How do you establish a comfort zone in your studies?

post by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2021-06-09T17:01:26.242Z · LW · GW · 7 comments

This is a question post.

Learning a new topic takes you outside your intellectual comfort zone. Extrapolating from the spacing effect, the practice of overlearning a chunk of new material is an inefficient way to build memory. I notice, however, that overlearning feels comforting. It seems to establish a comfort zone in the new material. It makes me feel more confident that I've learned something new, like the material is becoming a part of me. And when I review the earlier material, I can approach the new material that builds on it with greater ease.

If you approach study with the idea that it's all about efficiently building a memory for the material, you might neglect the motivational aspects of study. What do you do to establish a comfort zone in your studies? Do you find that sense of a "comfort zone" motivating? What else do you do to enhance your motivation and engagement with your studies, even if it's not strictly optimal in the short term for building new memories?


answer by nim · 2021-06-09T19:06:56.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't claim that my study process is anywhere near perfect, but I find that I have the easiest time studying for particular projects rather than just for its own sake. Watching things I learn contribute to progress on my understanding of the task that I concretely care about it a highly effective reinforcement of the study behaviors.

comment by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2021-06-09T20:35:59.235Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Makes perfect sense! Going into scientific research, there's often kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. You know that knowing biochemistry, differential equations, immunology etc. would be useful somehow, eventually, if you became familiar with these subjects. You do have a general interest in these topics, since they're directly relevant to becoming, say, a biologist. But most of your learning along the way won't be directly related to a project that directly has real, applied value to your own life or the lives of others. That comes later. So figuring out how to enjoy the studying you must do before you're able to work on practical projects seems useful. That's mainly what I'm wondering about here.

Thanks for your thoughts on the motivational role of practical projects!

Replies from: nim
comment by nim · 2021-06-12T15:50:34.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You highlight a difference that relates to why I don't feel like I do my best work in academia. I think an overarching project -- "I want to learn enough biology to cure cancer" or "I want to learn enough electrical engineering to design audio equipment" or even "I want to learn enough marketable skills to make a truckload of money" can turn academics into project-aligned work.

However, looking for one's personal project or motivation for being in academia and finding only "well I guess people praised me when I said I wanted to be a scientist" or similarly uncompelling motives can be dangerously demotivating.

answer by Selueen · 2021-06-09T17:57:15.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be inefficient for pure memorization, but maybe it can help you form more accurate maps, which is more valuable in itself.
But is it the best way to help you form higher level concepts and practise more zoomed-out perspective? Is it the best way to understand things rather than just memorize them? I'm not sure.

I suspect it's better to look for other approaches - practical applications of newly acquired knowledge, ways to test your understanding, trying to see if you understand all the implications, maybe looking for alternative explanations, or different representations of these explanations,. 

I know quite a few examples of people, often much smarter than me, that struggled with conventional ways to explain some concept, only to get it instantly once they some some alternative explanation.
I do not have good psychological explanation for this, unfortunately. I've been only taught bad ones when I've studied psychology in University (I mean, practically disproved by now). Another reason to avoid putting too much weight in memorization, I guess.

comment by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2021-06-09T18:14:55.716Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good thoughts. I agree that having a convenient practical application is very nice. Programming is lovely, because even a complete novice can make things that feel interesting to them with just a few pieces of basic knowledge.

By contrast, there's a fair bit of precursor knowledge required to figure out how to apply, say, differential equations to a biological modeling problem. Even though chemistry is in theory practical, the danger, regulation, and expense of setting up a laboratory to mess around in makes practical projects a less appealing way to learn (though it's perhaps counterbalanced by other factors like the hands-on aspect).

The problem I'm focusing on here is less about the difficulty of wrapping your head around a concept and ultimately committing them to memory, and more about motivating yourself to keep on trying.

For example, if you're reading a math textbook, you might find it difficult to understand. That's one problem. But you might also find it relatively easy to understand, yet find yourself getting distracted, losing focus, feeling stressed, or just not feeling like studying it.

My theory here is that in those cases, it's common for people to think that the reason they're feeling that way is that it's "too hard," or that they're "not smart enough." My guess is that for many, the reason is that math is a Jenga Tower topic [LW · GW] and they haven't spent enough time establishing a comfort zone with the basics.

They could, in theory, keep pressing forward, just reviewing old concepts when those old concepts are explicitly referenced in the new material. But that may produce two kinds of experiences: an experience of "I can't believe I've forgotten this already," and an experience of "I don't understand this new stuff," neither of which is pleasant.

As an alternative, if students can press through some new material until they get tired, and then just "swim around," reviewing old material, sort of basking in the experience of what they've just learned, they might find their motivation returning. They start to have two different experiences: an experience of "wow, I've learned a lot already!" and "because of what I've already learned, this new stuff is making pretty good sense!"

If we were just robots who could mechanically force ourselves to do what's optimal for memory-building, then maybe this would be an inefficient approach. But if we think about our studies as having a twin purpose of building memories and building motivation, then this starts to look more attractive.

Replies from: selueen
comment by Selueen (selueen) · 2021-06-09T18:45:56.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand your point, and I for the most part agree. It is important to understand the basics.
What I was trying to say is.. If you did not get the basics from your first attempt to learn those, maybe try to approach them differently.
Look for a different textbook, ask someone who is not your current teacher, maybe look for popular explanation (if you are compltetly lost), or for more technical one (if original was not detailed enough), etc etc.
Try to learn the basics, but switch the approaches if you are stuck.
I feel like it might help with motivation too, as it should be more exciting than plain repetition. 

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2021-06-09T18:56:35.061Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. I think of this as the problem of "source selection." C.f. The Best Textbooks on Every Subject [LW · GW] if you haven't checked that out, though I don't know if I agree with the recommendations or this anecdotal approach to the problem.


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