Software and Computer Engineering

Notes on Self-Directed Learning

The goal of studying is often to fulfill some external demand: We might study to do well on a test, to pass an admission exam, to be granted a certification, and so on. Thus, when this artificial mechanism is lifted, we are often left aimless and, more often than not, stop studying.

Self-directed learning requires studying for it's own sake, and for the sake of curiosity and enjoyment. The rewards should be intrinsic: deepening one's own understanding about the world and expanding one's knowledge boundary. These will never cease, leading to life-long learning.

To this goal, it's important to note that learning is necessarily an active process. The “learner” is the one doing the learning, not the “teacher”, nor the material. In that context, studying is less about consuming the material and more about critically engaging with it: raising questions in one's mind, seeking for answers for those, and trying to understand where and why one's own knowledge differs from what is being presented.

Be aware that re-reading multiple times the material does not lead to active learning. Although re-reading does increases one's sense of familiarity with the material and lowers the feeling of friction, it does not necessarily improve either the retention nor the level of understanding. The same goes for passively listening, copying passages verbatim and highlighting sentences on a printed material: all of those are low-value passive activities.

The most helpful tool for learning is one we already know and dread: testing. Self-testing might be tough and draining, but it's the real assessment of whether we did understand or can recall at all the piece of material we've just consumed. Self-testing is high-value effort, and it often helps by identifying one's own gaps in knowledge.

The practice of self-testing goes like this: After you have just read a chapter or chunk of material, ask yourself questions like: “What was this chapter about?”, “What were the main points?”, “How that relates to what you already know?”. Attempt to answer those questions without looking back at the material. For additional rigor, one can write down the answers, instead of doing it just doing it in one's head.

What I've learned is that often times I can fool myself into believing that that I have understood a material, but then during self-testing I would realize that I am incapable of articulating what it is about. The goal of self-testing -- instead of re-reading -- is to make it harder for one to fool oneself into falsely believing one has understood and retained the material.