The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult

The curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

A fascinating and, let's be honest, an inseparable part of human nature is attributing to oneself mainly positive qualities, i.e. egocentric bias.

Egocentric bias - a tendency to explain the consequences of one's own behavior in such a way as to increase positive and reduce negative significance for one's self-esteem.

And maybe I am slightly prejudiced because of my interest in memory, but it seems to me that nowhere else is it as visible as in the work we do.

How many times have you met a doctor, IT specialist, or even a chef who said he was average or mediocre? That's right. It doesn't happen often.

The truth is, there are very few real experts. Not that people are lazy or lacking in intelligence.

All because of the phenomenon I call ... * sinister background music *


THE CURSE OF THE HAMSTER WHEEL OF KNOWLEDGE



What is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge?


Before proceeding to clarify the nature of the curse itself, it is worth starting with a reminder of what the Pareto principle is.


The Pareto principle



The Pareto principle says that statistically, in many areas of life, 20% of the potential causes are associated with 80% of the results.

This does not mean, of course, that the ratio is always 20/80. Sometimes it will be 10/90 or 30/70.

The most important conclusion, however, is that most often a relatively small group of variables will be responsible for most of the results.

How does this relate to the work we do?


The Pareto principle for work


By transposing the above rule onto professional soil, it is not difficult to notice that in any profession there are a limited number of tasks or problems that will dominate the workload.


Knowledge Pyramid


The next step that will help you understand the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge is to look at the knowledge pyramid.



Although it is sometimes criticized for lack of precision, this pyramid still shows one important thing: active learning, such as performing activities, guarantees much more effective assimilation of information.

In other words, the information we don't use very quickly fades from our minds.

What's more, the more abstract the information is, the faster we forget it.


Final explanation of the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge



Summarizing the above, we can say that:

  1. 1
    A limited number of problems and tasks fill most of the time in any profession.
  2. 2
    Unused knowledge (especially abstract) quickly leaves our minds.

And this is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge.

Most of us have no idea how to retain a great deal of knowledge in our mind, and thus it is quickly forgotten. At the same time, we do not have to suffer undue consequences for this. The lesser amount of knowledge we have and use is able to address the tasks we face, through repetition caused by the Pareto principle.

Thus, most people are at a level of competence that guarantees no one will kick them in the ass, making them a corporate piñata.

But make no mistake about it - it is the so-called survivable level of competence, which is self-sustaining at most.

However, it is no indicator of sophistication or highly specialized knowledge.



An example of a hamster wheel of knowledge - building muscle mass



Initially, I wanted to Google relevant articles or statistics for this section. However, I found that it would be easier to just relate an anecdote from my own life, which for some reason stuck in my mind.

It was relatively easy for me to notice it because I obsessively remember absolutely everything in every field that interests me, in particular anything related to medicine, nutrition and physiology.

A good friend of mine, during one of our conversations, mentioned that he is considering testosterone supplementation because he is not particularly pleased with the growth rate of his muscle mass.

The training and nutrition plan that he got from his trainer with 15 years of experience can be called a classic.

Lift 3 times a week for power to hit every muscle group 2-3 times, eat 5 meals a day, and ingest a ton of strange supplements that if they had an effect, it was definitely a placebo.


After looking at the whole thing, it turned out that:
  • His basal metabolic rate was poorly calculated and was not further adjusted for his weight loss.
  • The optimal amount of protein needed for muscle mass synthesis had been incorrectly calculated.
  • Before starting training, he was not asked to perform thyroid tests. To be honest, I've never heard a trainer instruct a client in my life, despite the fact that in the event of a thyroid disorder, muscle building and regeneration will be impaired.
  • The coach hasn't recommended measuring baseline testosterone. Most mean nowadays have abysmally low levels of this hormone, and it can be easily increased.
  • Carnosine had been recommended as a supplement, although it is found abundantly in meat which my friend eats in abundance. For example, about 450 g of chicken has 2g of carnosine in it, and 450 g of beef about 1.5g. At the same time, the saturation threshold for carnosine is about 2g. After crossing the threshold, it ceases to be effectively absorbed in the small intestine.
  • It was recommended to take BCAA, or branched chain amino acids. This is all the more strange because it is taught in school that proteins are broken down into amino acids and that proteins of animal origin contain large amounts of branched chain amino acids. In addition, he also took whey protein hydrolyzate, which as a supplement of animal origin is also broken down into amino acids, including large quantities into branched chain amino acids.
  • Etc.

I could go on and on about what else could be done, but I think the above is enough to highlight the following thought:

the moment when you think you know enough is the moment when you condemn yourself to mediocrity.

To become a real expert, you need to constantly expand your knowledge.

Let's discuss the simple ways you can do it.



How to fight the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge


Don't worry. We are not talking about smearing your face with bat guano or sticking dill into your colon during the new moon. I mean, it will certainly not hurt, but it won't be that useful.

The following approach is needed here:


1. Have a system


99% of the people I've ever talked to have absolutely no systematic way of acquiring knowledge.


Most often they work on the principle of throwing wet paper at the wall. If you read or listen to information enough, something will probably stick.

If you give yourself 20 years to be decent in your field of choice, then the above solution is completely rational.

However, if you want to do it much faster, create your own learning system.

By the learning system I mean a fixed way of acquiring new information.

The one I usually recommend is simply downloading a review optimization program (e.g. ANKI) and entering the information you want to remember.


2. Don't stop learning


It doesn't matter how much you already know. It's always worth assuming that you still don't know enough. If you already study regularly, you should not have special problems with this.

If you have trouble with regularity, you can always set an overarching rule that you must stick to every day.

It can be, for example, learning 3 new facts a day.


3. Create a knowledge map


I say it repeatedly: one of the biggest challenges in science is to be aware of what we don't know as accurately as possible.

Although this sounds abstract, it is perfectly logical. Until you know that there is knowledge that you have not yet acquired, you will not be able to access it in any way, nor will you be able to even consider using it to solve a problem.

A good example is an IT specialist who has learned to program in a given language at an intermediate level and has been using the same commands over and over again to solve various kinds of problems.

Although this knowledge level is often sufficient to solve the problem, it is neither optimal nor efficient.

So your goal is to create a long-term knowledge map, i.e. a list of things you need to learn. You can do this even by browsing through appropriate textbooks or courses and systematically acquiring encountered knowledge.


Have you noticed any signs of the hamster wheel of knowledge curse in your immediate surroundings? Let me know in the comments!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 13 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Factors Affecting Word Difficulty I.E., What Kills Your Learning Progress

A list of factors affecting word difficulty

There are many factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to learn and recall them.

No wonder. There are dozens of factor at play here. Unfortunately, typical explanations of what affects these processes are severely lacking. Every time I hear that "you probably don't read enough," I do my best to toss 1 kg of plastic bags into the ocean. Die mermaids, die!

Let's conduct a thorough analysis of the factors that you should take into consideration if you have a hard time learning vocabulary. Some of them will be obvious; others will probably surprise you.


Why words are difficult to remember


As you can imagine, there are lots of elements which you have to take into consideration to fully answer this question. Some of them have marginal meaning and have very little research supporting their validity. 

Others are simply beyond your control. A good example is parts of speech. For instance, research generally shows that they are easier to remember than verbs or adjectives (Philips 1981). They are also encoded in different parts of the brain than verbs

The question is, "Does it matter?" Of course not. You still have to learn both nouns and verbs. The same goes for lexical difficulty.

That's why I am going to focus on the ones which can seriously impair your learning ability.


Factors affecting word difficulty


Factors affecting word difficulty

1. Lack of a learning system

2. Regularity of exposure

3. Timing of repetition

4. Retention intention

5. Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)

6. The usefulness of a word

7. Emotional saliency

8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)

9. Lack of context

10. Number of contexts

11. Active encoding

12. Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)

13. The capacity of your short-term memory

14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)

15. Germane cognitive load

16. German cognitive load (GCL)

17. Mental and physical condition

18. Mental barriers

19. Random variable(s)

Let's discuss them one by one, so you know what potentially impairs your learning speed.


1. Lack of learning system



One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that's an exaggeration, but I assure you it's not.

To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW — University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female. Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

The terrifying thing is that we're not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We're talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.

And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let's-hope-it-sticks strategy. It's nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does.

You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.

If you don't have a set way of dealing with words you want to learn, you will fail 9/10. It doesn't matter how bad your strategy is. As long as you have it, there can be some progress.


2. Regularity of exposure to vocabulary


I am sure you have noticed that immigrants who barely know a language still know basic greetings and vocabulary. The reason for this is simple — they are frequently exposed to such words.

"Memorization becomes more difficult the less often given items occur in your learning environment."

Here is a fantastic study showcasing this phenomenon.

"The study examines word knowledge acquisition at different levels. The results showed that greater gains in knowledge were found for at least one aspect of knowledge each time repetitions increased. If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur." Source: The Effects of Repetition on Vocabulary Knowledge

3. Timing of repetition


We have known for over 100 years now that the timing of your repetitions plays a crucial role in the process of learning. Fail to review a word at the right moment, and your retention rate falls drastically.

This phenomenon is presented by the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. It shows the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.


 the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve


Lucky for you, you don't need to optimize our repetitions manually (e.g., with the Leitner System). You can simply use Spaced Repetition Software.

Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years).

The only program of this kind which I relentlessly promote is ANKI. It's free; it's versatile. What's not to love?


4. Retention intention


A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember. 

This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laser-like attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits. 

In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don't try to memorize the things you don't know.

A vital feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.


5. Pronounceability of vocabulary


In order to learn the phonological form of a new word, you must be able to hold a representation of that word in some form of temporary memory so that the word as a whole can be committed to long-term memory.

This phonological form is called a phonological representation.

"This temporary storage is provided by the phonological store component of the working memory model. Once you learn the basic repertoire of speech sounds in your target language, the process of learning the form of a new word becomes one of learning the order in which those sounds appear. The primary role of the phonological store in learning new words is, therefore, to retain the order of those sounds." Source:  Dennis Norris, Michael P. A. Page, and Jane Hall, ‘Learning nonwords: the Hebb repetition effect as a model of word learning’ 

What happens when your phonological representations are incorrect?

You impair your ability to both recognize and retain new words.

That's why a decent pronunciation is not just something "nice to have." It's an important aspect of acquiring vocabulary.


6. The usefulness of a word


This item ties back to the mistake of not having an intention to memorize something. It frequently happens that people simply refuse mentally to learn a word because of its potential uselessness.


If you don't consider vocabulary you learn to be useful, then you don't really stand a significant chance of memorizing it.


7. Emotional saliency



It's time to tackle the emotional aspect of learning. Even without any fancy scientific references, you already know that it's much easier to remember things which are emotionally important to us.

"Information without emotion isn't retained." Or, as Ezra Pound said it, "Only emotion endures."

The few experiments comparing the effects of the number of meetings (repetitions) with the quality of the meetings suggest that, of the two, quality has the stronger effect (Laufer, in press; Webb, 2005).

In other words, sometimes it's better to build a couple of emotionally salient sentences with a word of your choice rather than settle for a dozen mediocre ones.

Unfortunately, the main problem with relying on this strategy too much is that you cannot make everything emotionally salient. If everything stands out, nothing does.


8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)


Merely knowing the meaning of a lexical item is not enough. You have to understand how to use the target vocabulary in sentence construction (Larrotto 2011).

That's why it's not enough to simply see a flashcard, or a sentence, made by somebody else to be sure how to use a given word in context.

To be able to use this word correctly, you need to:

  • a) be exposed to language
  • b) make the mental linkage between the word and its uses
  • c) be able to verify whether your assumption is correct

One of the prime example of not knowing how to use a word fall into a category of register restrictions.


Register restrictions

Language register can be understood as the level of formality with which you speak. Different circumstances and people require different registers. Sometimes you will use slang, the other time you will be very formal and polite.

Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens point out that:

"The choice of items from the wrong register, and the mixing of items from different registers are among the most frequent mistakes made by non-native speakers of a language" (1964:88) Source: Why are Some Words More Difficult than Others? Some Intralexical Factors that Affect the Learning of Words

9. Lack of context


By themselves, words and sentences have little meaning; often they can be understood only in relation to other words and sentences.

In other words: things get connected to things. Words which are not connected to others mean nothing and get forgotten. Providing words not in isolation but in various contexts creates new opportunities to memorize them. Whenever the same word crops up in a new phrase, it will be fixed in your mind in yet another way. 

What's more, the more contexts you can associate a piece of information with, the easier it is to recall it.

The above can be aptly summarized by The Principle of Associations: 

“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

10. Number of contexts


difficult vocabulary

You already know that no context is terrible for your learning. But is one context enough? Most of the time no.


Lack of multiple contexts can lead to at least one of the three following problems:

  1. 1
    Problems with information transfer

Sometimes if you learn a word in just one or two contexts your brain might not be able to transfer the meaning of the word from one context to another. 

If you learn the word "severe" in the phrase "severe consequences" your brain probably won't be able to use this word in the phrase "a severe headache." In order to overcome this obstacle and "unblock" some word, you need to use it in at least a couple of contexts, so you have a semantic web that holds this information.

  1. 2
    Problems with retrieving
  1. 3
    Problems with memorizing

The last problem is connected with meaningless contexts. Sometimes you try to memorize a word in some phrase, but it simply doesn't work out. The word won't stick even though you have managed to avoid all the other mistakes which I have mentioned previously.

Why is that?

It might happen because your brain might find this one particular context(s) too boring! You have your preferences and tastes, and some phrases won't strike that special chord in your brain.


11. Lack of active encoding


The process of memorizing can be depicted in the four following steps:

  1. 1
    Encoding — involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
  2. 2
    Storage — is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
  3. 3
    Recall — is the retrieval of stored information from memory

As you can see, encoding is a gateway to the land of remembering. 

But what does encoding really mean?

Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.

If you skip this step of learning, you can be sure that memorizing vocabulary will become really difficult. Here are results of some studies showing real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning.


Real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning

Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words. 
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.



12. Morphological awareness


Morphological awareness is explicitly thinking about the smallest units of meaning in language, which are called morphemes. These units include root words that can stand alone as words, prefixes, suffixes, and bound roots, which are roots that must have a prefix or suffix added to become a word.

Morphological awareness is also one of your allies in an uneven fight against mastering a language. It helps you understand why words are constructed in a certain way and remember them better.

In order to fully utilize this concept, you need to become paranoid. Every word, name of every product, movie star, city, dish, or even words themselves should be analyzed.

Most of the time, you will discover that they contain some other words. And it doesn't matter whether that's a pure coincidence or not. What matters is that you found the deeper meaning in words you already know.


13. The capacity of your short-term memory


difficult to learn vocabulary


The main memory limitation every learner has to face is working memory capacity or simply memory span.

Memory span refers to the longest list of items (e.g., digits, letters, words) that a person can repeat back immediately after the presentation in the correct order on 50% of trials. It is limited in terms of chunks.

A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes—thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested.

One interesting conclusion coming from this is that the more languages you know, or the bigger your background knowledge is, the easier it is for you to memorize new words as you can automatically find more meaningful associations for them!

In other words, if you are presented with too much material at the same time, you significantly decrease your chances of remembering a word.


14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)


The Intrinsic Cognitive Load (ICL) is material-dependent, determined by the material's element interactivity. It is commonly understood as the complexity of information.

This complexity depends on the learner's domain-specific prior knowledge (Sweller, 1998). For example, learning single words of a foreign language requires a lower understanding of interacting elements than learning phases of cell division.

The better you are at a certain field of knowledge, the smaller intrinsic cognitive load.


15. Germane cognitive load


This load focuses on all learning-relevant processes which are needed transfer and store information into the long-term memory system.

It is the emotional and mental energy devoted by the individual to the processing of new information presented as part of the learning activity.

In other words, it is connecting that information to the working memory, and imprinting what has been learned into long-term memory.

How do you lower this kind of cognitive load? By having a mental toolbox of effective learning strategies which have been internalized and automated.


16. Extraneous cognitive load (ECL)


The extraneous load (EL) emerges through the design of instructional materials and is directly connected with a decrease in learning-relevant processes.

The extraneous load (EL) is imposed by any form of distractors during learning; hence, this load is often regarded as the ‘unwanted’ or ‘bad’ load.

Hence, every single thing which drives you away from learning is treated as the extraneous cognitive load. Keep in mind that those distractors potentiate one another!

The truth is that those pesky, little things distract us more than we would like to admit.

For example, according to researchers, the mere presence of your smartphone reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive function, even though people believe they are giving a task their full attention and focus. 

Don't forget that attention is the price of admission to the long-term system. If you meed up this step, no learning will ever take place.

What's more, by minimizing the extraneous load, capacity in the working memory can be spared for processing the intrinsic load.

Source: Creating an engaging and stimulating anatomy lecture environment using the Cognitive Load Theory-based Lecture Model: Students' experiences



17. Mental and physical condition


Let's be honest — you can't learn at 100% if you're not feeling at 100%. To improve your learning pace, try to:

  • fix your diet (start with less sugar and processed crap)
  • exercise regularly
  • decrease your stress levels

Of course, sometimes it's difficult to do it right away. Maybe you're experiencing family issues right now, suffering from depression, or taking some medication.

Regardless, keep in mind that these are also factors affecting word difficulty.



18. Mental barriers



Almost everyone can learn a language, and that's a fact. Sure, there are always some exceptions but generally speaking, it's entirely possible with you.

However, our paranoid lizard brain wouldn't be itself if it didn't start infusing your brain with different paranoid thoughts. We are truly experts at undercutting ourselves.

Here are some popular mental barriers which one can use to justify that learning a language is impossible for them:


1. Self-fulfilling prophecy

In short, you are convinced that you are unable to learn and thus you do nothing to learn, and as a result, you don't know anything. Congratulations, you just played yourself.

This category includes self-diversion pearls like: 

"I am too old."
"I don't have time."
"I suffer from social anxiety." (read this to fix this problem)
"I am too stupid."
"Jupiter is in retrogade."
"I am a Scorpio and they are not good at languages." (in this case, take this quiz: how stupid are you?)


2. Lack of psychological safety
In the absence of psychological safety, we fear judgment, reprisal, humiliation, feelings of incompetence, and being unworthy, and may begin to avoid and withdraw from the learning process. Over prolonged periods, this withdrawal also can contribute to burnout and depression (Bynum and Haque 2016).


3. Lack of self-efficacy/growth mindset

Self-efficacy, or the growth mindset, is a common theme often found in the literature; it is the belief in your own ability to achieve learning or performance standards (Bandura, 1991;Latham & Locke, 1991; Sharma & Writer, 2015).

Self-efficacy influences task choice, effort, and persistence, and can also help determine which learning strategies to apply to obtain maximum gain.

Usually, the level of self-efficacy is correlated with goal-setting and achievement:  A student with greater self-efficacy sets higher goals and attains higher levels of achievement Learners with high levels of self-efficacy tend to blame failure on a lack preparation, while those with low self-efficacy tend to blame their lack of ability. Students with low levels of self-efficacy are more prone to allow negative feedback to have a negative influence on their performance and attitudes.


4. Social comparison bias

Spoiler alert! If you keep on comparing yourself to others, you will almost always find somebody better than you. Just don't.


Of course, the list goes on and on, but the examples above should give you a general idea of what to be cautious of.


19. Random variable(s)


A random variable part is an indispensable part of any econometric model. It tries to factor in the unforeseeable into the model's prediction. It might also be used to explain one of the most widespread phenomena in language learning — repeating a word dozens of times and still not being able to acquire it.

Even though this is a really annoying problem, I want to assure you that it's ubiquitous. It also has a perfectly reasonable explanation.


All you need to understand it is a Gaussian function aka "The Bell Curve."


The Bell Curve


Gaussian functions are often used to represent the probability density function of a normally distributed random variable with expected value μ = b and variance σ2 = c2.

What that means is that the bell curve shows you what's the probability of a random variable.

What variables are we talking about?

It can be anything. For example, the variable might take the form of an IQ distribution in society or the size of a biceps among men. Or, in our case, the probability of memorizing a word.

The bell shows you what the chances that a given event will take place are. You can see that most of the time, you won't have problems with memorizing words. The probability of this happening will fall into the 2a range.

However, up to 3% (1a range) of all the words can be treated as outliers. They will either be extremely easy (the right side of the curve) or extremely difficult to memorize (the left side of the curve), and as such, they will require a lot of reviews.

It doesn't matter how much you optimize your learning, this phenomenon will always take place.


Factors affecting word difficulty - the summary


As you have seen, there are lots of factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to remember and recall vocabulary. Effective learning is never about doing one or two things right. It's about combining all the best practices into an efficient learning system. Even then, you can still expect that there will be a small group of words which will be more challenging to memorize. Get used to it.

However, if you have problems with a specific word, I would stay longer with it and analyze it logically — what are its constituents? Is there any logic to it? Can you associate it with something? That should increase your chances of learning this word.

How many of these factors do you incorporate into your learning system? Let me know!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 47  flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Course-Oriented Thinking – Improve Your Knowledge Coherence and Create Potential Products at the Same Time

I love how paradoxical the modern world is. You are just a click away from accessing almost every imaginable piece of information ever created. If you could acquire just some of it, you would be able to dominate almost every possible area of life. However, it seems like there is a glass wall holding you back. You can lick it all you want but you can't get through it.

Why is it so? Why is it so difficult to master even one field of knowledge?

My guess is that most people are notoriously bad at tying information together. What's more, we are also easily overwhelmed by the sea of information. All the facts that we face usually take a form of an impenetrable tangle.

In this article, I would like to show you a way out of this maddening maze. It's not a complete map but it should be enough to help you wrap your head around any discipline. With some time and dedication, of course.

The remedy is a method of mine which I dubbed course-oriented thinking. Not only will it help you to create or consolidate your expertise but it'll also, hopefully, give you lots of ideas on writing a book or a course.


Knowledge coherence - the best predictor of one's expertise

 

Course-oriented thinking - Improve your knowledge coherence and create potential products at the same time

 

Do you know what the biggest predictor of one's expertise is? 

Knowledge coherence, or in other words the way we structure information we acquire. And we suck badly at it.

Why wouldn't we?

Throughout our entire education, everything is served to you on a silver platter. It's always the same dish - the prechewed and predigested informational spaghetti. God forbid that you put more effort into your learning than it's necessary.

And then comes the day when you need to recall and apply all this knowledge. You reach for emptiness. There is nothing there.

Why is that? 

After all, the knowledge presented to you was structured.

What went wrong that you couldn't remember it?

The answer is "Easy come, easy go".

Learning takes effort.

There is no way around it. It doesn't matter how many people you will meet on your path who scream otherwise. You need to put in a lot of effort.

And let's be honest here. If you receive knowledge in a form of a fully digested pulp, you won't know how to use it. You won't understand it either.

The truth is that nobody can structure and organize your knowledge for you.

And this is where course-oriented thinking enters the scene.


Course-oriented thinking - a general overview

 

In the simplest of terms, course-oriented thinking is based on one principle. You should approach every domain you want to master with a single goal in your mind.

You will create a course to teach someone all there is to know about a given subject.

It will be the best damn course in the universe on a given subject which you can sell to others (read more about mastering many fields of science here).

Pay attention to the words I have used.


1.   The best course in the world


It's not going to be any course. It will be the best in the world. No other course will come even close. However,

keep in mind that your course won't be any good in the beginning. Being the best is the end goal. It's a journey.

Initially, it will rather resemble a steaming pile of manure. With time, however, you will turn into your own version of David Statue. The one made of marble, not s**t. I better add it so there is no misunderstanding here.


2.   The most comprehensive course in the world


If you want to go in, go all in. Create a course which will teach you every aspect of your field of choice.


3.   It has to be structured and organized


Keep in mind that the course should be able to teach a complete beginner how to master a given field of science. If you want to teach somebody how to invest, even a retarded, three-headed shrimp which survived a nuclear apocalypse will succeed.

Ask yourself this while working on your project - "How can you make a layman understand what you want to convey?".


4.   You're going to sell it


Course-oriented thinking

 

Another important assumption is that you're going to sell it. Of course, it doesn't really matter whether you do it or not. What matters is that this approach will give you some mental incentive to devote as much attention to it as it's needed.

You wouldn't sell people crap, right? Exactly. This way of thinking should help you keep your focus on the right track.

Another self-evident advantage of this rationale is actually creating something of value. You might be doing it for yourself right now. However, as the time goes by, you might be struck by a curious thought, "Why won't I create an actual course or a book?". And come it will. Trust me.

I still remember my bewilderment in college every time I saw an author publish a book. I couldn't grasp how it's possible to amass such vastness of information, structure it, and package it as a complete product.

The secret seems to be disappointingly easy. You start with a product in your mind and you learn as you create it.


5.   It's going to be YOUR course


If you set off on this journey with an intention of just copying a curriculum of already existing courses, you might as well stop reading right now. The course has to be your creation. Sure, you might borrow different concepts, methods or solutions from other authors in the field, but it has to be yours. Only this way will you be able to fully understand the scope of a given domain. Trust me, knowing how most of the puzzles fit together is amazingly empowering.

It also means that you can add whatever you want to the course. Dollop some funny pictures or a bucketful of ridiculousness on top of each module. Appreciate all those little peccadilloes that only you can bring to the table.

Example:

In my "investing course", I find myself frequently quoting a lot of prominent figures from the investing world. Sometimes one quote is more than enough to help a give rule to sink in.

Here is the one by Warren Buffet which I use on a daily basis:

"The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient."

Sure, I also include some scientific data to back up this idea. However, I don't find it even half as powerful as the aforementioned quote.


Course-oriented thinking - how to structure your course



1.   Tips for rookies


If you are new to some area of expertise, you may find it extremely difficult to create any curriculum. After all, what do you know?

Don't worry. You don't have to do all the heavy lifting on your own. Simply pick up any book, or google an online course which is similar to the one you want to create and copy its rough outline.

I would like to remind you that it's just a place to start. You shouldn't copy everything. Without the effort of creating a schedule, you won't be able to learn nearly as fast.


2.   Tips for old-timers


If you already possess a wealth of knowledge about some domain, you're in a great place. You already did the bulk of work in the past. Now, muster all you know and start structuring it from A to Z.


3. The general advice


Improve your knowledge coherence and create potential products at the same time


Typically, you should structure your course in an old-fashioned way. Break down a domain of your choosing into modules and units.

Remember that you're the structure of your course is not permanent. It's a living organism. The more you know, and the more information you add to it, the more it will change.

Don't get too attached to its current form.


Course-oriented thinking - what are the best information sources?

 

By that point, you should already have a rough curriculum in place. The next important question you have to answer is, "how can I learn more about this"?

Actually, saying it's important would be an understatement. It's absolutely crucial. You don't want to learn from source you don't trust.

I might be old-fashioned but if I wanted to learn more about investing I wouldn't take advice from a pimply teenager who lives in his mom's basement. Especially if he has no previous track record.

Here are some places to start:

Keep in mind that just reading information is not enough. You actually need to memorize it to be able to connect the dots.

Read more about the importance of memorization here: The Magnet Theory – Why Deep Understanding And Problem-Solving Starts With Memorization.


Your mental framework for approaching new information

 


1. Be critical


Don't take facts or information at face value. Pay attention whether the opinions are rooted in anything trustworthy. 

As a rule of thumb, my bullshitometer buzzes like crazy anytime I hear that "there is a study proving ...", or better yet, "everyone knows that ...".

Have you read this study yourself? No, not an abstract, an entire study. If not, remain skeptical. As yet another rule of thumb, anyone quoting documentaries as a source of knowledge, especially about health-related issues should be slapped six feet deep into the ground by the mighty gauntlet of knowledge.

Sometimes I waive this rule temporarily if I respect a given expert enough. However, that's an exception.

I know what you're thinking. It's hard. And I fully agree. Nobody said that forming your own opinion and knowledge is easy.



2. Stay open-minded


Improve your knowledge coherence and create potential products

 

It's confusing, I know. Can you be critical and open-minded at the same time? You can, and you should be.

The principle is best encapsulated by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo.

Strong opinions loosely held

At no point in time will you have a complete picture of a given domain. Hence, you are bound to hear lots of different opinions and theories which might contradict your present knowledge.

Don't discard them just because they don't sound right. Analyze their conclusions. And don’t stop there. Analyze the rationale which led to those conclusions as well.

A great example is a way in which I approach rapid language learning as described in a case study of mine.

After learning and analyzing hundreds of linguistic studies and memory-related books and papers, it wasn't hard to see why a typical approach can't work well. What's more, it wasn't too difficult to see why extensive reading and other passive learning approaches are usually terrible ideas. Yet, a couple of years ago there weren't many people who shared this belief. Luckily, language learning is one of those fields where usually results speak for themselves.


What to do with the contradictory information


If I encounter some evidence which is either flaky or contradictory to what I already know, I still try to place it somewhere in the course. However, I always place an extra note saying "to be verified".

You can choose to copy my methodology or think up some other way to mark uncertain information. Whatever works for you.

Upon doing so, you are left with two choices. You can either set off on a revelatory journey to discover what the truth in this particular case is, or leave it for time being. As you acquire more knowledge, the problem will most probably sort itself out.


The best program to structure your knowledge


In my book, there is only one clear winner - Evernote. It's everything you will ever need to write a book, a course or anything else for that matter.

Of course, I might be biased as I don't know many other programs of this kind.

Evernote makes it very easy to create module and units for every single folder (i.e. your course idea).


Improve your knowledge coherence


Course-oriented thinking - a long-term perspective


If you have ever dreamt of mastering many fields of expertise, course-oriented thinking should also be right up your alley.

Once you read this article, you can download Evernote right away and start creating course outlines for every single domain that interests you.

Will you be able to pursue them all at the same time with smoldering passion? Definitely not.

Will you be able to work on them for years to come until you achieve mastery? Absolutely.

You can think of every field of expertise you want to master as a journey. Maybe you won't make too many steps in the forthcoming months. But you will keep on going and you will keep on getting better.

What's more, the mere awareness of having a course which you can expand should keep your eyes wide open to all the wonderful facts and information you stumble upon.

They all will become a welcome addition to your creation. And as with learning intensely, the more courses you create, the easier it will be to master any other domain.


Examples of practical, long-term courses


CREATE POTENTIAL PRODUCTS


I am pretty sure that you already have a rough idea of which areas of expertise you want to explore. Regardless, I've wanted to show you some examples of the courses I have created so far. Of course, they are work in progress. Knowing me, I will keep on expanding them till the day I die. You might use them as a source of inspiration.


A list of my projects (i.e. courses):

The list is certainly not complete but it should give you a general idea of what to gun for. Remember to think long-term. Your course (i.e. knowledge) doesn't have to be perfect from the get-go. The mere action of having such a project in place will help you put any piece of information in the right context.

Approaching learning in this manner can lead to truly spectacular results. You might discover that after some time, some of your projects will come to life and will become an inseparable part of your existence.

For example, I have never thought of myself as an investor. However, just a couple of weeks upon creating a rough curriculum of my investing course, I dipped my toes in the financial waters. Surprisingly, it turned out that I am really good at it. These days trading is a part of my everyday ritual.

So what do I think? I think you should give it a shot.


A summary

 

One of the most important factors affecting your ability to remember things is the coherence of your knowledge. Course-oriented thinking can provide you with an excellent framework for structuring your knowledge. What's more, your potential courses can turn into real-life products which might benefit you in the future.

Keep in mind that your projects don't have to be perfect from the very beginning. They will probably suck. Only working on them systematically and methodically can guarantee that they will become world-class products.

Don't treat them dead-serious and don't be too formal. Sprinkle them with silly memes, anecdotes or quotes. Your courses should be a natural extension of your character. Let your personality shine through the quality information. With time, you might be truly surprised how much this approach can change your life.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 23 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Obstacle Thinking – a Simple and Effective Strategy for Solving Complex Problems

Obstacle Thinking – a Simple and Effective Strategy for Solving Complex Problems


Problem-solving is a skill that ranks very high on my list of evergreen skills. We all struggle with problems of different magnitude. Being able to tackle them in an organized way can make our lives way easier.

Unfortunately, there aren't many people that can pride themselves with being problem-solvers extraordinaire. One part of the issue is that they are not aware of the existence of problem-solving methodologies. Another problem, however, is settling for the wrong strategy. It's as ridiculous as trying to traverse the desert with a pair of sandals and a hamster at your disposal. Not only will you be swallowed by the vastness of possible solutions, but you will also look stupid.

In my years of trying to tackle different learning-related issues, I have come to realize that the right way to start solving any problems is identifying the constraints of an area at hand. Once you do, it's much easier to capitalize on those structural disadvantages and arrive at the right answer. This is the approach I have dubbed obstacle learning


What Is Obstacle Thinking?


Obstacle thinking is the approach to problem-solving that emphasizes the importance of identifying bottlenecks in a given area. Their identification allows narrowing your vision.


This way, you can concentrate on what's truly essential, i.e. avoiding the said obstacles and then adding to the mix the elements that have been proven to work well within a given domain.

You can think about it as entering the invisible maze. If you do it ad-lib, all you will be doing most of the time is headbutting every inch of every wall until your brain convolutions straighten up.

However, the entire process will look completely different if you start with determining the potential constraints. The moment you identify a potential obstacle, a part of the maze materializes, and it allows you to move past it. If you identify enough constraints, you will be able to skillfully move through the maze until you find the exit.

Another way to look at the problem is thinking about doing jigsaw puzzles. Most people don't start assembling them randomly by grabbing a couple of pieces and praying that they fit. Instead, they begin by creating the outline of the picture and then slowly filling out the rest.


Why Not Start With Positive Instances?


Starting the problem-solving process with identifying constraints seems counterintuitive. Thus, the natural question arises - why shouldn't we start with positive instances, i.e. the concepts that are known to be true?

Nassim Taleb has mentioned a great explanation of this phenomenon in his book "Black Swan".


"In a famous argument, the logician W. V. Quine showed that there exist families of logically consistent interpretations and theories that can match a given series of facts. Such insight should warn us that the mere absence of nonsense may not be sufficient to make something true. 


The implications of the above are far-reaching. Just because a solution consists of seemingly true facts, it doesn't mean that the entire solution is indeed verifiably true.

It's one of my biggest pet peeves ever. The internet is rife with various idiots who try to conceal their stupid theories under the disguise of science. If you are not careful enough, they will lull your vigilance with scientific banalities and then sell you on their fallacious solutions.


In other words, hundreds of potential solutions might seem true until you start adding constraints to the system.

I will demonstrate examples of this phenomenon at the end of the article.



Limitations - Why They Are Needed To Think Effectively


Even though starting the creative process with identifying constraints might seem counterintuitive, it's very natural. Everything that has ever existed has been born within the constraints of different variables.

The constraints of physics, chemistry, and geometry have governed life from its origins onward—and even into the technicum. “Underlying all the diversity of life is a finite set of natural forms that will recur over and over again anywhere in the cosmos where there is carbon-based life,” claim biochemists Michael Denton and Craig Marshall.  Life, rather than being boundless and unlimited in every direction, is bounded and limited in many directions by the nature of matter itself.  - Kevin Kelly - What Technology Wants


It's only logical to apply the same logic to problem-solving. Without directing and concentrating your effort within certain boundaries, you are almost guaranteed to fail. A number of choices you will have to face is simply too big.

However, identifying even one limitation shows you that a solution cannot be perfect in a given situation. Think about it.

Even one constraint has the power to disqualify hundreds or even thousands of potential solutions.


What Kind of Constraints Are There?


There are two kinds of limitations that need to be taken into consideration:


(1) Permanent constraints

This is the category we can't do anything about. Those limitations can't be overcome. They are usually specific to a given area of knowledge, but they can also transverse many different disciplines.


Examples: 

(1) Using context in language learning

It's been proven beyond a shadow of the doubt that our knowledge is activated contextually. Any language learning method that fails to consider it can be automatically deemed as ineffective.


(2) Removing harmful compounds while composing diets

Depending on a person and their particular health issues, one must deal with lots of permanent limitations that need to be taken into consideration to maximize the benefits of a given diet.


For example:
  • Thyroid problems - two big steps are removing goitrogen-containing foods and gluten that impair the function of the thyroid.
  • Male fertility issues - removing alcohol, recreational drugs and other factors that increase the production of reactive oxygen species and damage sperm.
  • Etc.

Composing diets for different ailments is such a great example. Very often, the mere fact of identifying (and removing) those constraints (i.e., harmful compounds) will allow us to establish an excellent base for solving a problem at hand.


(3) Differential diagnosis

The very core of being a good diagnostician means you can apply obstacle thinking. Every symptom that doesn't fit the picture is a constraint that decreases the pool of potential options.


(2) Temporary constraints

Even though those limitations are no different from permanent constraints at the moment of tackling the problem, they can be overcome over time.


Examples: 

(1) Budget

Limited budgets are a great example because even though they are an obvious obstacle, they can be increased later on. Alternatively, one might find a way to lower potential costs.

(2) Computational power

Computational power can be a limiting factor in a company for now. However, we know that it's one of the variables that become cheaper with time. It might turn out that it won't be an obstacle anymore in, e.g. two years.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that some factors can be both temporary and permanent, depending on a particular project. Deadlines are certainly one of them. Often they can't be changed because of external obligations. However, in other projects, they are merely a suggestion.

What's worse, some constraints will be self-imposed because of gaps in our knowledge. Once you expand it, it might turn out that they weren't even a problem in the first place.



Requirements for Using Obstacle Thinking Effectively


(1) Ability to amass and manage your knowledge

Most projects are multidisciplinary. They require extensive knowledge from many different areas. If you don't know how to acquire it and manage it, you will never have enough know-how to tackle problems effectively. You will be doomed to forever roam the hamster wheel of knowledge.




(2) Critical thinking and the ability to interpret/analyze data

Expanding your knowledge won't mean much if you're choosing your input indiscriminately or randomly. Not all information is equal. You need to learn how to distinguish primary sources of knowledge from secondary.  

What's more, you should also have a good understanding of how to read and interpret scientific studies and comprehend what their limitations are. That requires a very diverse skillset.


(3) Time

Expanding your knowledge and analyzing data, etc. are all time-consuming processes. It's essential to keep in mind that arriving at the right solution might take some time.


(4) Ability to suspend your opinion 

We live in quite depressing times where people who don't have an opinion on a topic are considered stupid or ignorant instead of being praised for their prudence. Forming your opinion too fast can be harmful to your problem-solving abilities. It's so easy to fall in love with your idea, even when it's demonstrably false. Before you know, you start disregarding any evidence that contradicts your opinion (see confirmation bias).

A much better solution is to suspend your opinion for the time being until you amass enough knowledge to have a bird's eye view on the problem you're trying to solve.

It takes a special kind of courage not to commit to any opinion, even temporarily. But choosing to be an ignoramus, for the time being, is undoubtedly the right choice for any quality thinker.


An Example of Obstacle Thinking in Action


Let's say that just like me, you are obsessed with finding the perfect learning strategy. Instead of starting with a specific method on our mind, let's focus on the potential constraints to quickly eliminate the ones that don't make much sense. In this case, I will skip the part where I analyze countless scientific papers to establish whether the limitations I quote are true.


(1) Limitation #1 - Passive rehearsal


Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Passive rehearsal is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. It's like trying to desperately rehearse someone's phone number and hoping that it will help you remember it ten years from now.

This tells us that if we try to rely on ready-to-use materials, we will fail. In other words, this one piece of information allows to initially discard the following learning strategies:

  • Any flashcard system/app/method based on ready-to-use flashcards
  • Reading, re-reading and reading aloud
  • Rewriting information from other sources with almost no changes

Limitation #2 - Habituation



Habituation is the diminishing of an innate response to a frequently repeated stimulus.

Each time the brain detects a stimulus, it forms a representation of that stimulus and compares that representation with its memory (that is, existing representations) of previously experienced stimuli. If there is no match, then a response is triggered, such as an orienting response, allowing the organism to study this new stimulus further. On the other hand, if there is a match, then the response is suppressed. In other words, responding to familiar stimuli decreases, or habituates. 

Multiple exposures to the same stimulus are nothing else than habituation. I won't delve more into this topic as it deserves an article of its own. Instead, let's look at the repercussions of this phenomenon.

  • Even if you create your learning material yourself (e.g. flashcards), your brain will quickly stop reacting to it if you don't force yourself to look at it from many different perspectives and to apply it to many different problems.
  • We have to discard mnemonics as an effective long-term strategy. If thousands of pictures stand out, then nothing stands out.
  • Any strategy that doesn't introduce novelty and variety will limit my learning time. My brain and I will get quickly really fast.

The list goes on and on. With every next constraint, we will add into the system, a pool of potential winning strategies will diminish until we arrive at the final answer(s).


Obstacle Thinking - Summary


Obstacle thinking is probably the single most effective problem-solving methodology I know. It allows you to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Think about it.

Every potential constraint narrows down your focus by eliminating hundreds of faulty strategies. The more limitations you find, the easier it is to come to the right conclusion.

Unfortunately, simple doesn't mean that it's easy. The requirements for applying this strategy can certainly be considered strict. What's more, often, the right solutions may differ depending on the stage of the process we are trying to improve. For example, we can't expect that beginners and advanced learners will get the same benefits from one single strategy.

Even though obstacle learning thinking a relatively steep learning curve, it's still a must for any problem-solver.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 20 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively – The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will either allow you to progress fast or break you mentally like a twig. It's the difference between moving forward in a Ferrari versus using your tears as a lubricant while you crawl.

In the past, I have written a lot about what factors affect vocabulary acquisition and how to tell decent or good language methods from the bad ones. However, people often mistakenly interpret their initial results with a given method as a sign that it truly works. It's like getting into an expensive SPA and seeing crap-stained walls with the graffiti "Steve was here". Disappointing, that is.

When it comes to increasing your passive vocabulary, it almost doesn't matter which strategy you choose - reading, learning flashcards, humming songs. They will all work, more or less, equally well.

However, testing whether your method of activating vocabulary is effective is way trickier. Let me show you how you can verify it and what you should be wary of.


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


2 types of recall


Considering that we're interested in testing whether you know your words actively, we must test your recall. In other words, we must know whether you can retrieve a word in your target language when you signal it to your brain during a conversation.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of recall.

  • free recall
  • cued recall

Free recall


Free recall is the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. There is no natural context which might trigger the words you know.

Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Simply put, if you have just finished your learning session and you can feel dozens of words thrumming in your head, you have just experienced recency effect. The information that you are exposed to at the of your studies is easier to recall. The same goes for the information you have contact with at the beginning of your session - that's the primacy effect.


Cued Recall


Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.

The word "cues", or contextual triggers, as I like to call them, are key concepts here.


Why Free Recall Is a Bad Measure of Your Ability to Remember


Anytime somebody switches to a new learning method, especially if their baseline was good, old-fashioned cramming, they might experience improved initial recall. Does it mean that they remember more long-term? Absolutely not, although but a few people are aware of this.

"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009)."

The word "initial" in this case is just a synonym for short-term learning. It gives you an illusion that knowledge has been acquired. However, once this illusion is confronted by precise measurements, it turns out that not much has been retained.


Free Recall and the Illusion of Knowledge


It's also a very common theme regarding many passive learning strategies like reading, restudying, highlighting, etc. The science knows beyond the shadow of the doubt that they are useless, but students still prefer them over battle-tested strategies like spaced repetition.

1. " For example, studies have shown that learners tend to prefer massing or cramming (table 1) over spacing because of the illusion that it is faster and more effective (Kornell, 2009). Technique Definition Massing Learning events are massed together in a short amount of time. Cramming Special form of massing; learning something intensely, often for the first time, in the days or hours before a test. Spacing Learning events are spaced apart over a longer period of time."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

2. "Despite the clear superiority of the recall method over the restudy method, students report they rarely use it when they study. One reason is that it is simply more work to practice facts by arranging a self-test and recalling them. But there is also something else going on. Studying by recalling just doesn’t seem as effective to students as reading back through their notes. Suppose we ask college students to respond to this scenario:

Students in two different classes read the same one-page essay. In Class A, the students were asked to write down as much as they could remember after they finished. In Class B, the students were given an opportunity to restudy the passage after they finished. After one week, all students were tested on their memory for the passage. Which class would you expect to have the higher test scores?

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation. Why did the students get it wrong? Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

The above echoes something I have been saying for years - if you simply assume that a learning strategy is effective just because you feel some initial benefits, it doesn't make it true. Unless you test it, it's better to suspend your opinion for some time.


Read more:

Example: intensive reading and initial learning

A good example of this phenomenon is intensive reading. It can certainly be a good and effective learning strategy for advances learners, but it's absolutely terrible for beginners.

Intensive reading led to more immediate vocabulary gains but spaced practice led to greater long‐term retention.

These "immediate vocabulary gains" are nothing more than a sign of initial learning. It shouldn't however be confused with long-term retention or, as I call it, the real learning. Sadly, most authors of language-related research don't seem to understand it.


What Is the Measure of Real Learning?



Once again, you can take almost any learning method and you will get (relatively) promising results short-term


However, only transfer tasks, such as using words in a conversation are a good measure of true learning (Mayer, 2009).

The More You Know, the Less You Feel Your Knowledge


Because your knowledge is context-dependent and context-activated. You might know thousands upon thousands of words but you won't "feel" them. Some of them may even stay buried in your mind for years before an opportunity arrives to use them. If you learn how to say "fibroma" in your target language, don't expect to use it unless you encounter a situation wherein you are forced to utilize this word.


This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of habituationThe more we commune with certain stimuli, the less we react to them. In other words, the more you use a language, the less you feel that you really know it. 

That's why some extremely competent language learners claim that they barely know a language at a B2 level, while pitiful beginners run around shouting that they are bilingual.


Read more: 

Stress - a Crucial Factor That Needs to Be Taken Into Consideration


Every good language learning methodology can be encapsulated by the Marines' adage:


"Train as you fight, fight as you train"


You should always to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. Unfortunately, regardless of how good your learning method is, it's almost impossible to incorporate a crucial factor for your ability to retrieve and know your words actively - stress.

Even if you can confidently reproduce words from ANKI at the comfort of your home, it doesn't mean that you will be able to use them in a conversation. Learning in such conditions is always, to some degree, detached from reality. You have time to contemplate the right answer, and everything feels pretty snugly and comfy.


Compare it with a typical conversation where:

  • there is background noise
  • you have to maintain eye contact
  • you need to focus on what your partner is saying 
  • you do your best to control your pronunciation
  • you have to actively reproduce hundreds of words and apply grammar to them
  • etc.

Or to put it plainly, lying under your blankie and doing ANKI is a bit less stressful than trying to recall some word in a conversation while a crazy German local is sparging you with his saliva and screaming "Was?! WAS?!".


How Stress Affects Your Brain


The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary


Talking is stressful, especially for introverts. The worst thing that stress does in such situations is that limits the activity of your frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for, among, others, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, judgment and language.

Once the cortisol floods your brain, your body goes into the survival mode. You don't need your cool problem-solving skill or silver tongue then. You need to wrestle some huge-ass bear or get the hell out of there. That's why you lose access to any memories and skills that are not well-activated as they are the ones that cost the most energy to retrieve. Your body prioritizes muscle at this point, not ATP-devouring thinking.


"The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites." Source: Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function


At the same, stress doesn't seem to affect hippocampus so much. This region of the brain is typically linked to declarative memory, such as memory for events and facts (Squire, 2004; Squire & Zola, 1996). Interestingly, acute mild stress exposure has no effect on or can actually improve the memory consolidation functions of the hippocampus.


If your eyes glazed over after reading these quotes and you started questioning life choice that brought you to this article, let me assure you that they are extremely important. What these facts tell us is this:

"Non-consolidated information that hasn't been transferred to your long-term memory is extremely prone to any stress-related disturbances. On the other hand, long-term memories stored in your hippocampus are immune to mild and medium levels of stress".

That means that it doesn't matter how confidently you can recall words in the comfort of your home. If your vocabulary is not consolidated well enough, instead of producing fluent speech, it might turn out that you sound like a goat in the middle of the breeding period.

However, there is an easy way to fix it.


Want to Know Words Actively? Overlearn!



Items that are difficult to learn should be overlearned to ensure long term retention (Hulstijn, 2001).


Overlearning refers to practicing newly acquired skills beyond the point of initial mastery. In the context of languages, it means that even if you CAN recall a given word while doing ANKI, or in a conversation, but it takes you some time, you can still improve

How?

Unsurprisingly, you need to crank out more sentences with the word. Make sure that the contexts you use vary as well.

Try to recall the last time when you saw a baby (1,5 - 3-year old). Have you noticed that it keeps on repeating the same word over and over again in different sentences and collocations? That's what overlearning is all about. The easiest, or maybe the only way, to apply it properly is to talk to yourself. I dare say that no one would be patient enough to listen to this waffle while being sober.


It's enough that you find a question and start answering it in a very monotonous way while constantly reusing a problematic word.

Q: Do you like apples?

A: Yes, I like apples. Apples are sweet. I like sweet apples, and I eat them often. I don't eat them often when I can't buy them. I but them in a shop, however, if I don't buy them, then I don't eat them.

You get the gist. Children are a wonderful example of overlearning in action. For example, not that long time ago, my son got so excited by getting a piece of cheese that he repeated this word 53 times (yes, I counted).

53 freaking times. It made me feel lazy and question the effort I put into learning!


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively - Summary



Most language learning methodologies are plagued by one fatal flaw. They make you believe that being able to reproduce a word in the comfort of your home is equivalent to really knowing it.

Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. First of all, the ultimate test of your active vocabulary is always a conversation. If you can comfortably recall your newly acquired vocabulary, then you can be relatively confident that your approach works. I say "relatively" because unless you test a given method, you can't be sure that it's precisely what makes you recall words effectively. Most of the time, it's the results of combining a couple of learning strategies. 

What's more, if your learning method doesn't involve context and active transfer of your vocabulary between contexts, you can rest assured that it sucks.

Last but not least, if your learning strategy does involve context and active information transfer them, you should put more effort into overlearning those problematic words.

Keep in mind that this is one of those situations where individual differences kick in. Some people are more immune to stress than others. As a consequence, the degree to which you will have to overlearn words will often depend on your genetics and environmental conditioning.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How to Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills (i.e. What to Do When I Am Stuck)

HOW TO DEAL WITH OVERWHELM WHILE LEARNING (I.E., WHAT TO DO WHEN I AM STUCK)


I don't want to convince you that learning is easy. You know damn well that is complicated and full of challenges. Even when you master the process of effective knowledge acquisition, you might still run into different obstacles.

Knowing how to learn is one side of the equation. However, being able to sustain your progress over a long period is an entirely different beast. It's a mental war that you have to wage against your brain and the resistance this spongy thing will create,

This article is supposed to serve you as a life ring. Whenever you feel that you're drowning in the sea of overwhelm, revisit it to resurface. 

​​Feel free to use just one of these strategies or all of them. The most important thing is that you shake off any gloomy feelings and snap out of the state of inertia.


What You Need to Know About Overwhelm


The first you need to know about learning how to deal with overwhelm is that it leads to three results:

  • Avoidance
  • Passivity
  • Hectic behavior (e.g., switching from one task to another in a hasty manner)

They all have one thing in common - loss of control. If you ever notice any of these telltale signs, you should be alarmed. It means that you are losing the grip on your learning process. Instead of being organized and methodical, you start floundering.

Here are some of the strategies that may help you regain the feeling of control.


How To Deal With Overwhelm



1. Be primitive


First thing you need to be aware of is the concept of activation energy

Activation energy is the energy need to start performing an action. The higher it is, the less of a chance that you will start performing a given action.

That means that you should reduce any clutter that stands in your way and holds you back. It also concerns your general attitude. If you overthink everything, your activation energy will be high as well. You can't focus on the start of the action if dozens of thoughts and tasks are running through your head.

In other words, focus on primitive tasks.

Here is what I mean by that:
  • Too many resources? Reduce their number drastically!
  • Can't create a proper learning plan because it's getting too big? Screw it. Just grab the first book for beginners and start learning.
  • Too many reviews? Stop adding new flashcards temporarily or use Load Balancer plugin for ANKI
  • Can't maintain your current learning pace? Reduce it.
  • Too little time for learning today? Do 5 flashcards and call it a day.

Remember that ​ideally, you want to become a life-long learner. Any temporary setback is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The only thing you should care about is regularity.

Don't break the chain at all costs. Review even two flashcards if you're exhausted today or don't have time, but do something every day!


2. Identify the constraints


The theory of constraints states that in any system, there is one function, resource, process area, or process step that constrains the entire system's ability to deliver on its mission.

​​Sometimes it will mean that removing just one obstacle will unblock your potential. Other times, you will discover that after eliminating that one significant constraint, there will be another one looming underneath.

In any case, do your best to get rid of these obstacles. Once you do, your learning process should regain its previous smoothness.

Keep in mind that your constraints can be:

  • psychological (e.g., "I am too stupid to do it," passing away of your relative)
  • people (e.g., toxic persons in your life telling you that your project is silly or useless)
  • organizational (lousy time management skills, being unable to access some facilities)
  • health-related (too little sleep, bad diet, being sick)
  • material (not having appropriate tools)

Try to identify them on your own. If you can't figure it out, ask someone trust-worthy for helpSometimes it's easier to spot such problems when you're on the outside looking in.


3. Lower The Intensity


The intensity you can endure will always be a resultant of your:

  • character
  • motivation
  • health
  • frame of mind
  • habits
  • external conditions
  • and the current level of advancement in your field of expertise

It's impossible to tell anyone that they should learn X amount of hours per day or do Y flashcards per day. You can suggest a goal that will later be verified by reality.  In other words, good goals will be established only after some trial and error.

Regardless, if you notice that instead of jumping for joy at the thought of learning and discovering the unknown, you feel like somebody slapped you with a slimy mackerel, it's time to stop. It's time to rethink whether your learning pace is not too ambitious. 

Don't get me wrong - ambitions are great, but regularity always beats short-lived zeal. If your will to learn wanes, decrease your learning and practice intensity temporarily.

Try to find out what pace and effort level make you happy. And don't even try to think of it as a failure. You're making a wise and strategic decision that will guarantee your long-term success. 


4. Take more breaks


Very often, a simple solution to feeling overwhelmed is taking more breaks.


How to deal with overwhelm

How often should you do it? 

Once again, your endurance threshold will depend on all the variables mentioned in the previous point.

​​Sometimes you will discover that you can plug away for hours on end, and sometimes 20 minutes of tackling a complex topic will break you.

It's definitely true for me. I have noticed that my ability to write is very fragile. The slightest distractions will throw me off most of the time. What's more, very often, even 40 minutes of writing leaves me in tears. On the other hand, I can effortlessly pore over ANKI for hours and create hundreds of new flashcards. I am positive, you will observe such regularities in your daily routine as well.

The most important question is - when should you take a break?

The internet is full of different numbers. Some say 20 minutes while the other ones cite a 40-minute rule. None of these things is true. 

Your energy levels, and thus your concentration, constantly fluctuate throughout the day. They are also heavily influenced by the variables mentioned above. 

That's why the best predictor of the need to take a break is your mental fatigue.

Whenever you:

  • start daydreaming,
  • get distracted, i.e., you realize that almost anything is more interesting than what you're doing right now,
  • feel brain fog,
  • notice that your performance dropped drastically,

it's time to pause.


Keep in mind that your breaks should be meaningful. That means no electronics and no taxing activities. Go for a walk, meditate, or lie down.

Rest for as long as you need.

It's crucial for your full recovery. I know that 10-15 minutes of lying in my bed is usually all I need. Very often, that leads to micro-naps - I am okay with that. I know that once I get up, I am ready to rumble again.


​5. Take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)


Damn, I really tried to find some cool acronym for these elements, but (HuSH PeDo!) is all I got. On the bright side, it is as memorable as it might be offensive to some.

The critical takeaway from this point is that your learning project is not placed in a magical void. Your life is a system of interconnected vessels. If you have problems in your private life or you are sick, learning will be the last thing on your mind. Don't neglect those things at the cost of education.

Trust me - I know how difficult it is. I learn so much that usually, my sleep suffers. It's not wise, and it's something I have been struggling with for a long time.


6. Organize your learning better


overwhelm while learning

The term Information Fatigue Syndrome has been coined recently to refer to stress coming from problems with managing overwhelming information. 

​​Some consequences of IFS listed by Dr David Lewis, a British psychologist, include: anxiety, tension, procrastination, time-wasting, loss of job satisfaction, self-doubt, psychosomatic stress, breakdown of relationships, reduced analytical capacity, etc. The information era tends to overwhelm us with the amount of information.

For example, you might feel stressed by dozens of tabs in your web browser or 20 studies you still have to go through

I get it because I struggled with it in the past. How have I solved it?

I have organized my learning better, i.e., I focused my full energy on learning in ANKI whenever it's possible.

​​If I run into some papers or articlesI paste them into ANKI. I know they are safe and sound there, and I can process them by breaking them down into flashcards later. ANKI is my command center, and this feeling helps me stove away any anxiety related to learning.

With this conviction, you can devote all your energy to comprehension, analysis, and retention of the learned material, instead of eating your heart out.


7. Make a shift


A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot because, in most situations, it's pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus. 


Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows that the best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method, so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you usually would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn't matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot. - Daniel Coyle - The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills


Personally, making a shift means creating silly flashcards which are based on ridiculous associations or observations. It's refreshing enough that even when I start feeling a bit jaded, this procedure restores the proper frame of mind.


8. Break down your project into smaller chunks


This is a classic productivity strategy and for all the right reasons. Sometimes focusing on a big picture can be detrimental to your performance. The project seems so big and complicated that it robs you of the will to pursue it. 

You can overcome this obstacle by breaking your projects into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed plan of your undertaking. Number all the steps so you know how to prioritize them. Doing so will free your mental energy and allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.

Then getting "primitive," as suggested in the first point, becomes much more manageable.


EXAMPLE

Instead of creating your flashcards right away, you can spend two days just pasting learning material into ANKI - that would be your first stage. Next, you can process this material into flashcards in the next couple of days. Only then, after five days, can you buckle down and start reviewing them.


9. Go back to the roots - what's your motivation?


If none of the steps above seem to help, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Why did you want to achieve your goal? Has anything changed since then?

Revisiting the source of your motivation will allow you to accomplish two things:

  1. 1
    It will either pep you up and give you more power to carry on or
  2. 2
    you will give up.

The latter sounds ominous, but I assure you it's not.

Your life is dynamic and is in a constant state of motion. Thousands of elements enter and leave your life every week. They can all affect your initial motivation. If you decide, upon the close inspection, that you don't care anymore about your initial goal, I want you to know that it's okay. Ditch your project. Pour yourself a nice glass of whiskey or cocoa, sit in your armchair and think what you want to do next.

Your project is not a life sentence - you can quit anytime you feel that it's not right for you anymore.


10. Pep yourself up



Do you know what the worst part of every undertaking is? The middle.

Beginnings are usually exciting. It's like running into a magical maze. You have lots of energy and progress fast; everything is new and shiny. However, after a couple of weeks, you realize that you're running out of water, and your last meal was a dead squirrel. It's not good.

In other words, the middle of any project is the most monotonous. Your learning slows down. You don't get money out of this. No fans are showering you with their admiration. The only thing ahead of you is more work. It's not sexy, I know.

How to deal with this situation?

Pep yourself up!

It sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheese is all you need, as Paul McCartney used to sing.

Here are some things you might try:

  • Watch some motivational videos on YouTube.
  • Run around the room while drumming your chest and scream, "I am the king/queen of this jungle."
  • Watch Rocky for the 20th time.
  • Pump your ego by contemplating how amazing you are ("If I were an apple, I would be a really cute apple).
  • Reminisce on your past successes.
  • Take a step back and see how much you have learned so far.
  • Think about your future glory once you achieve your goal.
  • Gather all the empty whiskey bottles and spell "You're the winner!" 

There are no wrong answers here. See what works for you and stick to it in the moments of doubt.


How To Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills - The main takeaway(s)


The moment at which you decide to start learning is usually a peak of your mental capacity and attitude. You feel awesome, and you want to do great things. The problem is that your energy and motivation to learn come and go. There will be plenty of days when you will feel bummed enough to start contemplating and romanticizing the life of a hobo just to run away from all your problems.

That's why it's always preferable to create learning systems instead of relying on flimsy companions like motivation. Here are some of the strategies that might help you:

To deal with overwhelm, try to:

  1. 1
    be primitive
  2. 2
    identify the constraints
  3. 3
    lower the intensity
  4. 4
    take more breaks
  5. 5
    take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)
  6. 6
    organize your learning better
  7. 7
    make a shift
  8. 8
    break down your project into smaller chunks
  9. 9
    go back to the roots - what's your motivation?
  10. 10
    pep yourself up

Interleaved Practice – When and How to Use It to Maximize Your Learning Pace

INTERLEAVED PRACTICE – WHEN AND HOW TO USE IT TO MAZIMIZER YOUR LEARNING PACE

We've all heard that practice makes perfect. It takes time and effort to be great at something, and if you want to do it right, you should practice one skill at a time.

For example, a beginning guitarist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand.

This phenomenon is called “blocking,” and because it appeals to common sense and is easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.

However, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: is blocking the most optimal way to practice skills? It doesn't seem so.


What is interleaving?


Interestingly, there is a much better strategy - enter "interleaving".

 In interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills togetherIn other words, instead of going AAAAABBBBBCCCCC you do ABCABCABCABC.

It turns out that varying it even slightly can yield massive gains in a short period.

Let's take baseball as an example: Batters who do batting practice with a mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs hit for a higher average. The interleaving is more effective because when you're out there in the wild, you need first to discern what kind of problem you're facing before you can start to find a solution, like a ball coming from a pitcher's hand.

Read more: A Simple Learning Plan To Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time.


Is interleaved practice always the right choice?


There are almost no strategies that are fully universal and can be used for all disciplines and in all learning conditions. The same goes for interleaved practice.

The past four decades definitely demonstrated that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, but especially motor learning (e.g., sports).  The results for other subjects are mixed.


Studies on interleaved practice in different disciplines


1. Languages

For example, when native English speakers used the strategy to learn an entirely unfamiliar language (i.e., generating English-to-Swahili translations), the results were betterthe same, or worse than after blocking. 


2. Mathematics

Another study  (Rohrer et al., 2015) concerning mathematics showed the dramatic benefits of interleaving on children’s performance at math.

During the experiment, some kids were taught math the traditional way. They got familiar with one mathematical technique in a lesson and then practiced it to death. A second group was given assignments that included questions necessitating the use of different techniques.

The results were as impressive as they were surprising.


One day after the test, the students who’d been utilizing the interleaving method did 25% better. However, when tested a month later, the interleaving method did 76% better.

Keep in mind that such an increase is truly amazing, given that both groups had been learning for the same amount of time. The only difference was that some students learned block by block, and others had their learning mixed up.

Read more: How To Master Many Fields Of Knowledge - Your Action Plan And Recommended Strategies.


The necessary condition before you apply interleaved practice


mazimizer your learning pace

The results above tell us one important thing. You can't just go cowabunga and start interleaving the heck out of every subject.

Before you do so, you should have some familiarity with subject materials (or the materials should be quickly or easily understood).  Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.

It's only logical when you look at this strategy from the memory perspective. For many, using even one technique seems to a burden enough for their working memory. Forcing such people to use three or more make you a psycho who wants to see the world, and their memory, burn.

It's simply too much.

It doesn't take away from the fact that interleaving can be extremely useful. It forces the mind to work harder and to keep searching and reaching for solutions. 

However, if you decide to use it, make sure that you're familiar with the strategies you want to interleave. This recommendation is based on a phenomenon called the expertise reversal.


The expertise reversal

The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learned more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learned more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Why might lower variability be better in the beginning?

It was suggested that more experienced learners had sufficient available working memory capacity to process high variability information. In contrast, less experienced learners were overwhelmed by high variability and learned more using low variability information. Subjective ratings of difficulty supported the assumptions based on cognitive load theory, which you have learned before.

​In other words, some signals that are needed by low prior knowledge learners might be redundant for high prior knowledge learners due to their existing schema in long-term memory (Kalyuga, 2009).

For example, one of the experiments (Likourezos, Kalyuga, Sweller, 2019) which tested 103 adults studying pre-university mathematics, showed no interaction between levels of variability (high vs. low) and levels of instructional guidance (worked examples vs. unguided problem solving). The significant main effect of variability indicated a variability effect regardless of levels of instructional guidance. 

What does it tell us?

We can't play in the big boy's league if we don't cover the basics!

Read more: The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult.


Interleaved Practice - Summary

(1) Interleaved practice is perfect for:

  • motor learning
  • any material that can be quickly learned and understood

(2) For more complicated subjects, make sure to familiarize yourself with the appropriate strategies before you decide to interleave them. This way, you will make sure that your working memory isn't overburdened.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 11 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Evergreen Skills and Knowledge – What’s Worth Learning?

A list of evergreen skills and knowledge – what’s worth learning?


Many people are in love with the idea of being knowledgeable. Sadly, not many believe that they can acquire enough knowledge. Being able to move through life and overcome all the obstacles effortlessly seems to be reserved mostly for the gifted or unrelatable movie characters.

A big part of the problem is the general inability to acquire considerable amounts of information. However, the other obstacle is deciding what's worth learning. If you don't know where you are headed, you're like a drunk bouncing from one lamp post to another in a twisted version of pinball. The next thing you know is you wake up with a bad headache and a bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth.

There is an easy fix for this - focusing on evergreen knowledge.


Why Should I Focus on Evergreen Skills and Knowledge?


1. It's immediately applicable

The problem with acquiring knowledge randomly is that most of the time if you can't use it, you will lose it. Sure, some bits stay with you throughout your life. Regardless, most of this knowledge will be inevitably lost. So will be your effort and time. I know that many say that spending your time learning is always a good investment.

But is it really?

If I spent 50 hours trying to acquire knowledge and my recall rate, or should I say - return rate, would be 1, 2 or even 5 %, I would be pissed. It would mean that for every 1 hour I spent learning, not more than 3 min were used effectively. That's a very definition of a stupid investment. Sure, you can argue that I have jogged my brain, and tried, and bla bla bla. Still, 5%? Come on!

If I retained that little, I wouldn't even bother learning. I would spend time with my family or binge-watch TV series. Learning is not fun if you can't hold on to any information.

But the evergreen knowledge is different. It's immediately applicable. Every minute you spend acquiring it can give you immense returns on any given day of your life.


2. It makes life easier

The immediate applicability of such knowledge bleeds directly into every area of your life and makes it easier. It allows you to get the most of out of the most ordinary situations and encounters.

Where other people struggle, you see opportunities. It's a real game-changer regarding how you live your life.


3. It gives you a sense of direction

If you have wanted to become a serious learner, but you have never known what to focus on, a list of evergreen skills can give you a clear sense of direction—no more fumbling in the dark. Check one thing off your list and move on to another. In the meantime, watch how much your life changes.


What Knowledge and Skills Can Be Defined as Evergreen?


I think that the most important method to establish what constitutes evergreen knowledge is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What's unavoidable in your life?
  • What situations or topics do you deal with every single day of your life?

As a result, you should arrive at the right answers.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that defining what's evergreen is not always perfectly possible. We are all different in some regards. I believe that this distinctiveness should be reflected in the definition of evergreen knowledge.

I like to explain this issue, as contradictory as it might sound to some degree, that evergreen knowledge can be divided into two categories:

  1. Universally evergreen knowledge
  2. Personally evergreen knowledge

Universally evergreen knowledge


This category envelopes all the skills and information that are truly necessary to function in any society, country, or profession. Everyone is forced to rely on this knowledge every single day.


Personally evergreen knowledge


This would be the knowledge that's specific to your type of personality, interests or a career path you have chosen. It is the instance where one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Some of the skills I consider evergreen would be treated as an utter waste of time for you. The opposite is true, as well.


Example #1 - Pets

If you're a dog person, knowing a lot about how to take care of your pet would be considered evergreen. That wouldn't be the case for anyone who generally dislikes animals.


Example #2 - Material Engineering

The same would be true for anyone whose area of speciality oscillates around material engineering. In that case, advanced knowledge of chemistry and physics would be a must. Would this kind of knowledge be useful for you and me? Highly unlikely.


Example #3 - Investing


Investing - crucial skill


This is an area that applies directly to my life. I am an active trader, and I focus mostly on short-term investments. To be able to do it effectively, I need lots of information regarding the branches that interest me.

Of course, this kind of knowledge would be useless to a non-investor.


News vs information

This is a moment where we should make a distinction between news and information.

Information is a representation of knowledge that feeds your decision-making process. It's almost immediately valuable and useful.

News is just noise - worthless bits of trivia that do nothing to improve any area of your life and feed mostly primitive, emotion-driven parts of your brain.

Unfortunately, I can't help you with deciding what knowledge is personally evergreen for you. This is a one (wo)man job, and you're the person to do it. I would suggest you take your time and compile a list of skills that will be of immense help to you.

In this article, I prefer to focus on universally evergreen skills and why they are worth learning.


A List of Universally Evergreen Skills and Knowledge


For your convenience, press a link to go to the chosen section.

These are the skills that I deem universal for any adult. Not only do they allow you to build a successful and happy life, but also will enable you to overcome any hurdles that you might stumble upon.


Evergreen Skills and Knowledge - Why Are They Necessary?


1. Learning how to learn


Usually, I am first to admit that I am biased in some areas. However, this time, I believe I am stating the obvious.

Knowing how to learn effectively is the single most crucial skill you can master in your life.

Nothing else comes even close. I know that educators from lots of other fields say the same thing about their specialty. They say that mathematics is the king, chemistry is the queen, painting with watercolors is the very essence of life and all that jive.

The thing is that without the knowledge of how to acquire information properly, you will quickly forget all the other information. This way, your life turns into a twisted version of alcohol-infused reality. You learn to wake up the next day and realize that all you have is vague recollections of what you did the night before.

The art of learning should be the very first thing we teach our kids at school. If we did, the standard of living in most countries would rise dramatically. We're talking about flying toilet bowls, and laser sabers here!

Sadly, this world doesn't exist. All we have is an endless game of playing intellectual catch-up and being happy with achieving  survival level of professional competence.


Suggested articles:
Suggested books:

2. Money-related skills


Money is an indispensable part of our lives. Yet, not many people take their time to learn how to handle it. 

Saving is considered this thing that crotchety old people do. Investing is deemed as a gateway drug to becoming a blood-thirsty, three-piece suit capitalist - not something that honest people do. Budgeting seems like a good idea only when your financial situation is so dire that when you open a toilet bowl, a court executioner pops up humming "Money money money."

Generally, I think that learning more about Business and money is a great way to not only guarantee you financial stability but also to multiple what you already have.


Suggested books:

3. Analytical skills


Analytical skills is an umbrella term for subskills such as:

  • logical and critical thinking
  • conducting research
  • interpreting information
  • etc.

The amount of knowledge in the world is growing at a dizzying pace.


"Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By 1945 it was doubling every 25 years, and by 1982 it was doubling every 12-13 months. IBM estimates that in 2020 human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours." - Modern Working Place


evergreen skills - doubling information


In theory, it should be great news. More knowledge and better access to it means that the quality of our lives and decisions should be increasing as well; except it doesn't.

The most prevalent reactions to this information overload are either:

  • accepting everything without questioning, 
  • avoidance of all the information (manifested as an escape toward TV, computer games, addictive substances, etc.),
  • always-on lifestyle in which one seeks constant stimulation by jumping from one source of information to another.

Analytical skills are the only way out of this madhouse. They allow you to apply a calm, cold, methodical approach to every problem. In the era of widespread misinformation and ignorance, this knowledge seems to be more critical than ever.

Just in the last couple of weeks, we have all had a chance to read the COVID-19 is a hoax created by lizard people who are transmitting via 5g technology. All this to inject you with a bogus vaccine that contains a chip that will travel to your brain to control your bowel movements. What a time to be alive.

Of course, establishing whether something is true or not is a process. It requires suspending your belief and opinions until you learn more about a given subject. Unfortunately, not many people are willing to take their time to do it.


Suggested articles:
Suggested books:

4. Nutrition


Considering that eating is something we do multiple times per day, it seems crazy for me not to study this topic in-depth. Your health is dependent on how good your diet is and how happy or miserable your life will be. It was the main motivation that led me to become a certified nutritionist.

Interestingly enough, becoming knowledgeable in this field requires a mix of other evergreen skills, namely:

  • knowing how to learn
  • analytical skills
  • mathematics (or statistic to be more precise)

If you accept current nutritional recommendations from your government without doing any proper research and knowing how to interpret the data, you are going to have a bad time.

Just the other day, I had a consultation with a woman who religiously followed all the current guidelines—lots of green veggies, whole-weed bread, etc. She also suffered from a hypothyroid and couldn't fix it even with drugs. You can imagine her shock when I explained to her that cruciferous vegetables that she consumed 5 times per day block absorption of iodine and impair the function of the thyroid. The same goes for the infamous gluten. After eliminating those foods from her diet (and some others as well) and adding some supplementation, her thyroid was alive and kicking in about 4 weeks.


5. Medicine and health


Many people treat doctors as an excuse to ignore this field of knowledge. After all, you are not a trained professional, so why would you even bother?

The reasons are plenty. First of all, modern medicine is strictly drug-based. While it's entirely ok in some, especially acute cases, it's subpar or harmful in others.

Secondly, no doctor will follow you around to check whether you or your relatives are ok. Some basic medical knowledge will allow you to spot many health-related problems from miles away. What's more, no doctor will care about the well-being of you and your family as much as you do. It's precisely this emotional engagement that allows people to dig way deeper into potential solutions than many medical professionals.

Last but not least, there are not many good specialists in any area, including medicine. I used to live in this conviction when I was younger that every doctor is a giant, squishy brain with legs attached to it. Sadly, once I started teaching medical professionals how to learn, I quickly realized that they struggle a lot with remembering. Of course, that weighs a lot on potential diagnoses.

Personally, I can't get enough of this domain. So far, I have created 30k + flashcards from this discipline and did governmental certification to become a trichologist and personal trainer, and I know it's just the beginning!


6. Productivity


Productivity is another essential skill everyone should learn. You're going to work most of your life. Being able to get the most out of it is an obvious choice.

Productivity includes subskills, such as:

  • task delegation
  • setting goals
  • prioritizing
  • motivating 
  • building habits
  • time management
  • task automation
  • sleep management
  • choosing the right tools and applications 
  • etc.

This skill tied beautifully with knowing how to learn. Once you get a grasp of how to acquire knowledge effectively, increasing your productivity will allow you to work more efficiently and realize projects related to the information you have acquired.


Suggested articles:
Suggested books:

7. Creativity


evergreen skills and knowledge


More and more people are getting anxious about the changes our world is going through. AI and the ubiquitous automation threaten to make dozens of professions obsolete in the upcoming decades. And rightly so - it's not fear-mongering. The process is happening as we speak, starting from self-driving cars, warehouse robots, and ending with the pattern-matching AI software. Heck, not that long ago, a Japanese company replaced office workers with artificial intelligence.

However, there is one thing that won't be replaced for a long time, or maybe ever—our boundless creativity and all the emotions that underpin it.

Of course, opinions about whether creativity is something uniquely human are split. However, we can't argue about is that AI programs are typically good at just one thing. Moreover, they need millions of data points to be able to perform this activity. 

The same constraints do not limit us. We still need input, but unlike machines, we can make crazy logical and creative leaps between seemingly unrelated subjects.

It's quite a safe bet that unless the processing power of computers increases by hundreds, if not thousands of times or more, the true creativity will remain a hallmark of humanity.

The big advantage is that just learning a couple of basic strategies can make you a way better thinker and problem-solver.


Suggested articles:
Suggested books:

8. Public speaking


Whether you like it or not, public speaking is yet another skill that we cannot escape. Depending on your line of work, you will be forced to step in front of a bunch of people quite often enough.

Learning the basics of public speaking will allow you to feel more confident and make a far better impression than you would otherwise. If you have experienced the soul leaving your body during one of such presentations, you know what I mean.

What's more, it doesn't take much time to acquire this knowledge at a satisfactory level, which makes it even more logical choice for your to-do list.


Suggested books:

9. Problem-solving skills


If there is one thing we are not short of is problems. Every day we face dozens of decisions and dilemmas of different magnitude. Being able to tackle them in a systematic way is a very desired competence. 

Problem-solving skills include subskills such as:

  • emotional intelligence
  • troubleshooting
  • risk management
  • decision making
  • drawing plans and diagrams

What's more, it can be reinforced by many other skills on the list like knowing how to learn, creativity, psychology, and analytical skills.


Suggested books:

10. Psychology


Psychology is the science that studies what influences our minds and behaviors. It's a critical component of our everyday lives. It helps to unveil all the hidden and unconscious mechanisms that drive our lives.

Studying psychological concepts will allow you to both improve relations with your directs surroundings as well as learn how to stop sabotaging ourselves and get out of your own way.

Once again, there is a certain overlap between psychology, creativity, and problem-solving.

Psychology was my first love way before the memory came into the picture. I was brought up in a dysfunctional family. My father was a mean, abusive alcoholic, and that inevitably shaped me as a young kid - and not in a good way. I was terribly aggressive and constantly got into trouble.

When I was about 11 or 12, I entered a bookshop and out of boredom picked up some random psychology book because it sounded smart. My life has never been the same since then. Concept by concept, I could understand where my behavior and actions came from, and I began to fix them. This is the power of psychology - 10/10 would recommend.


The art of persuasion

One of the most readily accessible subbranches of psychology is the art of persuasion. We all have to "sell" ourselves or our ideas in one way or another. You might as well learn how to do it effectively!

It's also worth keeping in mind that the art of persuasion is a double-edged sword. It can also be used against you as a tool of manipulation. Even if you're not interested in learning it to become more convincing yourself, it's worth doing so to become aware when others try to manipulate you.

As the old poker adage goes, if you don't know who the sucker in the room is, it means you are the sucker.


11. (Basic) law


The law doesn't evoke the most pleasant associations. Regardless, our every action is bound by it. Sadly, like many other evergreen skills, it's usually brushed off throughout the education system.

Learning its basics, be it, basic humans rights or tax regulations, will allow you to become a more aware citizen as well as bring you many other benefits, including the financial ones.


12. (Basic) economics


Economics is a field of science that explores how society uses its limited resources to best meet its needs. Both macro- and microeconomics can be applied to many other branches of knowledge, making it a universal tool to understand the economic reality we live in.

You can use it mostly to optimize your financial decisions. It can come quite handy both in investing or choosing the right moment to purchase different goods.


13. Basic physics


Physics is one of a few branched that made the modern world possible. Its applications can be found all around us in every device we use: batteries, cell phones, computers, cars, and constructions of any kind.

Even though it seems abstract at first, it can help you get a better grasp of dozens of everyday phenomena. I find it especially practical when combined with other evergreen skills like nutrition, medicine, and chemistry.

For example, my mom is a cosmetician, and I have always been, somewhat organically, fascinated by this field. One of the cosmetic preparations that are all the rage among ladies is hyaluronic acid.

Very often, it is as expensive as hell. What's more, companies do their best to convince you that it can miraculously regenerate and moisturize any type of skin even if it looks like a 15-year old tire. Sadly, these claims don't hold true. Once you learn a bit about dermatology and combine it with physics (i.e., the concept of permeability), you will realize that most hyaluronic acid preparations are too big to pass through the first layer of skin called stratum corneum. Just like many other preparations, I might add.

You see? A bit of reading will have saved you thousands of dollars.


14. Basic Chemistry


I still remember this memorable saying from school that chemistry "feeds, heals, clothes and defends." It's true. 

Chemistry is a tenacious companion of our everyday struggles. It can be found in cosmetics, drugs, clothes, cleaning products and weapons. Knowing just a bit of chemistry can be extremely helpful, especially if you combine it with other evergreen skills.

Personally, I love how medicine and chemistry go hand in hand. For example, once you learn about displacement reactions, you can apply this concept to understand one of the causes of hypothyroid. 

It turns out that halogens, i.e., elements like chlorine, bromine, and fluoride, can displace iodine that is responsible for producing your main thyroid hormones. In other words, accidental drink of the tap or swimming pool water or eating your toothpaste might mess you up.

The same goes for drinking too much tea because its leaves, especially young ones, are full of fluoride.

Everything is connected, and chemistry is an integral part of the whole.


15. Basic mathematics

list of evergreen skills


I love mathematics with all my heart. This was one of the mains reasons why I chose Econometrics as my major. That's why it hurts me a lot to see a lot of disdain for mathematics these days. All of a sudden everyone seems convinced that calculators and Excel are our saviors.

It's painfully wrong. I agree that not many people need to know advanced math. However, a lot of basic concepts and a general numerical is necessary. 

I would argue that basic statistics is one of the most mat skills one can possess. Without them, it's difficult to interpret any scientific research or even numbers communicated to us by our governments.



16. Basic computer science


There is no denying that we spend almost every day plugged to digital reality. There is little hope that it will ever change.

For that reason, it's definitely worth learning a bit about computers, programming languages and even network infrastructure. It doesn't take much time, but it can certainly improve your understanding of this area of life.


17. Languages


If your native tongue is anything else than English than knowing at least this one language is undoubtedly an evergreen skill. English is the language of knowledge; the modern Latin if you will. If you want to know anything about anything, you need to know it.

However, even if you're an already native speaker, mastering another language should be a must based on the cognitive benefits it delivers.

Nevertheless, I don't think you should overdo it. I believe that knowing more than three foreign languages is rarely practical and worth your time unless you really love this area of knowledge, or you have other good reasons. 


Suggested articles:

18. Playing an instrument


Playing an instrument - cognitive benefits


I know what you're thinking. Playing an instrument is a direct contradiction of my definition of evergreen skills. It's certainly not something one does every day.

I have placed it on my list because just like languages, it's one of the best cognitive boosters in the world. If you care about your or your children's mental well-being, I would consider putting it on your to-do list.

It sure as heck is more effective than investing in some stupid brain-training games or thinking that Sudoku will enlarge your brain enough as to bend space-time.


A couple of benefits of learning how to play an instrument:

  • 1. improved reading skills
"Children exposed to a multi-year program of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a new study." - Science Dailly

  • 2. improved working memory
"Musical training seems to hone auditory memory skills. Musicians have better auditory working memory (Chan et al., 1998; Jakobson et al., 2008; Parbery-Clark et al., 2009b2011a; Strait et al., 2012b2013a), potentially accounted for by musicians' increased activation of larger neuronal networks involved in cognitive control and sustained attention than non-musicians when confronted with difficult memory tasks (Gaab and Schlaug, 2003; Pallesen et al., 2010)." - Art and science: how musical training shapes the brain

  • 3. improved brain size and connectivity
"Musicians have a larger corpus callosum, the fiber tract underlying most interhemispheric communication, with musicians who started training at an earlier age having a larger corpus callosum compared to musicians who started later (Schlaug et al., 1995; Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Musicians' larger corpus callosum volume may reflect decreased interhemispheric inhibition (Ridding et al., 2000) and more communication between the two hemispheres."

How to Use Many Evergreen Skills in a Meaningful Way


Evergreen skills are easy to activate by their very nature. However, a great way to use them at the same time is to come up with a project

Most of the projects are characterized by a high degree of complexity and necessitate the use of many different skills. What's more, they are a preferable way for many people to learn. Not everyone can pore over books for months without any specific purpose. Projects, on the other hand, are meaningful and highly engaging.

They can also be a gateway to a better and more successful life - also financially. For example, I did my trichology certification for fun, as a personal project. Would it be difficult to open my practice or team up with someone to open a clinic? I don't think so. Nevertheless, it all started as a fun side project. 

Think whether there is something you have always wanted to do or create and start working towards it step by step. Acquire all the necessary evergreen skills on your way there and observe how much easier your project comes. There are truly few things in life that give as much satisfaction as seeing your vision come to life.


Summary - Evergreen Skills and Knowledge


Evergreen skills and knowledge should be a top priority for any ambitious individual. The time you devote to their development is among the best investments in life you can make as they can be used in every single area of your life.

The best part is that the more of them you learn, the more powerful those evergreen skills become. It's a beautiful demonstration of the synergy effect where the sum of parts is way greater than the individual part themselves.


Which of those skills is the most important for you? Let me know in the comments!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 43 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies – Why You Should Take Them With a Grain of Salt

WHY YOU SHOULD TREAT POLYGLOTS; ADVICE, TIPS, AND STRATEGIES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT


One category of emails which I regularly get is called: "X did Y, what do you think about it?" (or some variation of it).

X is usually a polyglot or a YouTuber who just did a mission, whereas Y often stands for a short amount of time. Usually, what a reader expects from me is to tell them that it's possible because they also want to learn fast. I get it - it all sounds exciting. If you can learn a language way faster, then why wouldn't you take advantage of polyglot tips, advice or learning strategies? 

The answer is simple: critical thinking. You are not them, and depending on your skill set and language background, it might not be possible for you even to get close to their results. There is a long list of warning signs that you should be aware of before you decide to emulate what they did. And no - I am not above it. Apply those criteria to my advice as well. 

Let's chomp down a healthy dose of red pills.


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies - Why You Should Take It With a Grain of Salt



I get this vague feeling that sometimes both people who give and take language advice are a bit detached from reality. 

In a rational world, if someone decided to start training box twice per week, initially, they would choose some simple form of training. Some stretching, basic forms, leg work - that kind of stuff.

A mere suggestion that, "Dude, Mike Tyson has this cool training, let's give it a try!" would be greeted with a pitiful smirk. They would know that this kind of workout routine would leave them in tears and wouldn't be too effective for them at this stage.

Yet, in the realm of languages, people get this idea that any language strategy is immediately applicable to them. Let me assure you - it is not. What's more, very often they can do more harm to your learning progress and motivation than good.

Here are a couple of arguments to bear in mind.


1. Expertise Reversal


The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learn more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learn more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Variability refers to a lack of consistency or fixed patterns in the tasks presented to a learner.
That means that beginners learn the best when there are:
  • not many tasks,
  • tasks are easy and predictable.

If you complicate a learning plan for them, they will never progress, or they will do it extremely slowly.

Call me pragmatic, but I wouldn't like to learn my first language to a B2 level while turning 70.

Sure, thumbs up from a nurse who is just emptying my bedpan sound encouraging, but I think I will pass.


What's an example of a crazy learning plan for beginners?

I bet you have seen or done it before - most of us did. Very often, if you have 45 minutes of learning time per day, you will hear the following recommendations:


  • 15 min of reading,
  • 10 min of listening,
  • 10 minutes of talking,
  • 10 of writing.
It's either this or some other variation of this madness.
Polyglots Advice

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

What I do recommend most of the time for beginners in my course Vocabulary Labs is this:

  • learn vocabulary with Anki,
  • learn basic grammar,
  • consolidate this knowledge with activation strategies.

Once they learn enough words, they start more advanced training, which involves lots of passive learning. Unsurprisingly, people who have failed to learn a language for ten years, miraculously start progressing like crazy.


Polygot Tips - Reading vs. Listening


The expertise reversal also manifests itself in the reading vs. listening effectiveness. Here is an excellent excerpt from a recent study.


Read-and-listen approach benefited novice learners; more expert learners could benefit more from the read-only approach.

2. Confidence can be misleading



The first thing you should keep in mind that we all crave confidence. Nobody wants to listen to people who seem hesitant. It all starts at a young age.

Researchers found that young children between the age of four and five not only prefer to learn from people who appear confident, they also keep track of how well the person's confidence has matched with their knowledge and accuracy in the past (a concept called 'calibration') and avoid learning new information from people who have a history of being overconfident. - ScienceDaily

Said another way, sometimes we don't pay much attention to what somebody has to say as much as how convincing they are when they do it. However, let's not confuse confidence (or age) with good advice.

Never underestimate how gullible we can be. While I am writing this, probably a dozen people on the internet are buying some course on healing cancer with banana enemas because the dude selling it looks and speaks like Gandalf.

Heck, I would probably buy it if he lowered his voice enough.


3. Experts are notoriously bad at explaining why they do certain things



Here is an excellent excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's' book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."


"Out of all the research that we've done with top players, we haven't found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does," Braden says.


"They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful."


One of the things he does, for instance, is videotape top tennis players and then digitize their movements, breaking them down frame by frame on a computer so that he knows, say, precisely how many degrees Pete Sampras rotates his shoulder on a cross-court backhand.

That's precisely how you combat this problematic phenomenon - you don't rely on opinions, you track data. Without it, our explanation of why something happened might be heavily warped by other factors.

If you want to see how far you can go with experimenting, check out this article: Over 30 Things You Can Learn From All My Fail And Successful Memory Experiments.


4. Achieving a certain skill level ≠ efficiency


I love Tim Ferris' approach to breaking down complex skills. One of his strategies involved finding outliers in a given discipline - people who shouldn't be good at something (especially sports), but they excelled against all the odds.

This framework allows you to cut through all the potential noise and eliminate variables that might distort your conclusions.

For example, I have had plenty of discussions with students of philology who claimed that the way they are taught at universities is impeccable. Every single time I had to point out that for five years, at least in Poland, they spend about 40 hours per week learning their target language. Go figure that you can achieve a C1 or C2 level after that many hours of practice!. Personally, I would be more interested in finding out how somebody, with similar or identical background knowledge, did it in a year.

The same goes for a lot of people who were born and raised in multilingual families or countries. It's great that they have acquired all this knowledge, but they are probably not the best people to give advice on how to learn languages.


5. The warping effect of background knowledge



Background knowledge is another variable that is NEVER considered by learners. 

Most of the relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners' knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

It is well established that knowledge of a given domain facilitates recall of information in that domain. For example, Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, and Voss (1979) found that after listening to a description of a half-inning of a fictitious baseball game, participants high in baseball knowledge recalled more game actions and other game-relevant information, but less irrelevant information, than did participants lower in baseball knowledge.

Similarly, after listening to short vignettes from a game, participants high in baseball knowledge were better able to detect changes in the event descriptions on a subsequent recognition test than participants lower in baseball knowledge, especially when the changes related to the goal structure of the game (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Experiment 1). 

Walker (1987) also found a domain-knowledge effect when participants could read as well as listen to a half-inning game description.

Finally, Recht and Leslie (1988) reported the same effect when participants read silently the half-inning description.

Knowing many languages significantly changes your ability to acquire new ones. What's more, the more similar the language you want to learn is to the ones you already know, the faster you will acquire it.


Factors affecting your ability to learn



Keep in mind that there are lots of factors affecting your ability to learn, among others:

  1. 1
    Lack of a learning system
  2. 2
    Regularity of exposure
  3. 3
    Timing of repetition
  4. 4
    Retention intention
  5. 5
    Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
  6. 6
    The usefulness of a word
  7. 7
    Emotional saliency
  8. 8
    Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
  9. 9
    Lack of context
  10. 10
    Number of contexts
  11. 11
    Active encoding
  12. 12
    Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)
  13. 13
    The capacity of your short-term memory
  14. 14
    Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
  15. 15
    Germane cognitive load
  16. 16
    German cognitive load (GCL)
  17. 17
    Mental and physical condition
  18. 18
    Mental barriers
  19. 19
    Random variable(s)

Polyglots enjoy lots of unique advantages that have one thing in common - they decrease their general cognitive load. It means that they can learn much faster, longer, and more effectively than mono- and bilinguals. We can't pretend that it's not taking place, and we're all start at the same point. If this was a 100-meter dash, a typical polyglot would get a 70-meter headstart.

For example, quite a widespread piece of advice one can hear is that beginners should read simplified texts. Unfortunately, it's not true.

I want to make one thing very clear - no one is lying to you. These strategies DO work for them, but they will most probably won't work for you if your language background isn't extensive enough.


Learning Czech in 1 month


Let me give you a great example. My ninth and the last official language I learned was Czech. In 1 month (about 5 years ago), I managed to learn it from scratch to a B1/B2 level and confirmed with language tests.

It is a great result, and I am proud of it, but even at the beginning of this case study, I mentioned that I already know eight languages. What's more, my native tongue is Polish, and I speak fluent Russian.


Why is it important?

Because Czech shares about 70-80% of words with Polish. That means that right off the bat, my passive knowledge was big, and it was further increased by my knowledge of Russian.

Here are the implications of these numbers:


  • on day 1, I could already read and listen, and start acquiring some words passively
  • I didn't have to practice listening much because Polish and Czech are similar enough
  • there weren't too many words that seemed difficult for me pronunciation-wise
  • etc.


That was Czech. What about Slovak? To my surprise, when I visited Slovakia for Polyglot Gathering in 2017, I understood 98% of everything by virtue of knowing Czech. 

Would the above be true for me if I decided to learn Chinese? No!

That's why be alert if somebody tells you that passive learning is great. It's not - it sucks. However, it is effective for a person with extensive background knowledge.

If you have it - great. If not, better get back to active learning.


Summary -  Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies 



Taking polyglot tips and advice at face value can be a fatal mistake for people who don't know many or any languages. It can lead to opposite effects. Instead of progressing way faster, your progress can be almost non-existent. In extreme cases, you can become so overwhelmed that you will give up.

The overall explanation is simple - polyglots enjoy all the benefits of having extensive background knowledge in a specific field of language learning. That makes their knowledge acquisition process much more efficient.

My suggestion would be to think twice before using their (and my!) advice. Better make sure that it applies to you before you waste any time!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months: A Case Study

 

It’s amazing to see what kind of a heated debate a potential speed of learning can sparkle. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a post on Reddit titled:

How much do you expect a student to learn and be able to speak a new language in one semester with classes once or twice a week? (September to November)

Here are some of the answers.

Not a lot. Maybe halfway to the A1 exam?

Depends wholly on the language. Without any language transfer (lexically/historically related languages) I’d expect the speaking skill to be exactly zero. If one only takes

classes once or twice a week they’re going to forget everything between classes.

You need to speak with native speakers. The only way to truly advance in a language is to speak with people. Taking classes can help you form a base but to advance to a level of proficiency you need to study and practice everyday in your own life. Most of the time, I feel language classes are too slow.

This discussion is nothing new. It pops up now and then on different websites and fora. Almost with no exceptions, answers tend to fall into one of the following categories.
 

Common Learning Myths – to Learn a Language in 6 Months, You Have To:

 

1) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.

This advice is as great as it is unrealistic unless you want to get a first-class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn,” of course.

2) Be an experienced learner 

It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.

3) Give up and cry deeply

But what about an average language learner?
 
Is it impossible for him to learn a language fast? Do you need to renounce the material world and live in a ram-shackled hut in the Himalayas to pull it off?
 
If I didn’t know a thing or two things about rapid learning, I would probably get this impression.
And I would be wrong.
 
I am more than sure that the main reason people fail to learn quickly is that they do not know how to do it. And thus, they do not realize what kind of feats they are capable of.
 
What if I could show you the specific techniques you should use?
 
How quickly could you learn a language then?
 
Mateusz (or Mathew, if you prefer an Americanized version) is a student of mine and a rookie in the world of language learning who learned German from scratch to B2/C1 level in 5 months.
 
To top it off, after five months he had taken the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam and passed it
 
How?
 
I will get to that.
 
I will try to share our learning plan and what we did in as many details as I can in the hope that you will try to replicate these results.
 

Some background and introduction

 

Initially, I wanted to write this article in the form of an interview. However, I quickly changed my mind. It would leave dozens of bigger and smaller questions unanswered. Not to mention – most interviews are boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.


I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it. Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.

Mateusz
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).

2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and regular school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.

3) How much time did you need to achieve a B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.

As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.

What’s even worse, when I asked him if he knew something about rapid learning strategies, he just answered, “Kind of, but somehow I do not believe in these methods.”
 
Not the most fabulous beginning of our mission, huh?
 
As you can see, he had every reason to fail, and yet, he succeeded. One of the main reasons why he was able to pull it off was that he was a great student.
 

What makes a good student?


I have taught many students throughout the years. Even though most of them learn relatively fast and achieve B1/B2 level in about 12 months, just a few of them get to B2 level in 4-8 months.


Some character traits make them unique.

1) being motivated

Without it, most people wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.

Mathew’s motivation was apparent and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland.” That allowed him to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.

Of course, you should be aware that motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.

Another trait which can help you with that is:

2) being disciplined

It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.

I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan? Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature. You can awaken this trait by betting. (read more about it here).

Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point, he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t? I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.

How?

We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.

The last character trait which a good student should possess is:

3) being coachable

Why is it so important? Because of your ego.
 
Some people can’t take advice. It doesn’t matter that I explain step-by-step why some strategy works and the other one doesn’t. After a short time, they backslide to their wicked ways.
 
I vividly remember one woman I taught. She was progressing fast, which, I thought naively, was a good sign. One day, out of the blue, she told me that, for now, she is going to put her German in the back-burner. I knew that something was off about this situation.
 
“Why? Aren’t you happy with your progress?” I asked.
 
“I am. I have never learned so fast in my life”.
 
“Then what’s the problem?”
 
“Uhm, honestly, I just like my old methods better.”
 
Not that her methods were any easier or more pleasant, mind you. No. She just preferred to learn how she always did. It only shows that you can’t change every person’s approach to learning.

 

How to Learn German from Scratch to a b2 Level in 5 Months – How Much Time Was Needed 

 

Learn German From Scratch

Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.

How much time do you need to learn German to a B2 level?

A quick google search shows that The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) suggests that you need about 750 hours to get to this level.

An offer of many German-language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.

It’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.

 

How many words do you need to learn German to a B2 level?

People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.

 

How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?

For five months, we met, on average, two hours per week.

Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school. Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).

The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to

150 x 3 = 450 hours.

For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s undoubtedly impressive.

But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after five months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).

That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.

Although it was apparent that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Mathew’s results

 

Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months! Here is his pride and joy:

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

Results are not bad, but I expected them to be much higher. Mathew had a firm grasp of the language. I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – A Study Plan

 

I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.

Materials

We only used four things

That’s it. There is power in simplicity.

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – The first 2 weeks

 

During first four hours I taught Mathew

  • how to use ANKI and why it is effective
  • all the functional Grammar (i.e., Grammar which you need to communicate with others)
  • how to choose your daily goals so you know that you will achieve a given level within the desired timeframe
  • first memory system so you could utilize ANKI more effectively

 

No listening and no reading

I think that the things mentioned above are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for the first three months.

“Why?!” I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense! Or does it?

If you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn the first 3-5 thousand words directly from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic. If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?

Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on, but all in all, it’s not worth it.

 

No conversational partners

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.

So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation of why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively. What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:

 

1) Understanding

If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practice your grammar and vocabulary).

 

2) Being able to express yourself

This is usually the result of two things

  • having a good command of grammar
  • learning and activating words

Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?

Of course not!

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 2-12

 

Speaking

After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours, and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics.”

Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He also had to ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.

Once again, it might seem strange, but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.

In extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.

 

Teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary

Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practice his fluency.

Among others, I taught him how he could talk with himself at home (more about it here).

 

The main focus – vocabulary acquisition

The main focus during this period was learning as many words as possible. On average, Mathew learned between 35-40 words each day.

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 12-16

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

Listening and writing

It was the time when Mathew started reading a couple of articles per week, as well as listening to News in Slow German for at least 30-40 minutes each day.

As you probably recall, he didn’t listen to anything or anyone else but me for the first months. Understandably, his comprehension, at the very beginning, was very low. He could get only

about 20-25% of what he heard during the first couple of days. But what happened next blew his mind.

His comprehension rose to about 80 % within 2-3 weeks. After that, he switched to listening to the regular German radio.

Were his listening skills perfect when he took his exam? Of course not. They are always one of the most challenging things to improve. But as you could see, they were good enough to pass a listening part of the test.

 

Utilizing passive learning

Active learning is undoubtedly the most powerful language learning tool one might use. But it always works better when you combine it with passive learning.

That’s why I taught Mathew how to surround himself with a language to get even more out of his studies.

 

Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 16-20

 

It was the most boring period of our preparation. In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s a crucial element if you want to pass a certificate. You need to create a habit of solving different examination parts in a particular manner. 

It’s worth mentioning that we used some basic mnemonics to improve Mathew’s presentation skills. Being able to quickly memorize a rough plan of what you would like to say helps to take the edge off.

 

How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Summary

 

As you can see, rapid learning is undoubtedly doable even if you want to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months or faster. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy, and results are always great.

Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.

If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.

Happy learnings!

 

Vocabulary Labs

 

Interested in all the methods and strategies that we have used to learn German within that time? Check out my language course Vocabulary Labs. You can read dozens of similar testimonials here. It has been used by hundreds of learners to master over 40 different languages.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 20 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 

 

What Is Smart Learning and How to Apply It to Become a Better Learner

What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?

Contrary to popular belief, not all learning leads to enlightenment and self-development. Oftentimes, lousy learning practices can lead to the contrary. Instead of acquiring in-depth and meaningful knowledge, you end up learning random and superficial pieces of information of questionable credibility.

In other words, stupid learning can turn out to be a waste of time, whereas smart learning will, unsurprisingly, make you smart. As such, it should be a priority for any self-respecting student or professional.

Unfortunately, most people learn by feel. Partly because of the undisciplined approach to knowledge acquisition and somewhat because smart learning has become a bit of a trite slogan in recent years. We all know we should do it, but hardly anyone knows what it is.

Let's tackle this topic step by step.


What is smart learning?

There are 5 key traits that characterize smart learning.


1. Optimizing your reviews

If you still haven't got the news. We have known for over 140 years that optimizing reviews allows us to slow down memory decay. About that time, a brilliant German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus proved that we ​could significantly slow down memory decay by revising the learning material at the right moment.

The famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve depicts this phenomenon.

smart learning

You would think that 140 years is plenty of time, but I assure you it's not. The concept of optimizing your reviews is still relatively unknown. Spaced Repetition Software, which allows you to revise learning material at the optimal intervals automatically, is nowhere to be found in public schools or at universities. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Keep in mind that using programs like ANKI is not the ultimate solution. Yes, using it will certainly make you a better learner than about 70% of the population.

However, what makes it really effective is using it correctly, i.e., applying the right learning methods while reviewing information in ANKI. Spaced repetition algorithms are your white canvass, but you also have to know how to paint to get the best effects.

Read more: Why most spaced repetition apps don't work and how to fix it


2. Choosing the right learning materials

There are 2 types of sources of information:

  1. Primary sources
  2. Secondary sources

(1) Primary sources

Primary sources refer to previously established scientific facts (e.g., math, physics, and chemistry textbooks) or firsthand, fundamental research that is based upon observations or experiments (e.g., research articles in journals).

(2) Secondary sources

Secondary sources or secondhand sources refer to any learning resource which loosely relates to the primary resources and/or interprets them in a certain way (e.g., interviews, YT videos, etc.).

Roles of both sources of information

Both types of sources can be very useful in learning. The first one provides you with the certainty that the information you acquire is true.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, can help you make sense out of that information.

Sometimes hearing somebody's opinion on some matter can help you connect the dots and arrive at the right conclusion.

Always prioritize primary sources

As long as you focus on relentlessly acquiring knowledge from the primary sources, you can rest assured that your expertise will keep on growing and will be of the highest quality.

The problem arises when you try to derive a big chunk of your knowledge from secondhand sources. It always means one thing — you suspend your right to have any meaningful opinion.

You scarf down any crap which people dish out. And make no mistake. There are very few people who put in time and effort to really learn something.

Most simply regurgitate different anecdotes and old wives' tales to boost their ego.

Unless you prioritize learning from the primary sources, you will never be able to tell what's true and what's not.

Trust the facts, not the experts. Way too many people have their own agenda and have no problem with profiting from the naivety and ignorance of the others.

If you want to see for yourself how wide-spread that behavior is, go ahead and look up some popular language-learning websites. You will be lucky to find even one quotation on most of them.

As Dr. Johnson so wisely observed, truth is hard to assimilate in any mind when opposed by interest. Moreover, strong feelings about issues do not usually  emerge from deep understanding and knowledge.


3. Knowing what you can forget

WHAT IS SMART LEARNING

I have stated many times that if you want to be excellent in your area of choice, you need to remember tons of information and know how to connect in a meaningful way.

However, it doesn't mean that you literally have to suck in everything. With all due respect to the hard-working scientific community, when I read medical or memory studies, I rarely care who has written them. I won't waste any brainpower to remember it.

Why? Because ANKI is also a browseable database! If I need to look up the authors of a certain study, I can get this information within seconds.

You should always try to separate the worthwhile from the wooly.

It won't always be obvious to establish what's relevant and what's not. Sometimes only time will tell. There were times when I started memorizing random stuff only to realize after some time that I don't need to know it by heart. 

In other words, figuring out what's worth memorizing requires some trial and error, and it's heavily dependent on the depth of knowledge you want to acquire and on the conditions you will retrieve it in.

Definitely, one important criterion which can help you guide this decision process is choosing whether you want to master a certain discipline or be decent/good at it. 

Personally, I wouldn't decide to learn a lot of scripts or commands by heart if I was just programming for fun. However, if you want to learn a programming language to the "native" level of familiarity, you can't be too picky. In return, that will allow you to sketch out personal utility software, scripts, and hacks rapidly.


4. Choosing the right learning strategies

Choosing the right learning strategies depends on a lot of factors. However, there are two crucial elements that you need to incorporate if you want to become a successful learner.

Have a learning system

Let me make it very clear — you can't become good in your area of choice without an organized system of acquiring knowledge.

This is the basis of any learning success. Skipping this part makes as much sense as trying to build your house from the second floor.

Stop learning passively

The idea that we can acquire information effectively by reading or listening is as rife as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. Yes, you can learn this way, but this process is excruciatingly slow.

It doesn't matter how many relevant scientific studies get produced every year that show that passive learning is useless. The illusion of learning always seems to have the upper hand.

Students who engage in active learning learn more -- but feel like they learn less -- than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms.

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation.

Why did the students get it wrong? 

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying.

The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created.

Illusions of competence are seductive. They can easily mislead people into misjudging the strength of their memory, and they can encourage students to adopt study methods that undermine long-term retention. The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now

Here are other articles concerning passive learning:

5. Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!

BECOME A BETTER LEARNER

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

One of the best ways of amassing impressive knowledge within a relatively short period is concentrating on what's evergreen. Even though it's not possible in every single case, I believe that this is something we all should strive for. Political leaders will change, programming languages will evolve, but physics, math, and even psychology will remain almost unchanged at their core.

Focusing on those subjects will allow you to build evergreen knowledge that can be applied almost everywhere regardless of circumstances. What's more, the more you learn, the easier it will be for you to expand your knowledge. Every discipline contains nuggets of wisdom that can be transplanted into other areas.

Most of relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners’ knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

In other words, the more of such knowledge you gather, the quicker you will be able to learn!

Does it mean that you should try to master all the big disciplines? Of course not (unless you want to). Be picky and adjust your choices to your needs.

Whatever you do, remember this. Acquiring evergreen knowledge is an investment that will keep on giving and will never go to waste.

WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF EVERGREEN KNOWLEDGE?

  1. 1

    The exact sciences (math, physics, etc.)

  2. 2

    The art of persuasion

  3. 3

    The science of memory and productivity

  4. 4

    Popular languages

  5. 5

    The basic nutritional and medical information

  6. 6

    The basic financial knowledge

  7. 7

    Creativity


Summary — What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?

Smart learning is a fantastic learning philosophy. I am not only its big fan, but I also practice it every single day myself.

It can be seen as the best of the worlds, i.e., productivity and the science of memory.

At its core, smart learning involves 5 key elements which, if applied correctly, can help you to learn faster and become a better learner:

  1. 1

    Optimizing your reviews

  2. 2

    Choosing the right learning materials

  3. 3

    Knowing what you can forget

  4. 4

    Choosing the right learning strategies

  5. 5

    Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 23 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How to Learn Finnish Fast – from Scratch to a B1 Level in 3 Months

Learn finnish fast

 

Do you want to learn Finnish fast? Great! I have a great pleasure of showing you a case study, or a magical transformation as I like to call it, of one of my superstar students. Kate took my language learning course Vocabulary Labs quite many months ago and very quickly morphed into a learning beast! She learned Finnish to an A2 level in 3 weeks and a B1 in about 3 months as verified by one of her local language schools. What makes it even more impressive is that Kate is a busy mom of 2. She has no time to waste.

Another cool thing about this case study is that I collected all of Kate’s emails throughout the course. They will give you a detailed picture of how drastically one’s approach to learning can change once they switch to different learning strategies and start violating memory principles.

This article also gives me yet another chance of showcasing a core philosophy promoted by the Universe of Memory.

 

Learning is mostly a lonely struggle. It’s what you do at home that really matters. Choose a bad learning strategy, or focus on the incorrect things and you can kiss your progress goodbye.

 

If that wasn’t enough, Kate also shares her advice about encouraging your family to join you in your language mission. It seems that the key strategy which has eluded me for years are thinly veiled threats of starving your significant other. Who would have thought?

 

Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation

 

The pre-course evaluation

 

One of the indispensable parts of the Vocabulary Labs course is a pre-course survey which I send to each member before the course starts. It helps me evaluate the state of knowledge of all the participants as well as their propensities and current learning styles.

Below you can find some of Kate’s answers from the said survey. Her original goal was to learn German, but at the very beginning of the course, she decided to change it to Finnish.

 

  • What languages do you know currently and at what levels? Which one is your native tongue?
    Russian is my native tongue.
    I know English at C2.
    I used to know French at B2-C1 and some Latin, but I’ve forgotten most part of both by now. Also, I tried learning Japanese and German, but I’m about A0 in them 🙂
  • How much time can you devote to learning per day? Be as realistic as you only can.
    About an hour if I’m enthusiastic, not more than half an hour if there’s no interest, but only my will power involved.
  • How much time do you spend learning your target language every day? Please give me the approximate numbers for the following categories: reading, listening/watching, writing, talking.
    I‘m not learning German now.
  • What are you reading/watching/listening to?
    I don’t read or watch much (if we speak about fiction or things like news and films), I listen to audiobooks. It isn’t because I don’t like reading or watching. The only reason is that I can listen doing something else at the same time, while reading and watching need total concentration (well, watching a film + crocheting is possible, but with reading even this is out of the question). The majority of what I read/watch is in English (articles, lectures, etc. on the Internet).
  • Who do you talk to (teachers, friends, etc.)?
    Students. But that’s in English. In German, I don’t talk to anyone.
  • How do you learn and revise your vocabulary? What systems/apps/ websites are you using? (the more details the better)
    To learn German, I used Duolingo. I did it because I was interested in whether a program can really teach you anything. It taught me a couple of things, but not much. To study some C2 vocab when I was getting ready to take my CPE exam, I used Quizlet. I created flashcards myself, but I didn’t use them much – it was rather boring.
  • What do you (currently) like/dislike about language learning?
    There isn’t anything that I dislike. Languages are part of my life and have always been. I just enjoy them.
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses when it comes to learning? (discipline, concentration, etc.)
    I remember and understand things quickly – these are my strengths. I drop things easily if I’m bored. This lack of persistence is my weakness.
  • What are your favorite hobbies/pastimes?
    Usually, I’m up to my ears in work, which is also my hobby. When I’m too tired of work, I just relax doing nothing.
  • What is your current vocabulary size in your target language? 
    In German it’s about 100 words, I guess. Not more. Although I’ve never counted them. And they’re all my passive vocabulary.
  • How many new words do you learn per day?
    Zero.
  • How do you currently learn grammar?
    I don’t learn it in at all.
  • What is the quickest you have ever learned a language?
    A year – I was able to talk to a native speaker after a year of studying. But the level wasn’t high, so it all depends on what you mean by “have learned”. If it’s totally independent use of the language, like C1-C2, then my only achievement is English, and it took me many years to reach this level.
    To finish answering, let me say that although I’m very curious about your system, I’m at the same time very skeptical about it. In other words, I don’t really expect much and regard it more like an experiment of some sort. I don’t remember when and how I found your first article about memory and language learning, but I certainly liked it, because I rarely subscribe to receive e-mails. So, I was very interested to find out that you’re launching this course. Judging by your articles, the course is going to be interesting, regardless of my expectations 🙂

 

Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!

 

Meet Kate!

 

Meet Kate!

 

Once the course starts, all the participants receive e-mail reminders about their progress. It helps me keep track of their learning pace and any potential problems. It also makes for a great read later on! These e-mails create an amazing narrative and show how much people, and their learning capacity, can change within just a couple of weeks.

Here are Kate’s e-mails.

 

Update #1 – Beating 2 months of learning with Duolingo in 5 days

 

Hi Bartosz,

I’d like to share my impressions of your course. At the very beginning, I was skeptical (and I wrote to you about it). Well, seems like I’m not skeptical anymore)) Bartosz, your E.V.A. method is mind-blowing (both literally and figuratively). Its simplicity and effectiveness are just amazing.

Now, more details. My initial aim was German, but right at the beginning of the course, I changed my mind. Since I’ve already tested how Duolinguo works using German, I decided to pick up some other language and see what I will achieve using your method. Then I was going to compare my Duolinguo achievements in German with the achievements in the new language. For the experiment, to be totally honest, I chose a language which looks absolutely alien to me: Finnish. It has nothing in common with the languages I know, since it belongs to a different family.

 

Duolingo experiment

My Duolingo experiment (which I carried out 2 years ago) lasted for about 2 months. I spent on it an hour or more daily. I learned some words and got some understanding of some grammar structures, but that’s about it. I don’t think I could say anything in that language except for the phrases which were repeated multiple times and which I simply knew by heart. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and deleted Duolingo after two months.

I started using your method on May, 5th. On May 10th I realized I’ve already achieved more than after 2 months of Duolingo. And that’s not because Finnish is easy and German is not. Actually, it’s the other way around. In German, there were notions easy to grasp since they’re similar to English in some way. Many words looked familiar, too. Finnish, ha-ha) Nothing in common either with Latin, or with English, or with Russian.

Maybe, pronunciation is easier, but nothing else. Still, I already know more than 100 words and CAN USE them. And it’s very inspiring, of course, to see this progress.

I didn’t believe at first that B1 in 4 months is achievable, but now I think it is pretty possible if I just keep doing it at the same pace (which is not highly demanding, by the way).

As for the biggest takeaway from the Grammar Module — that’s Deep Learning. I haven’t yet been doing it for long, but it already brings in the results.

Read more: Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice.

 

Update #2 – First 1000 Finnish words and A2 level in 3 weeks

 

Hi Bartosz,

I’m happy to share my experience of using your course, which is very pleasant indeed.

First of all, yesterday I finished my first thousand of Finnish words (yes, I was waiting with this email just to be able to boast). 400+ of them are regarded by ANKI as mature. This would have never been possible but for the techniques, I learned from you. I do study grammar as well from time to time, but as it requires more concentration and can’t be done 5-10 minutes in the morning, then 3 minutes while the kids are playing in the sandbox, I study little grammar in comparison with vocabulary.

I’ve got a textbook in Finnish. I don’t use it, but what I do is open it once a fortnight and see if I can understand something in there. In the beginning, it didn’t make any sense, but now the first four or five units are pretty easy to understand.

 

Hungry for more

The method has changed my perception of language learning so much that sometimes I feel my progress is slow. At this moment I remember my words “I’d call reaching A2-B1 in 3-4 months a tremendous success”. I know this phenomenon of greediness from my students, and now I’m experiencing it myself. Funny, but when I was doing Duolinguo making no progress whatsoever, I didn’t feel that I was going too slow.

At the end of the third week of my experiment, I found an online placement test offered by some Finnish language school in Moscow. The result was that they suggested I join their second-semester group (which means I’d achieved in 3 weeks what they were studying for 4 months at the same price which I paid for your course).

 

Update #3 – 1500 Finnish Words + Convincing Her Husband to Learn as Well!

 

Thanks for monitoring the progress 🙂 I’ve learned a bit more than 1500 words (today it’s the 80th day of my learning), and I’m progressing further. This learning thing seems to be infectious: my husband started on Finnish, too. His pace is slower – just 5 words, but in spite of this, some progress can already be seen. Now I’ve got a partner to practice my skills during breakfast time :)) Totally free and always available.

 

2800+ Finnish words

Summer is over, a new school year has started, which means a lack of time. Well, no time at all, actually. So, I set my daily word limit to 10 (it used to be 20) just to make it doable. Right now the number of words I’ve learned is 2800, which is quite a lot. I decided to take a lesson with a native speaker to see if I will be able to speak. Yes, I’m able to speak and, which is even better, the natives can understand it! It’s more difficult to understand what they say, but I’m sure it’s a matter of practice. I’ve tried lessons with 2 different people, and both couldn’t believe that I’ve been studying Finnish for 4 months only (I took those lessons at the beginning of September, which was exactly 4 months since I started this language from scratch).

 

Plans to take the officialYKI test

Now my plan is to try taking their YKI test. It takes place only in Finland, but the more I learn the eager I am to visit that country. And if I visit it, why not taking the exam? There are three levels on which you can take it: A1-A2, B1-B2, C1-C2. I’m thinking of taking B1-B2. I would attempt at C1 if it weren’t for my extra-busy teaching time till the end of May. I just won’t be able to find the necessary time. However, B2 looks achievable.

Best wishes,
Kate

P. S. “B2 looks achievable”. In a year. God, who could have thought I’d ever say this…

 

A Short Interview With Kate

 

A short interview with Kate
While writing this case study, I was also able to catch up with Kate and ask her a couple of questions about learning and her family. It’s truly inspiring to see how much effort and sneakiness she put into encouraging them to learn Finnish fast as well!

 

What do you do?

I’m a teacher of English. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I have experience of working at school, but for the last ten years, I’ve been a freelance teacher.

 

Why exactly did you decide to learn Finnish instead of German?

I’ve chosen Finnish because at first learning it was part of an experiment. I was interested to find out whether the system you suggest really allows people to learn languages faster than usual. For this purpose, I needed a language which is different from the ones I was familiar with.

Since I studied Latin, such languages as Italian, Spanish, etc. were out of the question — being familiar with Latin makes it easier to learn them, so it wouldn’t have been clear whether it’s Bartosz’s system working or just my experience. German is in certain ways similar to English. Moreover, by the beginning of the experiment, I had already tried learning German, so this language wasn’t new either. So I was looking for a language from a different language family. Finnish, which is a member of the Uralic family and looked totally alien to me at the beginning of my experiment, was a perfect choice.

My 2 cents: That’s a great approach. It’s really to fool yourself into believing that you can learn fast if you learn a language that is similar to the ones you already know. For years, while I have been devising my learning strategies, I used languages which I knew nothing about to minimize any background knowledge interference.

 

Did you have to force your husband to learn Finnish or was it his choice :)?

Yep. I told him I wouldn’t feed him if he didn’t start learning at least 5 words a day. Speaking seriously, I didn’t force him, but it wasn’t his choice either. I started by creating an ANKI profile for him and added 3 words there every day.

It took less than a minute to revise them during breakfast time, and in about ten-fifteen days he realized he could say simple phrases. It inspired him and he asked me to increase the number of words up to 5. Then 7. Then 10. Then he started reading to learn some grammar and listen so some dialogues on Finnish sites. So that’s how it happened.

My 2 cents: Let’s take a second to appreciate Kate’s brilliance. She didn’t wait until her husband makes up his mind. Instead, she created a separate ANKI account and flashcards to kickstart his progress. Sure, it would be better if he produced them himself. the thing is that probably he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Kate’s initiative. If you’ve been contemplating how to force your loved ones to take up a new language, you might benefit from this strategy.

 

Do you currently have some opportunities to use the language? If not, how do you maintain it?

Right now, I don’t have many opportunities to use the language unless I read/listen to something or exchange a couple of phrases with my husband. I used to have 1 lesson a week with a native speaker (I started in September to see whether I would be able to understand something and make myself understood, I liked the person I talked to, so I continued the speaking sessions till February. In February I had to quit because I was fully concentrated on my work).

 

Do you use methods from Vocabulary Labs at your work? Did they affect the results of your students? How?

Yes, I used the methods. One of the methods (or ideas, probably) that I used was to set a certain minimum of what has to be learnt/done every day. I prepared the materials in such a way that the goal of doing them every day was achievable pretty easily. It resulted in my students having covered LOTS of stuff. Much more than was covered by those who studied less systematically.

Another one is, of course, ANKI. I explained to the students how to make cards. Some of them started using it right away, others didn’t want to. I didn’t insist much. In about 3 months it was easy to detect who was and who was not using ANKI without even asking them. The formers’ level grew much more rapidly.

My 2 cents: That definitely sounds familiar. Even after one week of private coaching, I can already hear whether my clients use ANKI or not.

 

Do you use the said methods in your daughter’s education? How exactly does it look like?:)

The only method I’m using in my daughter’s education is ANKI. We just use it to learn words. For example, when we watch a cartoon or just talk about something while walking and this or that word pops up, we write a sentence with it in ANKI (and a picture! you can’t make a card without a picture, it’s almost a crime).

My daughter’s pace is 3 words a day, but we often skip writing new words (not because she isn’t willing, but because I’m a lazy and irresponsible mother). She never skips revising, though. She can’t read in English yet, so I read the sentence aloud making a pause where she has to insert a word. Sometimes she makes sentences herself for the new cards.

About a month ago she asked me whether she could have lessons with someone who speaks English. I found a teacher on iTalki, and now they’re having lessons. I write out the words which are an active vocabulary for the lessons, and then my daughter learns them. If not for this learning, the lessons would mainly be a waste of money (as well as my speaking sessions in Finnish). Backed up by ANKI, however, they are fine: my daughter enjoys talking to someone from far away and understands more and more. I used to have lessons with my daughter last year. She’s a quick learner, but now she’s progressing quicker than she used to.

My younger daughter (3.8 years old) is always near my elder one when she’s revising. Side effect: the younger one knows half the words, too.

My 2 cents: I am raising my son (22 months) bilingually ,and I am also optimizing his words repetitions with ANKI. Of course, he is way too small to do it himself,  being the lazy bugger he is, but I do it for him to optimize his learning curve.

 

What are the three main takeaways you learned from Vocabulary Labs?

1) I found out that learning a language can be amazingly quick. Finnish is more difficult than any other language I’ve come across so far (ok, Latin can compete, but it’s a dead language), yet the pace with which I learned it was quicker than, for example, French. Knowing that a language can be learned fast is, actually, a very important takeaway. It motivates and gives hope thus making me succeed.

2) The one that I’m using in my work: better take a small step every day than sit for 10 hours once a month.

3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.

3a) Switching my mobile to Finnish. It’s a tiny detail, but it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day.

Actually, I have forgotten many things from the course since it’s very big. Now that I have some free time, I’m going to revisit it 🙂

Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?

I’m not planning, but dreaming of learning Swedish as soon as I reach B2 in Finnish (which I hope will happen by the end of summer if everything goes as planned).

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan

 

Language strategies

 

In this section, you can find a rough plan which Kate used in order to learn Finnish fast to a B1 level as verified by a language school. As a reminder, if you’re looking for a more detailed version of this blueprint, please read another case study of mine “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months“.

Let’s start with the learning resources Kate has used to accomplish her mission.

 

Finnish Learning Resources

 

Kate only four things:

  • ANKI
  • Frequency lists (in the form of ANKI decks)
  • Websites to find native speakers to talk to
  • FinnishPod101

 

I can only smile when people shake their heads in disbelief upon hearing that you don’t need more than a handful of resources to learn a language. Interestingly, the opposite is true. The more learning resources you use, the smaller your chances of being able to use them efficiently. What’s terrifying, even one small piece of paper which you scribble on can be counted as a separate resource. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.

 

The Best Anki Decks for Finnish Vocabulary

 

One of the fastest ways to learn a language is to start with vocabulary lists. Here are the best English-Finnish ANKI decks I have been able to find.

Please keep in mind that those lists are supposed to be a basis for your own ANKI deck. Nothing can replace the effort you put into creating your own flashcards and sentences.

This deck should be enough to take you from zero to about a B2 level. It also includes examples and audio.

And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:

 

How to Talk With Finnish Native Speakers for Free

 

Organized lessons are, of course, a great idea. However, in the era of the internet, it’s absolutely not necessary to pay for them in order to talk with native speakers.

Here is a list of great websites where you can arrange language exchange with language enthusiasts.

My absolute favorite is definitely Italki. This is also the website that Kate has used to find a language partner.

 

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – What to Do

 

Learn finnish fast

 

(1) Download ANKI
(2) Download a frequency list (e.g. in the form of ANKI decks)
(3) Calculate your daily goal.
It’s a number of words you need to learn daily in order to achieve your goal withing a certain timeframe. You should base your calculation on this article – how many words you should need for every language level.
(4) Start creating sentences with the words from your frequency list.
Don’t learn passively. Actually use the information you want to memorize.
(5) Be systematic
(6) Use deliberate practice to quickly acquire grammar
(7) Talk with yourself to consolidate grammar and vocabulary
(8) Once you learn 2000-2500 words, find a language partner if you want to.
Of course, the more words you know before your first conversation, the better for you.
(9) Don’t forget about listening. Try to start practicing your listening comprehension only once you learn at least 2000 words if you want to optimize your learning time.
Of course, there are many nuances to this strategy but this learning plan should allow you to learn Finnish fast.

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan – Summary

 

Way too many people think that learning boils down to devoting vast swathes of time to your learning projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, effective learning is all about energy and effort you put into your learning. Very often one hour of honest work can beat 10 hours of bumming around. If you add effective learning strategies to this mix, rest assured that your progress will know no bounds.

Do you want to ask me or Kate something about this mission? Let us know in the comments.

 

Vocabulary Labs

 

Interested in all the methods and strategies that we have used to learn German within that time? Check out my language course Vocabulary Labs. You can read dozens of similar testimonials here. It has been used by hundreds of learners to master over 40 different languages.

 

The Curse of a b2 Level AKA the Language Learning Plateau – What It Is and How to Get Unstuck

The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,

What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?

The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.

 

Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.

 

What’s a B2 level is all about

 

What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!

Let’s take a look at requirements which one would have to meet in order to be classified at a B2 level. They are a part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

 

Description of a B2 level (B2 INTERMEDIATE)

At this level, you can:

  • understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

 

Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.

Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.

Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.

Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.

 

How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level

The curse of a b2 level - what it's all about and how to get unstuck

 

English proficiency in the world

 

Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choice. Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.

 

Countries with the highest English proficiency

 

Here is a list of countries that were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.

 

Very High Proficiency

 

Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.

Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.

A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.

 

Countries with moderate English proficiency

 

Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

 

As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.

Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.

 

German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.

 

In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.

 

The magical number 20

 

In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.

Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.

Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.

From that, we can only conclude that students who achieve a C1 are also relatively low (read more about in The Handbook of the Neuroscience of Multilingualism).

I rest my case. Let’s move on.

 

The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck

1. No learning strategy and no system

 

One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.

Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.

 

To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.

Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

 

The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.

And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?

You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.

 

There can be no effective learning if you’re not optimizing your repetitions.

 

2. Concentrating on passive learning

 

Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible tool for language rookies.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.

I will let it sink in!

That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.

Let’s delve into its consequences.

 

Everything works if you have lots of time

We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

 

It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.

Why?

Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.

Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.

 

 

Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning

 

 

 

Below you can find some findings which closely echo the results I have obtained from my experiments.

 

Vocabulary gains from reading

 

Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.

 

Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.

 

The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.

 

Vocabulary gains from listening

 

Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.

 

 

Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.

 

Some caveats

 

At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.

At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.

Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.

 

The curse of a b2 level – how to get unstuck

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

 

The most important element you should concentrate on is to develop some kind of learning system. Ideally, it should encompass the following strategies:

 

Summary

A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems that will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).

If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.

Why Is It Difficult to Recall Vocabulary and How to Fix It?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

 

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word

 

Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

 

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

 

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

 

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

 

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

 

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

 

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues

 

Whydifficult to recall vocabulary

 

Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

 

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

 

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

 

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

 

Memory principles governing recall

 

There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

 

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

 

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

 

This gives us our first rule:

 

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

 

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.

 

Example:

Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

 

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

 

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,you run into exactly this problem.

 

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

 

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

 

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.I have a strange definition of “fun”.

 

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

 

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).

Example

Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a suddensome cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice andthen you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situationthe chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues

 

 

Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

 

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

 

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).

 

Example

Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor inthe capacity of our short-term memory.

 

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

 

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

 

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

 

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

 

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

 

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at allor which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examplesof strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning

 

Mnemonics

As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

 

PHRASE YOU LEARN       PHRASE YOU RETRIEVEencoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

 

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

 

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

 

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items

 

Associations

Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an associationfor every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

 

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

 

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

 

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -&