practice problems are huge for boosting your understanding, but there are two main efficiency traps you can get caught in if you’re not careful.

#1 – Not Getting Immediate Feedback

The research is clear: if you want to learn, you need immediate feedback. The best way to do this is to go question-by-question with the solution key in hand. Once you’ve finished a question, check yourself against the provided solutions. Practice without feedback, or with delayed feedback, drastically hinders effectiveness.

#2 – Grinding Problems

Like the students who fall into the trap of believing that most learning occurs in the classroom, some students believe understanding is generated mostly from practice questions. While you can eventually build an understanding simply by grinding through practice, it’s slow and inefficient.

Practice problems should be used to highlight areas you need to develop a better intuition for. Then techniques like the Feynman technique, which I’ll discuss, handle that process much more efficiently.

Non-technical subjects, ones where you mostly need to understand concepts, not solve problems, can often get away with minimal practice problem work. In these subjects, you’re better off spending more time on the third phase, developing insight.

Stage Three: Insight

The goal of coverage and practice questions is to get you to a point where you know what you don’t understand. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Often you can be mistaken into believing you understand something, but don’t, or you might not feel confident with a general subject, but not see specifically what is missing.

This next technique, which I call the Feynman technique is about narrowing down those gaps even further. Often when you can identify precisely what you don’t understand, that gives you the tools to fill the gap. It’s the large gaps in understanding which are hardest to fill.

The technique also has a dual purpose. Even when you do understand an idea, it provides you opportunities to create more connections, so you can drill down to a deeper understanding.


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