Is ultralearning the new method of learning? Can anyone do it? How effective is it? What is it, exactly?
The author, Scott Young, begins the book with a bang. He essentially completed the equivalent of an MIT engineering degree in one year, using ultralearning strategy. The book also describes his other experiences, such as learning four languages, in a year, as well as numerous stories of other friends and acquaintances that have learned in this unique manner. This includes Roger Craig of Jeopardy! fame and Eric Barone, who spent five years of his life creating a computer game called Stardew Valley entirely on his own. It sold over 10 million copies and he is now a multimillionaire. Of course, not all ultralearners achieve fame and fortune, but many achieve their goals of learning something new in an accelerated and intensive way.
So what is ultralearning? It is an rigorous self-directed strategy of learning. Right away this should tell you that it is not for the faint of heart. But it may be something that will continue to gain momentum for several reasons. First, Tyler Cowen, in his Average is over book, talks about "skill polarization," where only the top and bottom of the income spectrum is remaining, so more specialized, advanced skills are needed to succeed in this society. (Unless you want to be in the bottom layer.) As post-secondary education costs skyrocket, unless you need a required professional degree, this learning strategy is a cheap alternative. Finally, technology and endless resources allow for self-directed learning to soar to new heights.
Young discusses nine principles to ultralearning:
Principal #1: Metalearning; First Draw a Map
First, answer the 3 W(H)s. Why? Is your project instrumental (extrinsic) or intrinsic? For instrumental reasons, you'll need to do extra research. Find an expert and get advice. What? Get a piece of paper and write down Concepts, Facts, Procedures. How? Use benchmarking to compare what you want to learn with existing programs. Then you can Emphasize/Exclude elements that you need to achieve your goal. Spend about 5-10% of your time planning (this is essential).
Principal #2: Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
Problem #1: Failing to get started (procrastinating)
First find out why you're procrastinating. The main solution is to start! Five minutes, and later the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes, then 5 minute break.
Problem #2: Failing to sustain focus (Getting Distracted)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the flow concept, that sweet spot of an activity--not too hard or too easy. K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist behind deliberate practice, said flow did not occur during deliberate practice. Young feels that during ultralearning, you may or may not be in the flow state, but that is not of importance. Chunks of about 50 minutes are ideal for learning, if possible. Try to eliminate the distractions of the environment, task and mind.
Problem #3: Failing to create the right kind of focus
High arousal (energy, alertness) is good for simple tasks or intense concentration activities. These can be done in a slightly noiser setting, such as a coffee shop. Complex tasks (solving math problems or writing essays) require a more relaxed kind of focus. A quiet room is a good place to focus.
Principal #3: Directness: Go Straight Ahead
Directness is tying the learning as closely to the actual situation or context you want to use it in. He gave the example of a recent architectural graduate, Vatsal Jaiswal, whose program focused mostly on design and theory. After submitting hundreds of resumes with zero interest, Jaiswal decided to learn about two things: Revit (a current design software) and knowledge of architectural drawings. He then designed his own building using his newfound knowledge and skills. After applying to just two firms with his new portfolio, he was offered both jobs.
Educational psychology deals with the idea of transfer, and its failings. Psychologist Robert Haskell says that the research has shown that transfer of learning has been minimal at best. For example, college students who have taken a high school psychology course do no better than those who haven't take a course.
Here are some possible solutions:
Tactic #1: Project-based Learning
At the end of your project, you will have something to show for it. As well, a number of other subskills will be gained during the process.
Tactic #2: Immersive Learning
When possible, try to seek the environment or situation of the desired goal. If you are learning a language, then speak the language only in that location or with native speakers.
Tactic #3: The Flight Simulator Method
Of course, when the actual experience is impossible, then a simulation is fine. So Skype tutoring is better than flash cards.
Tactic #4: The Overkill Approach
Try to increase your directness by increasing your challenge. That means more risk-taking and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. But if you can overcome your fears and anxieties you will achieve more much that much quicker.
Principal #4: Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Young highlights the rate-determining step, the "bottleneck" in the learning process. For example, in language learning, if you can increase your vocabulary dramatically, then your ability to speak with your existing language skills expands greatly. This is where drills come in. You can simplify a skill enough to focus your cognitive resources in one area.
Direct-Then-Drill Approach: First practice the skill directly; for example, learning programming by writing software. Analyze the skill and try to isolate components to improve on and create drills. Finally, go back to direct practice and integrate what you've learned.
Tactics: First, you need to figure out when and what to drill--what would be of most benefit. The key is to experiment, make a hypothesis, do some drills, then get feedback. Second, design the drill to produce improvement and transfer. Finally, remember drills can be hard, so be prepared to work hard and not quit.
Principal #5: Retrieval: Test to Learn
Psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt conducted a study in reading, examining students' choice of learning strategy: 1) review the text once; 2) review it repeatedly; 3) free recall; 4) concept mapping. The clear winner? Free recall (retrieving information without looking at the text), remembering almost 50% more than the other groups. Surprisingly, even when the final test was to produce a concept map, the free recall group performed better.
So if free recall is the best method of retrieval, why isn't it used more? That's because of our judgements of learning (JOLs). If we feel the learning task is easy, we believe we've learned it; on the other hand, the harder it feels, the less we think we know it.
Psychologist R.A. Bjork talks about the concept of desirable difficulty. Free recall tests tend to result in better retention than cued recall tests (multiple-choice). Giving a test immediately after learning is less effective than delaying a bit. However, too long of a wait results in information being completely forgotten. Also, testing more difficult material before you are "ready" is more efficient. Even giving the final exam (a pre-test) has benefits, known as the forward-testing effect. The analogy is that of laying down a road leading to a building that has yet to be built. The mechanism could also be of attention. Your mind uses its attentional resources to spot information you learn later on.
Methods of Recall:
Principal #6: Feedback: Don't Dodge the Punches
Why does famous comedian Chris Rock perform at the modest Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, NY, from time to time? He wants honest, sometimes brutal feedback--an essential component of ultralearning.
Feedback can be a tricky thing. In a large meta-analysis, Avraham Kluger and Angelo DeNisi found that although the overall effect of feedback was positive, over 38% was negative.
There are three types of feedback: 1) outcome: an aggregate or broad-scale form, like a letter grade; 2) informational: this explains what's going wrong but not how to fix it, like an error message in coding; 3) corrective: this is the best form and it comes from a coach, mentor or teacher who can pinpoint mistakes and correct them.
How quick should feedback be? According to James A. Kulik and Chen-Lin C. Kulik, in applied studies, immediate feedback in usually more effective than delay. Yet in lab studies, delaying the correct response was more effective.
Tactics to improve feedback:
Principal #7: Retention: Don't Fill a Leaky Bucket
Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the forgetting curve, an exponential decay in knowledge especially right after learning. The reasons why: 1) time: memories decay with time; 2) interference: overwriting old with new memories; 3) forgotten cues: memories are inaccessible.
Memory mechanism #1: Spacing: Find a perfect gap between learning sessions. Spaced-repetition systems (SRS) are tools to help. Both tech and paper tools work.
Memory mechanism #2: Proceduralization: declarative skills become procedural often, so emphasize a core set of reusable information that have longer lasting effects
Memory mechanism #3: Overlearning: if you study and learn beyond the adequate, you can remember it for a longer period of time. Personally, that's probably why I still remember by multiplication facts instantly even after 4 decades or more.
Memory mechanism #5: Mnemonics: overall, they are rigid and specific but powerful tools that work as intermediaries to memory, but not a strong foundation to base learning efforts on
Principal #8: Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
Rule 1: Don't Give up on Hard Problems Easily: Push yourself even beyond frustration. Even if you fail, you'll more likely remember how to get to the solution when you find it.
Rule 2: Prove things to understand them: Rebecca Lawson talks about the "illusion of explanatory depth." People think they know more than they do. For example, most couldn't draw a bicycle properly or explain how it worked.
Rule 3: Always start with a concrete example: We go from concrete to abstract. Also, how we think about something is more important than how much time we spend. This is known as the levels-of -processing effect.
Rule 4: Don't fool yourself: The Dunning-Druger effect is when a person believes he or she knows more than experts.
Principal #9: Experimentation: Explore outside your comfort zone
Vincent van Gogh was not a child prodigy and suddenly start painting sunflowers and stars. In fact, he started late, 26, and tried countless styles, resources and techniques. The lesson learned is that experimentation is critical for ultralearning. Scott considers experimentation as an extension of the growth mindset, a concept from psychologist Carol Dweck. Experimentation creates a plan to reach those potential opportunities.
All in all, I think ultralearning has its place, particularly in non-school settings, with motivated and self-directed learners, although there are definitely a number of strategies and techniques that could be applied in any educational setting. The only way to know for certain how effective it is for you, of course, is to try it.
Source: Ultralearning, Scott H. Young, 2019
This entry will focus on how to improve memory. But first, we need to know why we forget: 1) not interested 2) not concentrating; 3) too stressed; 4) too much information; 5) poorly organized information; 6) weak links; 7) too long ago; 8) interference.
The brain operated at different frequencies in its four levels of consciousness: 1) beta (awake); 2) alpha (relaxed but alert); 3) theta (meditative/falling asleep); 4) delta (deep sleep). The alpha state is the best for learning.
Generally you only recall about 20% of new information within one or two days of learning it, because of all similar existing overlaid information. This is known as the confusion factor.
Stress is hazardous to our memory. First, it shuts down part of the brain responsible for long-term memory. Second, after an extended period of time, it can actually destroy brain cells related to memory.
How do you remember where you put your keys? Say it out loud. "I'm putting my keys in my jacket pocket." It brings it from subconscious to conscious awareness. Make it a habit!
How can we remember better? Think of Pavlov's dogs and the conditioning with the bell and food. We just need a powerful reminder, using the mnemonic REMIND. 1) Review what to do and visualize it clearly; 2) Exaggerate the picture of the trigger event. the more bizarre the better. 3) Maximize the recall power of the image with senses and memory visualization. 4) Install the link by repeating the association. 5) Note whether the trigger works or not. 6) Deepen the power by affirming it will work.
Source: Instant Recall, Michael Tipper, 2018
Sometimes doing nothing is actually doing something--something good for your memory, that is. New research suggests that when trying to memorize new information, taking a break, dimming the lights and sitting quietly can reap benefits. This is known as reduced interference.
Of course, this is actually nothing new. In 1900, German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker conducted experiments on memory consolidation. When studying meaningless syllables, half the group was given a six-minute break. When tested 2.5 hours later, the group with the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to 28% for the group with no break.
In the early 2000s, a study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri. They followed Muller and Pilzecker's original study, but with a 10 minute break, and the participants with neurological injury (eg. stroke) improved from 14 to 49%, similar to healthy people. More impressive results came with listening to stories and answering questions. Without rest, they could only recall 7% of the facts; with rest, this jumped to 79% recall.
The process is not yet known, but generally memories, after encoding, are consolidated into long-term memory. This seems to occur during sleep, as communication between the hippocampus and the cortex build and strengthen the new neural connections for later recall. Perhaps surprisingly, Lila Davachi at New York University, in 2010, found similar neural activity during periods of wakeful rest, just lying down and letting your mind wander.
In terms of education, this could mean the difference between rapidly switching from once subject to the next, and giving students a five-minute break just to sit and contemplate and reflect on their learning (with dimmed lights), of course.
Source: David Robson, BBC Future, February 11, 2018
Examples of Working Memories Difficulties
Reduce Memory Load
Source: CanLearn Society - www.canlearnsociety.ca ©2013
Willingham's cognitive principle is that factual knowledge must precede skill. The current mode of thinking nowadays is that only critical thinking is necessary and the actual content, information, or knowledge is merely interchangeable; after all, one can do an Internet search and find information on any topic in seconds. However, thinking processes are intertwined with knowledge, perhaps surprisingly.
READING COMPREHENSION REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
One study shows that even poor readers with high background knowledge of the reading understood the text better than good readers with low knowledge. Background information allows chunking (grouping of information), which allows your working memory to have more space to connect ideas and thoughts, leading to better comprehension.
Four ways background knowledge aids comprehension:
The "fourth-grade slump" is a phenomenon that hits underprivileged homes. Up to grade three, most students are good decoders, but reading comprehension becomes increasing important in grade 4 and up. Because comprehension is dependent on background knowledge, privileged kids come to school with more knowledge about the world and a larger vocabulary.
COGNITIVE SKILLS REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
Thinking critically or logically often comes from what you know. To solve a problem, you first check your long-term memory to see if your solution already lies there. Think of the world's best chess players; it's not necessarily their reasoning or planning skills but rather their recall of board positions. They may have up to 50000 board game positions in their long-term memory! This goes for chefs, who can look at a kitchen pantry and whip up a delicious meal quickly, while regular folks may end up scratching their heads and end up making macaroni and cheese. In class, someone who has memorized the times tables will be able to solve a problem requiring that information faster than someone who has to figure it out by counting. This saves a lot of room in working memory to solve the rest of the problem.
Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Willingham hopes you realize that actually knowledge is necessary for imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.
Source: Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham, Daniel T., 2009.
Language-processing problems constitute the largest proportion of learning disabilities. These include hearing sounds and words, understanding meaning, remembering verbal content, and communicating clearly.
The following are just a few examples:
Speech and Language Comprehension
Students tend to process information more slowly than usual. Sometimes teachers move on when they feel a response is not forthcoming. Often these students may be considered unmotivated or lazy. Also, language-processing disabilities affect their thinking. Language (words) are necessary to name people, places and things. Social development is influenced with this disability as they struggle with speaking, so they become fearful, shy and withdrawn; some deal in the opposite manner and become bullies. Others prefer to spend time with younger kids, using simpler language.
Word usage and comprehension is found in the left cerebral cortex. Inefficient neural "networking" can also result in processing issues. Some areas are underworked while others are handling too much. There also appears to be a genetic or heredity link with family members, as well.
The best way to intervene is with early recognition and appropriate and intense instruction. Special education is essential. They can use audio materials or simplified texts to handle the information overload. Extra time is often needed for tests and assignments. Test questions may need to be read to them. Teachers may need to speak slower and with simpler one-step instructions. Technology can assist in many ways with reading texts aloud, dictation, voice-to-text recognition, along with spelling and grammar checking.
Despite reading, writing or verbal problems, students with this language-processing disability can end up achieving amazing things, especially in professions that do not rely on advanced language skills: medical technology, architecture, finance, photography, engineering, mechanics, TV production, fine arts and computer programming, to name a few. The key thing is to maintain understanding and encouragement in order to maintain their self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning.
Source: Learning Disabilities: A to Z; Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 2010
Most of us have heard the analogy that our brain is a thinking machine. But, according to Willingham, our brains are not really designed for thinking, because it is slow and unreliable, and requires much effort. In fact, your brain uses most of its processing power to see things and to move around physically. Nonetheless, the good news is that people are curious, as long as the problem is not too easy or too difficult--the Goldilocks special.
So how do we manage to get through life if we don't think well? Essentially, we rely on our memories. Once we've figured out how to do something once (or twice), then we rely on our memory system to recall that piece of information, so that our brains don't have to work hard and figure it out again. For example, when driving a car, you don't have to relearn how to press the accelerator, apply the right amount of pressure on the brakes for stopping, shifting gears, checking for cars on the side, and much more. All those discrete steps are memorized and now recalled perfectly and efficiently. That explains why travelling to a country with a different language and culture is so tiring: you have to relearn all of the simple rules and customs of that particular place.
How does thinking work in basic terms? There are four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any of these is lacking, then thinking will likely fail.
Therefore, one of the reasons why students don't like school is because the tasks and problems they face are either too easy or too difficult, or the thinking required to solve them breaks down in one of the four key areas. So what can be done to alleviate this conundrum?
Have solvable problems: Make sure students have a variety of cognitive work during the day that pose moderate challenge. Are there cognitive breaks? Consider their suitability.
Respect Students' Cognitive Limits: Do students have the necessary background information to solve the mental challenge? If not, prepare them accordingly. Also, don't overload their working memory. Slow the pace and use memory aids, such as writing on the board.
Clarify the Problems: It's difficult for any problem to be "relevant" to an entire group of diverse learners with unique interests. When planning a lesson, start with the information you want students to learn. Then prepare key questions at the right level of difficulty to engage your students and respect their cognitive limitations.
When to Puzzle Students: Do we start with a thought-provoking question, or conduct an interesting demonstration or present a fact? Which is more effective? Sometimes a startling experiment can capture students' attention, but without the proper background information, the temporary thrill will be akin to a magic trick.
Student variance and differentiation: Because students come to class with varying levels of preparedness, understanding, motivation, it is best to assign work that best suits their current level of readiness.
Change the Pace: If you feel you're losing the attention or interest of the learners, then switch gears, change topics, start a new activity or find out what they are having difficulty with, or if it is too easy.
Keep a Diary: As a teacher to improve professionally, it's important to keep track to successes and failures, in order to build up a library of best practices. What worked best for the students? What failed miserably?
Source: Why don't Students like school? Daniel T. Willingham, 2009
Nicolas Carr wrote a fabulous essay in the Atlantic in 2008, which is still, or even more, relevant today. It was entitled, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" Having access to the "world's information at your fingertips" at first glance seems like a great idea--the more you know and all that good stuff.
However, media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted in the 1960s that the "medium is the message." The internet is beginning to change how we think, simply because of its addictive, hyperlink structure. Although it may be a boon for a writer or researcher--being able to find resources, quotes, facts in seconds--as a reader, it sends people on wild (but often fun) goose chases all over a virtual landscape.
Scholars at University College London conducted a five-year research program and found that people using the British Library and a U.K. educational consortium of journals, ebooks and other resources, found most people only read a page or two before jumping to another resource. They were skimming or "power browsing," seemingly trying to find quick answers to their questions.
Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, described our internet reading
style as efficient and immediate; people are now "mere decoders of information." Deep reading that creates rich mental connections are nowhere to be found.
What's powerful about the medium of the internet, a computer system, is its all-consuming nature. It has swallowed up all the old technologies and reshaped and reformed them in its unique image: it is now a map, clock, printing press, typewriter, calculator, phone, radio and TV, according to Carr.
Interestingly enough, even Socrates (in Plato's Phaedrus) bemoaned the development of writing. He worried that the information that previously was stored in their heads would now remain only in written form. People would "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful." Although some of his fears were founded, other wonderful benefits, such as expanding human knowledge and spreading ideas, made up for that loss. Similarly, the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century brought along similar concerns: books would lead to intellectual laziness and weaken their minds, as well as "undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery." Of course, much of that did come to pass, but as did a myriad of benefits to society.
So in the end, are fears concerning the internet as unfounded as writing or the printing press? Perhaps. But Carr warns us, using Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, by saying that as we rely more on computers to understand the world, the more our intelligence becomes more robotic and artificial. Our humanity may be at stake the more we strive to achieve this superior or artificial intelligence. And wouldn't you know it, Larry Page told scientists at a convention that Google is "really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale."
Source: Utopia is Creepy and other Provocations, Nicolas Carr, 2016
Erratic working memory and a faulty attention system (impaired executive functions) leads to procrastination. Think of working memory like RAM in a computer; without enough RAM, the brain forgets what it was working on, and moves onto the next task at hand.
People with ADHD also have the uncanny propensity to forget or suppress their goals or important activities they need to complete and instead spend time on trivial tasks, even when they know the consequences of failure in these more critical tasks.
Yet, people with ADHD also "benefit" from procrastination, though probably in somewhat unhealthy ways. When they reach a point of "do-or-die," then a couple of things happen: cortisol (stress response and stress hormone) and dopamine (neurotransmitter of attention system) activate in the body. Suddenly, the frontal cortex is "turned on" and RAM and executive functions begin to work normally. Then these individuals are able to focus their effort and attention on the task at hand.
Therefore, as painful as procrastination can be, people with ADHD still feel they are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute, which continues this cycle of procrastination.
Source: The Disorganized Mind, Nancy A. Ratey, 2008
Learning takes effort. The harder it is (usually), the better you remember and learn. A classic example is how many major tests are often structured: first, true and false; next, multiple-choice; then comes short answer; finally, there's the long-answer or essay question. The key is generation. If your choices are already there in front of you, as in the case of T/F or multiple-choice, there is very little effort and no generation of the solution. However, short- or long-answer questions require retrieval and memory pathways are strengthened as the problem is being worked out.
Another method in improving learning involves reflection. It only requires a few minutes of review after an experience or lesson. The cognitive activities involved are retrieval (recalling knowledge), elaboration (connecting new knowledge to previous), and generation (using own words to understand key concepts).
Source: Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.