College courses versus LessWrong

post by VipulNaik · 2013-09-15T00:45:34.682Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 55 comments

Compared to many of the people reading this, I've not participated extensively on LessWrong. In fact, I created my account only about a week ago. That said, I have read many LessWrong articles by contributors such as Eliezer, Jonah, Yvain, Gwern, and many others (if I missed you, my apologies). I wouldn't say it was a huge transformative experience. But I have probably learned a bit more from LessWrong than I learned sitting in on a class by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker on human capital (without formally registering for the class or doing the coursework). I've learned more of value from LessWrong than all the MIT OpenCourseWare lectures I've consumed. There are a few online experiences, such as reading EconLog, that have been more educational for me than LessWrong, but I can count these on the fingers of one hand.

Some of my friends have claimed that reading LessWrong systematically (and perhaps participating in the comments and attempting to write posts) would generate more value for an undergraduate than a typical core college class (with the possible exception of technical classes specific to the person's major or area of specialization). I'm curious about whether readers agree with this assessment. Do you feel, for instance, that LessWrong provided you with more valuable human capital than your introductory general chemistry sequence? What about comparing LessWrong with an undergraduate "intro to philosophy" class? Or an undergraduate intro class on the history of economic thought? At what percentile would you rank LessWrong relative to your college classes?

A second related question is whether there's a possibility of building a college course -- or college-like course, perhaps a MOOC -- specifically revolving around mastery of the content in LessWrong (perhaps starting with the Sequences). Would such a college course be possible to design in principle? How would such a college course compare with core requirements for undergraduates today?

55 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by kalium · 2013-09-15T21:03:56.335Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

LessWrong is presented in appealing chunks that leave you feeling like you've gained a lot of insight, but in the end I find I gained much less than I felt like I was gaining at the time. I've learned some nice catchy phrases for certain cognitive biases and failure modes, and I've been entertained for many hours, but in terms of practical results I can think of few college classes that provided less value than LessWrong.

It's easy to feel like you've thoroughly understood whatever you've just read, but then find yourself unable to apply it. (This is a particular hazard with math.) Reading LessWrong (or anything else without exercises) systematically will not help you there, whereas almost any college class will require you to apply your knowledge to something or other. Even the most useless humanities classes (cough intro philosophy cough) I've taken have at least helped keep me in practice stringing words together into a coherent argument.

Replies from: Crux
comment by Crux · 2013-09-15T22:43:21.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the most useful aspects of Less Wrong is that you can read the Sequences and then start posting on the forum, engaging intelligent people in discussion and trying to apply what you learned to important topics. Far from Less Wrong being without exercises, this seems like one of the best kinds of exercises.

Replies from: kalium, Viliam_Bur
comment by kalium · 2013-09-16T07:31:17.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

this seems like one of the best kinds of exercises.

Do you honestly think that talking on a forum about philosophy, interpretations of quantum mechanics, and psychology is comparable to reading through, say, Apostol and doing all the exercises? And for that matter OP was discussing systematic reading, not active participation in discussions. Furthermore, in college you have people (TAs, not professors. Turns out office hours are where the learning is supposed to happen.) who are actually paid to look over your work and figure out exactly where you've gotten confused and then explain it to you in a way you'll understand. Here you have a bunch of (reasonably smart, yes) people who come for interesting discussion because they're bored, and who may or may not feel like helping you understand where you've gone wrong.

Participating in a forum is not bad as writing practice, I'll admit, but a lot of three-paragraph posts don't take nearly as much work (and I think don't do nearly as much good) as a few five-page papers.

Replies from: Crux, Document
comment by Crux · 2013-09-18T22:53:21.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you honestly think that talking on a forum about philosophy, interpretations of quantum mechanics, and psychology is comparable to reading through, say, Apostol and doing all the exercises?

That's not a valid comparison. That would be like asking whether practicing your tennis serve on a regular basis would be comparable to joining a basketball team that meets 3x/week for 2 hours. Depends entirely on your goals and level of motivation. Just as someone may pick one or the other depending on what they value, someone may be better served spending time on LW than using that textbook, or vice versa.

And for that matter OP was discussing systematic reading, not active participation in discussions.

Well then we should probably suggest he change his plan from "systematically read the Sequences" to "do that and then participate on the forum". The former would be like showing up to class but never doing the homework. Whatever his wording, his point still stands. Rather than quibble about this, why not just get back to the point, which is whether Less Wrong is more useful than college?

Furthermore, in college you have people (TAs, not professors. Turns out office hours are where the learning is supposed to happen.) who are actually paid to look over your work and figure out exactly where you've gotten confused and then explain it to you in a way you'll understand.

Plenty of people will do this for free on Physics Forums, Less Wrong, or anywhere else. But again, it depends on the subject. If you want to learn math as it's usually taught, then yeah, college is probably a great place to be. But epistemology or philosophy? Less Wrong is clearly a better option.

Here you have a bunch of (reasonably smart, yes) people who come for interesting discussion because they're bored, and who may or may not feel like helping you understand where you've gone wrong.

Gone wrong on what? If math, then yeah, go to college! But if you want to refine your epistemological grounding or something like that, spend plenty of time on here, even act provocative if need be, and you'll get more criticism than you could ever ask for. How is this even in contention?

Participating in a forum is not bad as writing practice, I'll admit, but a lot of three-paragraph posts don't take nearly as much work (and I think don't do nearly as much good) as a few five-page papers.

Depends what mood you're in. This post I'm writing right now isn't very high quality writing, because it doesn't need to be, or because I don't have time to polish it up, or because this topic isn't important enough for that. But I've written plenty of posts on here that were crafted to be good writing, and it was better practice than anything you could have in college. In those instances, I was trying to convince a highly academic, potentially hostile audience (people on here). In college you're just trying to impress a professor, who may or may not be totally exhausted by the time he gets to your paper, and may or may not care at all. Read 2,000 pages of useless writing, and see if you still have the capacity to care about correcting the work in a thoughtful way, especially since you have no real incentive to reveal the holes in the reasoning like you would in an intense discussion with peers.

Simply put, the hoop you're jumping through with papers is to impress a professor who doesn't care about your ideas, wheres the test when you're posting on LW is to get the people on here to think you're being insightful. The best you can get from a professor is usually just that they think you're an intelligent student. The best you can get on here is for people to think you're really adding to their understanding. The former is susceptible of easy-to-fake signaling games and useless bullshit writing. The second is real communication.

Papers aren't real communication. They're just a signaling game. Forum posts are actual discussion.

Replies from: kalium
comment by kalium · 2013-09-20T01:05:25.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not claim that colleges have more to offer than writing practice (with highly variable bullshit tolerance---if you talk to people who've taken the classes you're looking at, you can probably find some humanities professors who do have high standards, but I suppose this criterion takes us far away from the "typical" course) on every subject. If the OP has a specific interest in philosophical questions of the kind LW pays a lot of attention to and college courses do not, then he will get more value even from reading the sequences without discussing them than he will from a college philosophy course. His request for comparisons to very different subjects like chemistry, though, suggested to me that he just wants to learn interesting things and practice "how to think."

It is my opinion that taking a few math classes will do a lot more to teach rigorous thought than would typical LW participation, and that the exercises in a freshman text like Apostol are a better kind of exercise than forum participation. I should probably have stuck to that rather than trying to defend the humanities.

Replies from: Crux
comment by Crux · 2013-09-20T01:35:42.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see what you're saying. I mean I guess the best answer might be that doing both would be best. I mean, Less Wrong came about in a culture where most people go to college. It seems expected that Less Wrong would fill in the gaps from a typical college education, and correct widespread problems in thinking, rather than being a wholesale replacement for a good college education.

comment by Document · 2013-09-16T09:24:20.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

a lot of three-paragraph posts don't take nearly as much work (and I think don't do nearly as much good) as a few five-page papers.

Most of your post makes sense, but I thought length minimums were widely considered a perverse incentive. If I make a three-paragraph post to a forum, the first draft was probably a lot longer; I wasn't saving myself work by cutting it down.

Replies from: kalium
comment by kalium · 2013-09-16T20:20:13.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They're definitely a perverse incentive in terms of getting quality output, but in terms of writing practice I am not so sure. Certainly each additional paragraph is harder to write than the last, and my intuition tells me that this means that a medium-length paper provides some kind of practice/mental workout that a three-paragraph post does not. Of course it depends on how much fluff and bullshit your particular instructor allows in an essay (not that bullshitting isn't also a useful skill).

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-09-16T09:34:17.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Engaging intelligent people in discussion is not the same as doing your homework. I spend a ton of time on LW, but I don't apply a lot of its wisdom in my everyday life. Sometimes I am not even sure how exactly to apply it; and sometimes I simply forget to do it.

If instead I had a place where I could go e.g. twice a week for one hour and had to do some rationality exercises there (such as: choose a problem you have and apply the following techniques to it, or list your medium-term plans and evaluate their probabilities, costs and benefits), I would probably gain much more benefit for less time. In theory I could do the same thing at home, but in reality, I don't. The exercises and homeworks at schools are a tool against procrastination.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-09-15T03:08:36.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of my friends have claimed that reading LessWrong systematically (and perhaps participating in the comments and attempting to write posts) would generate more value for an undergraduate than a typical core college class (with the possible exception of technical classes specific to the person's major or area of specialization). I'm curious about whether readers agree with this assessment

I was going to say "yes", but after doing some back-of-the-envelope math, I'm no longer so sure.

A typical five-credit undergraduate course represents five hours of lectures a week for ten weeks (eleven- or twelve-week courses were typical at my school, but some time is lost on exams and other non-transmissive content), plus maybe the same time again in homework and self-study. So let's call it a hundred hours of work.

The mean Less Wrong user, according to the 2012 poll, spends about twenty minutes a day on the site. Assuming we trust that and that we equate a year of participation with "systematic reading" by your friends' standards, we're looking at a threshold of about a hundred and twenty hours: definitely on the same order time-wise.

For LW to be more valuable than an average undergraduate course, then, it would either have to be more efficient at transmitting information, or transmitting much more valuable information. I find myself very skeptical of the former. The latter seems slightly more plausible, but while LW seems intuitively more useful per unit content than five credits of underwater basket-weaving, I'm not willing to rank it over, say, Data Structures or Chemistry 1A.

On the other hand, LW participation may lead to instrumentally valuable lifestyle or philosophy shifts -- but that's a lot harder to estimate than direct transmission of knowledge.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-09-15T02:59:28.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, being active on Lesswrong is probably superior to most undergraduate classes in philosophy. But this isn't Lesswrong specific. Seeking knowledge on your own is almost always better than taking knowledge from a teacher.

Do you feel, for instance, that LessWrong provided you with more valuable human capital than your introductory general chemistry sequence?

No, not even a little bit. Lesswrong's strength is philosophy, and unfortunately philosophy doesn't generate much human capital unless you're in some very specific fields. Lesswrong might have sharpened my philosophy skills from 90% to 95%, but really the average scientist only needs a philosophy skill level of 70% to be effective, to say nothing of other professions. And you've got to be at least at philosophy 75% to even start reading a lot of the material here - I don't think it's accessible to, say, your average redditor.

Human capital comes primarily from knowing facts and having skills.

That said, reading primary literature on my own contributed vastly more than my coursework contributed, in terms of facts. Coursework did sometimes fill in some parts I might not have taken interest in on my own - but simply talking to other scientists would have fulfilled the same function.

Knowledge which is systematically fed to you is not customized to your interests, is not customized to your abilities, and it's not customized to your intelligence. It shouldn't be surprising that sources of knowledge you've discovered on your own are superior to those which have been given to you.

For the demographic who can learn theory on their own,, school is for degrees, making connections, and hands-on experiences - not learning theory.

Replies from: falenas108, Viliam_Bur
comment by falenas108 · 2013-09-15T04:24:16.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And you've got to be at least at philosophy 75% to even start reading a lot of the material here

I disagree. I came in with essentially 0% philosophy skills, I didn't even know what consequentialism or utilitarianism meant. And I was able to understand the sequences, and don't have a problem with the posts now.

Replies from: Ishaan
comment by Ishaan · 2013-09-15T04:57:03.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, maybe uncalibrated, totally made-up percentages aren't a good way to communicate this.

I didn't even know what consequentialism or utilitarianism meant

Yeah, so you'd have to formally learn philosophy to know what those things mean. But that doesn't mean you were at 0% philosophy. Human beings instinctively engage in philosophy.

Can you construct a sound logical argument? Will you reconsider if someone points out an inconsistency or logical fallacy in your argument? That alone brings you up to 40% on my totally made up scale.

Did you ever feel there was something weird about free will? Did you believe in souls? Did you know where morality comes from? Did you intuitively grasp the notion that simpler explanations are better? Did you strongly feel that beliefs must be based in evidence, and did you understand what constituted good evidence?

My sense is that most people reading LW passed one or more of these basic milestones well before they finished high school, before doing any formal training or reading in philosophy. In my arbitrary scale, merely putting thought into these things puts you at 70% and solving all of them puts you around 80%.

On my scale, 0% implies you're likely suffering some sort of mental illness.

And I'm arguing that LW isn't accessible to your average undergrad. The average undergrad is probably below 75% on this scale. I'm an undergrad, and the vast majority of people I know don't care about these things.

Replies from: falenas108
comment by falenas108 · 2013-09-15T05:28:50.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you construct a sound logical argument? Will you reconsider if someone points out an inconsistency or logical fallacy in your argument?

Yes to both.

Did you ever feel there was something weird about free will? Did you believe in souls? Did you know where morality comes from? Did you intuitively grasp the notion that simpler explanations are better?

Hadn't thought about any of those things.

Did you strongly feel that beliefs must be based in evidence, and did you understand what constituted good evidence?

Yes and yes.

Replies from: Ishaan
comment by Ishaan · 2013-09-15T05:43:40.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes to both. Yes and yes.

Now imagine if you couldn't do one of those things. For example, suppose you didn't strongly feel that every belief had to be based in logic or evidence, and instead had ideas about believing some things on simple faith.

Wouldn't the entire premise of this site just seem misguided and weird? Isn't there a huge gap in philosophical skill between you and a person who believes in faith?

I know scientists, doctors, and lawyers who believe in faith. They are smart people with tons of human capital.

I guess the central point is that, human capital wise, there are diminishing returns on building philosophical soundness. The level at which you'd have to be at to even start reading lesswrong is already the level at which additional improvement probably won't make a difference human-capital wise.

So while Lesswrong is certainly an extremely worthwhile thing to participate in, it's not a college substitute. (that's not to say that there aren't auto-didactic practices that adequately replace college - just that lesswrong by itself is definitely not such a thing).

Replies from: ChristianKl, falenas108
comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-15T10:49:46.215Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wouldn't the entire premise of this site just seem misguided and weird? Isn't there a huge gap in philosophical skill between you and a person who believes in faith?

I think most smart people who do have a concept of faith can imagine that there are people who don't and engage in arguments with them.

Don't confuse the positions that someone takes with his general skill level in navigating arguments.

Replies from: Ishaan
comment by Ishaan · 2013-09-15T16:37:23.294Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't confuse the positions that someone takes with his general skill level in navigating arguments.

I didn't intend to communicate that.

I meant to communicate that logical thinking and evaluating arguments is a level one skill, while understanding the nature of evidence and parsimony is a level two skill.

Having "faith" means that your skill level in philosophy doesn't exceed level one, however well you may have mastered level one (well, maybe not strictly true since you can derive notions of parsimony from logic)

comment by falenas108 · 2013-09-15T06:19:28.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, yeah. We just had different ideas on what 70% means.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-09-15T19:24:00.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, there is one benefit of a systematically fed knowledge -- it prevents you from getting into selection spiral, where you want to learn about something, find the first piece of knowledge belonging to some small subset of what you want to learn, become impressed and learn the whole subset... mistakenly believing that you actually learned the whole set.

For example, one can learn programming in Java and believe that "programming in Java" equals "programming", and there is nothing useful to be learned outside. Or one can learn behaviorism and believe that behaviorism is the only and the complete answer to psychology. Or learn one economical theory, or learn one political view, or...

In such situations, the best part of the systematically fed knowledge is that it usually starts with a roadmap: it shows you a list of subsets. That's the best part... and probably from that point on you could again be better by learning those subsets on your own. (Supposing you are able to update about the existence and importance of the other subsets; many people aren't.)

For the things I believed to be important, I leaned more on my own than in school. But the school taught me a few things I didn't consider important... until I learned them. (And also many things I still consider unimportant.)

Replies from: djm, Douglas_Knight
comment by djm · 2013-09-16T00:07:03.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally I have always chosen the self learning path, only going to college to obtain the 'proof' for work requirements but have been very impressed with the recent MOOC offerings (e.g. Machine Learning, Model Thinking). The format is very flexible and works well for people who like the self learning path.

By the way, there is one benefit of a systematically fed knowledge -- it prevents you from getting into selection spiral, where you want to learn about something

This is a valid point, but each individual has different levels of understanding prior to starting, yet the content usually covers all grounding material meaning that many people end up with boring subjects.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-09-15T22:16:28.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think most schools explicitly give roadmaps. A list of courses and especially a list of required courses is a roadmap. Courses often start with a syllabus. But I don't think most students notice either roadmap. And why should they? If being systematically fed knowledge, the student has no need to know the system.

Added: Yes, the advice to autodidacts to seek roadmaps is good, but you imply that a student who starts at school and drops out is well-equipped for self-study, which I think is false.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-09-15T05:30:04.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing courses are good for is learning things that are boring. It's easier to sit down and grind homework problems when you have an exam coming up than if you're on no schedule at all.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-09-15T11:30:04.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The hazard for autodidacticism is not being aware of what you've missed: you don't know what you don't know.

Replies from: roland, Vladimir_Nesov
comment by roland · 2013-09-15T12:43:06.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why is this specific to autodidacticism? I went through school and college without ever learning anything about the valuable content here on LW.

Replies from: roystgnr
comment by roystgnr · 2013-09-15T15:37:14.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not specific to autodidacticism, just likely to be exacerbated by autodidacticism. The set of things you don't know you don't know is always a superset (usually a strict superset) of the set of things that you, your professors, your textbook authors, your curriculum designers, etc. all don't know you don't know.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2013-09-15T14:14:11.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's not confuse autodidacticism with not being systematic in one's studies. ("The hazard for" admits the interpretation that this property is merely prevalent, but also that it's natural.)

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-09-15T16:58:56.761Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about comparing LessWrong with an undergraduate "intro to philosophy" class?

I would describe the body of philosophy classes I took in college as far lesser in worth compared to reading the contents of Less Wrong, but with the caveat that if I had been in a position where an "intro to philosophy class" was teaching me much that I didn't already know, it's likely that I wouldn't have been ready to start absorbing the contents of Less Wrong.

comment by Crux · 2013-09-15T01:09:42.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nobody who knows what they're talking about would ever suggest going to college for the purpose of getting an education. We have the Internet for that. If you need structure in your life (e.g., forced to wake up early 5x/week), or you need motivation (e.g., want to learn math but keep procrastinating), or something like that, and a degree would help you out (e.g., because you're young and you're looking for an entry-level position in a particular industry), then by all means, go to college. But if you just want to learn, then you're wasting your time.

Think about it this way. Not even getting into the messed up incentive structure of the university system, just consider how random your professors are. You're confined to a particular university in a particular location. On the Internet, on the other hand, you can go wherever you want, and find the particular niche community you need for what you're working on. And with this, we come to a more direct answer to your question: Reading Less Wrong would probably be much more useful than taking whatever college course you would end up in on the subjects most relevant here (basic epistemology, etc), but if you want to start learning math or physics for example, then Less Wrong wouldn't be of much use, and instead you'd want to for example check out Amazon for textbook reviews, and then head on over to a good forum on the topic (Physics Forums, perhaps?).

Replies from: None, John_Maxwell_IV, iDante, CAE_Jones
comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-15T13:28:20.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you need structure in your life (e.g., forced to wake up early 5x/week), or you need motivation (e.g., want to learn math but keep procrastinating), or something like that,

Or you want someone to give you feedback on your homework and answer your questions (and hence a chance to clear up your misconceptions), or you want hands-on experience with lab equipment, or you want to socialize with other people interested in the same things, or you want to be able to legally access papers behind a paywall for free, or...

Replies from: Crux
comment by Crux · 2013-09-15T22:31:49.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or you want someone to give you feedback on your homework and answer your questions (and hence a chance to clear up your misconceptions)

I mentioned Physics Forums for math and physics, where you'd get all the feedback you could ever desire.

or you want hands-on experience with lab equipment

Valid point.

or you want to socialize with other people interested in the same things

Why would you need college for that? If you keep procrastinating about getting out there and trying to meet people, college is a good way to self-bind oneself into feeling an obligation to show up somewhere on a regular basis that may lead to success in that area. But otherwise you could find people elsewhere.

or you want to be able to legally access papers behind a paywall for free

Another valid point.

Overall though, I wouldn't say you contradicted anything in my post. I absolutely did not say that going to college wouldn't be a useful endeavor for plenty of people. It's just that the reasons to go certainly have nothing to do with the quality of instruction or something like that, which is what the OP was about.

Replies from: kalium, leplen, None
comment by kalium · 2013-09-16T07:19:10.723Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Socialization is qualitatively very different when you live in the same building as people who share your interests. Without this, every meeting has to be planned days in advance, and bootstrapping a friendship to the point where people are even willing to make plans with you is a huge hassle. I found this feature of college extremely valuable and many others do as well, even if you would not. (It's true that this is really a feature of dorms, and classes themselves don't help much with meeting people, but it's still part of the experience, and how else are you going to concentrate hundreds of smart STEM-interested people into one or two city blocks?)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-21T09:39:30.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Without this, every meeting has to be planned days in advance ... this is really a feature of dorms, and classes themselves don't help much

I guess that only applies in large cities with poor means of transportation. I often meet up with people on a half hour's notice, and there are Schelling points where we can go and meet up without even having to make explicit plans at all.

comment by leplen · 2013-09-16T15:21:44.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Physics forums is not an adequate replacement for putting 6 people and a pizza together in a room with a whiteboard. The internet is great and all, but it's simply not as easy to communicate half-formed ideas, and build off someone else's poorly-thought-out insight over the web.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-21T09:34:58.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mentioned Physics Forums for math and physics, where you'd get all the feedback you could ever desire.

Communicating in meatspace with people I know personally is much more effective than over the Internet with strangers, all other things being equal (at least for me -- YMMV).

But otherwise you could find people elsewhere.

Like where? Not only would I have no idea where to find half a dozen physicists hanging out together in my home town, I'm not even sure there are that many physicists at all there.

It's just that the reasons to go certainly have nothing to do with the quality of instruction or something like that, which is what the OP was about.

What? Except possibly for the socializing thing, all the things I mentioned have to do with instruction.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-09-15T06:39:49.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's low status to say one could benefit from external motivation and structure, but I suspect that for the vast majority of people and general, and also the majority of LWers, external motivation and structure are hugely valuable.

Tests are valuable to give you an idea of how you're doing with learning stuff. IIRC, some education research suggests that spending an hour taking a test is actually substantially better for your understanding and long-term recall than spending an hour studying.

I think if you wanted to make a serious "alternative technical college education" for yourself, one way to do it would be to work on a series of technical projects that interested and motivated you, then learn whatever was necessary to complete the projects well (see this post by Robin Hanson). Probably find some local hackerspace so you don't have to buy equipment, you get some social pressure/networking, and you can pick up some tacit knowledge from other hackers. If your projects were impressive, they could look good on your resume to the right employer (open-minded small business owner/startup founder?)

This strategy could be difficult because most people don't have the balls to say "I am going to complete project X in a field that I know nothing about and learn whatever I need to know in order to complete the project on the fly". You'd run a risk of getting intimidated and giving up, I think. A certain amount of confidence in your ability to understand anything given sufficient time, effort, and pestering of knowledgeable people (online or offline) would probably be necessary to make this work (relevant rationality quote). I still think going to college is a better idea for most people.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-15T10:55:09.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tests are valuable to give you an idea of how you're doing with learning stuff. IIRC, some education research suggests that spending an hour taking a test is actually substantially better for your understanding and long-term recall than spending an hour studying.

That's why you use Anki ;)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-15T11:30:12.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quick question: I have used Anki mainly for memorizing words in foreign languages - is it possible to do more complex and constructive learning with Anki than just memorizing facts?

Replies from: John_Maxwell_IV, ChristianKl, hyporational
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-09-15T17:40:50.978Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've tried it and found it easy to fall in to the habit of just answering the card without thinking too hard about the underlying concepts. Making good Anki cards for highly conceptual stuff like math and computer science requires a fair amount of effort and experience with Anki, IMO.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-15T14:27:08.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The goal of Anki is to avoid forgetting facts. There are subjects where you don't need to know facts. You don't ride a bicycle by knowing facts about bicycles but by having a skill that's in muscle memory.

When it comes to learning science, learning facts is often useful. Whenever you encouter a new fact that seems important to you and where you think it's important to remember that fact, create an Anki card.

The goal isn't to write complex questions. It's to make sure that you don't forget the basics. When we learn a new topic we often focus to much on complex stuff and don't recognise that we will forget most of the things we learn soon thereafter. Anki exists to prevent you from forgetting important basics and make those basics common sense.

My example cards from physiology for aldosterone:

Front: hormone(released by adrenal glands to regulate kidney function)
Back: aldosterone

Front: organ(aldosterone production)
Back: adrenal gland

Front: hormone.type(aldosterone)
Back: steroid

Front: organ(aldosterone increases ion reabsorbtion)
Back: kidney

Front: aldosterone ?(increases/decreases)? reabsorption in the kidney
Back: increases

Front: aldosterone ?(increases/decreases)? blood pressure
Back: increases

Do these cards tell me everything there to know about aldosterone? No, they don't. On the other hand they show me basic facts about aldosterone. If you don't know anything about aldosterone I think you can still understand my cards but you probably won't remember the information a year later when you don't put them into Anki.

All these cards I listed are made in a way where the I have to type the correct answer. I'm not 100% sure that this is optimal but I feel that it helps me. When I write down an answer it's easier to compare the answer against the correct one than comparing one in the mind against the correct one. Less cheating ;) It also makes it clear when I can press enter to get the answer.

When it comes to creating cards about a new topic it's helpful to think about how the knowledge is structured. In this case we have hormones that can belong to different types and organs that are affected by hormones.

I personally like the concept of questions of the type ?(increases/decreases)?. I have the feeling that they work better than questions that ask whether a claim is true or false that I used in the past. Again I have no good data for that recommendation. Cards of that type are usually easy to create for many subjects.

The goal when you create cards is to create them as easy as possible. When you use Anki you don't spend most of your time with cards that you forget from time to time.

Even for knowledge that you know there a difference between whether your brain needs 1 second or 5 to access knowledge about a given basic. Learning basics well is useful.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-15T15:56:29.570Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for a really comprehensive answer even though it was only a quick question ;) Your way of using Anki is quite creative, mine is pretty close to rote memorization and I have only applied it to foreign languages so far. Maybe I should think about using it on other subjects. In all subjects, except maybe math on some level, there are some basic facts that you just have to memorize and you can't derive the answer from the other facts you know, so it makes sense. It has to go hand in hand with trying to understand the subject at hand though, otherwise it would be just trying to guess the teacher's password.

Btw. I also use the method of writing down my answers because I want to know that I don't cheat ;)

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-15T16:10:49.367Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In all subjects, except maybe math on some level, there are some basic facts that you just have to memorize and you can't derive the answer from the other facts you know, so it makes sense.

Even if you could theoretically derive an answer it's often still good to have that work precached. If you read a complicated scientific paper you need to have a lot of knowledge precached and can't spend time to derive facts from other facts.

It has to go hand in hand with trying to understand the subject at hand though, otherwise it would be just trying to guess the teacher's password.

Yes. That one of the reasons why it's usually better to make your own cards than to use the deck that someone else created.

Wozniak's rule number one: "Do not learn if you do not understand" and rule two: "Learn before you memorize".

Theoretically I think that it's possible to create good decks that other people can use, but it's no easy project.

comment by hyporational · 2013-09-16T08:52:34.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've found that once you learn a complex concept, and then add its constituent parts to anki, you will still retain the concept as long as you review the simple stuff. You can also do it the other way: learn the parts and then play with them in your head to learn the concept. Adding some redundancy, i.e. reviewing the same facts in many types of questions helps.

Also Anki has really taught me that any "conceptual understanding" can still be reduced into simple parts.

comment by iDante · 2013-09-15T03:11:33.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've learned more about physics from school than I would have learned on my own, and I think your comment is pessimistic. University has advantages over the internet, even if your goal is simply to learn material.

Replies from: Crux
comment by Crux · 2013-09-15T22:35:55.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why did you learn more about physics from school than you would have on your own? Was it because of the external motivation? Or was it because the quality of instruction was better than if you had made use of whichever textbook got the best reviews on Amazon, and then asked questions on Physics Forums?

Replies from: iDante
comment by iDante · 2013-09-16T01:20:14.131Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

External motivation is a huge part. Part of it is just the fact that my entire job right now is to learn physics and impress professors. Much of my learning happens in class, but much of it also happens in the labs that I work and from the grad students that I bother. Another overlooked advantage is the enormous group of peers who are learning the exact same material as me at the same time as me. Physics forums doesn't even come close to this utility. (edit edit: ##physics on freenode is pretty good source too)

This all combined is well worth the price tag to me. For others it may not be; I'm just one data point after all ;)

edit: lots of people don't take advantage of their university of course, but they tend to be the sort on the bottom end, not the top, which is who I think you're addressing.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-09-16T09:27:05.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another overlooked advantage is the enormous group of peers who are learning the exact same material as me at the same time as me.

Exactly. The peer pressure. It's not the same if those peers are merely online; and sometimes you don't even have that.

Perhaps one day we will have something analogical to coworking... colearning. I could imagine colearning "schools" where people come to learn from online materials, and then discuss with their peers. But there would have to be many people doing this in the same area, so that you could always find people learning the same thing as you do.

comment by CAE_Jones · 2013-09-15T02:02:03.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What sealed my decision to spend my last two years of high school at the state Math and Science school instead of the same public high school I'd been attending was the realization that I was learning more from the internet than I was in classes, with the exception of a few chemistry concepts that I never thought of looking up.

When I graduated, I realized that even the Math and Science school didn't catch up with what I'd learned from the internet until the final semester. I'd still say it was worth it, and I decidedly did not optimize (mostly because I was still thinking of science more as "stuff scientists discovered" than "an insanely useful method that you should pay attention to outside of science fairs"), but college? Not so much. There were benefits, sure (I think the main one Crux left out that I completely failed to even try at is networking with professionals in a broader sense than work experience), but the most important things I learned while at college were things that came entirely from the internet or experiences on holidays. There were quite a few things I stubbornly tried not to believe (mostly things about human psychology) that were thoroughly demolished by the internet (especially when I finally got to LessWrong, but by then it was a bit late and I was already in the "No, I'm not doing this anymore" phase of college.).

In spite of all of this, I'm still frustrated with my timing; college really could have been an outstanding opportunity had I, say, read the sequences a year earlier. Attending college is an incredibly easy way to access resources like labs, equipment, experts and cheap labor (especially if you can turn a project into academic credit, which I totally could have at my college; I would have gotten credit for this terrible virtual series had I just finished the blasted paperwork. (*mumbles something about a RATIONAL! rewrite*)). For example, when it manifested that Senseg might have been overly optimistic with their predictions on getting their tactile technology on shelves early in 2013, I found myself frustrated that the technology is so simple that I could toss together a simple example over an afternoon if I had any of the resources I had since my junior year of high school, but I wound up not learning about this until the cost of going back was way too large for way too small a benefit and my resources had largely dried up.

So I absolutely agree: you can get a college education by only taking courses with Dr. Google. Other professional goals, skills, or structure-based needs might be satisfied by college, but there's no point in spending thousands of dollars just for the data in the courses.

Replies from: oooo
comment by oooo · 2013-09-15T03:02:17.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Other professional goals, skills, or structure-based needs might be satisfied by college,

As you pointed out earlier in your response, Internet learning (and LW in particular) could have been particularly useful before attending college. I would go one step further and suggest that attending college and learning from the internet should not be mutually exclusive for those who are interesting in learning and making a potential college social life trade-off.

I currently believe that most students attending college realize that the degree itself is of primary signalling importance, even if they're not able to explicitly articulate why.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-15T11:00:10.771Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would go one step further and suggest that attending college and learning from the internet should not be mutually exclusive for those who are interesting in learning and making a potential college social life trade-off.

I don't think that college is ideal for social life. If you go to meetups you can meet like minded people whether or not you are in college.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-09-15T13:21:00.491Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps relevant to this thread: I wrote up a sequence on decision analysis which parellels the semester-long graduate course on decision analysis I took fairly closely.

I do think reading the sequences is a decent at creating an intellectual foundation that works, which is what most students probably want out of an introduction to philosophy class, but most introduction to philosophy classes train students to recognize historical philosophical positions, which reading the sequences does not do.

I'm finding it difficult to compare LW to math/physics/compsci classes I've taken, with the exception of probability classes, where I think I've gotten more from working through the math than discussing Bayesianism. I think I've enjoyed time on LW more than any of the 'soft' classes I've taken, with perhaps one exception (a class entitled Alternatives to Violence taught by Colman McCarthy).

I imagine that reading LW might represent more knowledge than a business degree, but by "reading LW" I mean both reading LW and reading LW recommended books, like The Personal MBA (whose author posts here) and recommendations from this thread. (Implicit here is that part of reading LW and being active on LW is following the trails you find on LW; I think much of the value that gwern adds to LW is done on his personal site, and Yvain posts mostly offsite these days, and so on. LW seems good at sorting information, which is a rather valuable service.)

comment by Costanza · 2013-09-15T01:37:52.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may be that the benefit of LessWrong skews towards autodidacts -- after all, EY himself famously is self-taught. With that said, I'd say hell yeah a studious reading of LessWrong can teach you more than a "typical core college class." Sorry to say a typical core college class is far less than it should be. There are a few excellent teachers of core classes out there, but the academic system just is not set up to provide proper incentives for introductory undergraduate teaching.

I'd agree with your exception for technical classes such as general chemistry, not closely related to the core mission of LessWrong. However, if you choose to get involved in computer science related discussions on this forum, you had better punch your weight.

A second related question is whether there's a possibility of building a college course -- or college-like course, perhaps a MOOC -- specifically revolving around mastery of the content in LessWrong (perhaps starting with the Sequences).

Aha, mastery is the question, isn't it? I have no full answer for that. I hope some other LessWrongers will have.

With that said, the stupid questions forum is potentially better for specific questions than you could get from most graduate student tutors.

Replies from: oooo
comment by oooo · 2013-09-15T03:06:07.200Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aha, mastery is the question, isn't it? I have no full answer for that.

Does the OP really mean mastery or setting one on the path to mastery? Perhaps a series of MOOC-like college courses would be more appropriate to gradually introduce and incrementally advance one's demonstrated understanding of LW content over time (and multiple courses).

Perhaps a parallel for the syllabus and starting point of a MOOC style would be Coursera's Critical Thinking or How To Argue courses.

comment by kalium · 2013-09-20T01:09:55.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might help if we had any idea what kind of "human capital" the OP is trying to build here. Rigorous thought? Writing practice? Useful knowledge? Knowledge with which to impress others?

comment by Solvent · 2013-09-16T05:06:32.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a computer science student. I did a course on information theory, and I'm currently doing a course on Universal AI (taught by Marcus Hutter himself!). I've found both of these courses far easier as a result of already having a strong intuition for the topics, thanks to seeing them discussed on LW in a qualitative way.

For example, Bayes' theorem, Shannon entropy, Kolmogorov complexity, sequential decision theory, and AIXI are all topics which I feel I've understood far better thanks to reading LW.

LW also inspired me to read a lot of philosophy. AFAICT, I know about as much philosophy as a second or third year philosophy student at my university, and I'm better at thinking about it than most of them are, thanks to the fantastic experience of reading and participating in discussion here. So that counts as useful.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-09-15T13:35:11.332Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A second related question is whether there's a possibility of building a college course -- or college-like course, perhaps a MOOC -- specifically revolving around mastery of the content in LessWrong (perhaps starting with the Sequences).

There has been at least one comment and at least one post on it before, so it appears there is active interest.

Would such a college course be possible to design in principle? How would such a college course compare with core requirements for undergraduates today?

Yes. See also Course recommendations for Friendliness researchers, Help Reform A Philosophy Curriculum and Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant.