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
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.