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How to Learn Something and Really Make It Stick

As part of this data scientist / statistician / mathematician learning path I’m on, I’m having to go back and re-learn a lot of what I learned in high school, particularly in the math realm. I actually was a pretty decent math student, even garnering a 35/36 on the math portion of my ACT, but it’s sad how much of that knowledge I’ve lost in the last decade. There’s naturally going to be some level of attrition with any learning endeavor after a decade of no usage, but the fact that I’m starting back pretty much at square one is, well, irritating.

Irritating, but it makes sense why: my math classes in high school focused on application without understanding the concepts behind that application. For example, I learned how to calculate a z-score, but I never learned why a z-score is helpful in understanding percentiles. I learned how to solve to calculate slope, but I never learned how slope has all sorts of applications in the business world.

Without getting too nerdy, let’s talk about something more of us can relate to: operating a motor vehicle. It’s going to sound stupid, but we all know the basic concepts behind motor vehicles. We use them to get from point A to point B. We understand that braking is important so that we don’t hit pedestrians or tiny animals. And we understand that variable speed is important so that we don’t take a corner too hard and risk rolling the vehicle. (Or, for you speed demons out there, risk getting pulled over by the cops.)

I use the term “motor vehicle” on purpose because that can take several forms, and those forms operate differently. In a typical car, we know that braking means pressing on the brake pedal with your foot and steering is done with a wheel. But that’s not the case with a motorcycle, where steering is done pulling the handlebars in one way and braking is likewise done with a hand-based grip.

A few months ago, my dad took me out on his ATVs (four wheelers) for a fun trip through some backwoods trails. It was my first time on an ATV, but knowing the general purpose of motor vehicles, I knew what questions I needed to ask: How do I accelerate? How do I brake? Steering was easy because it was just like understanding how a bicycle or motorcycle steers.

Imagine this, however… what if somebody taught me how to drive a car… but without ever telling me why I’d want to drive a car? I know, weird to think about. What it would end up being is rote memorization for a text-based test without ever stepping foot behind a wheel. If I didn’t understand why you’d want to drive a car, would I ever stand a chance understanding both why AND how to drive an ATV?

But this is what happens on a regular basis with most learning. I pick on public high schools a lot, but it happens even amongst deeper certifications I’ve completed. Take my Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) certification, for example. I passed all the mandated tests in a record 3 months, and people are often baffled at how I did it. The reason people struggle with these tests is NOT because they are necessarily difficult but that they go into them trying to memorize the answers without ever understanding why those answers make conceptual sense. (Side plug: I’ve written a wholly separate post just on this that you can find here.)

So, there are two primary reasons why understanding the conceptual is pivotal to learning. We already hit on the first piece that basically promotes information retention. It’s a lot easier to remember HOW to do something if you understand WHY you want to do it.

The second piece might be more important, and I guess we sort of touched on it already, too. If you recall back to me learning how to ride an ATV, I noted that I already knew how to steer because of how conceptually (and practically) similar it is to steering a bike or motorcycle. That said, when you understand the concept of something, your brain intuits ways to apply that to areas you’ve never previously experienced.

This has made a world of difference for me in my current learning path. Where I would have spent time before memorizing how to apply specific math concepts, I’ve often found myself skipping certain lessons entirely because I’m able to intuit for myself how to stack together fundamental concepts into more advanced applications. It’s been simultaneously rewarding and very time saving. And you, my friend, benefit from that time saved in that I maintain time to write posts like this!

And, ya know… this path has been interesting. I began it largely with a “become a data scientist” flavor, but it’s since evolved quite a bit. For practical purposes, I am going to continue down this path, but I’m already exploring things beyond for personal reasons. When this path is “over,” I’m already looking at what it might take to learn about quantum mechanics, largely because I would love to discover (or uncover) some link between my world of faith to the world that is. And who knows, maybe that’ll lead me nowhere. Or maybe I’ll be the next Einstein.

(Lol, okay, let’s not get TOO ahead of myself.)

But I mention that for one final point: you never know how learning may lead you to a new passion for something you’d never have considered before.

That’s it for this post. Hope I gave you some juicy bits to mull over! See you next week.

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