How do you improve your skills?
October 29, 2010 11:01 AM   Subscribe

What specific techniques and processes do you use to improve mastery?

I love learning. At the moment, I'm studying Italian, songwriting, and world history, and I'm also continually honing my professional skills (Drupal, CSS, PHP, Javascript, technical writing).

I'm looking for widely applicable processes (that I could use with languages, programming, music, or whatever) that help you make significant progress toward mastering a skill.

For example:

* teaching others is a widely recognized way to improve your own understanding of something
* doing a task that's too hard for you, but not so hard that you give up or spin your wheels, is a way to significantly improve your mastery so you're not spending all your time re-practicing stuff you pretty much already know

I'd appreciate both personal anecdotes and links to studies on how we do this kind of learning. If you can tell me how you apply a particular technique ("General practice: Teaching other people reinforces and clarifies my understanding. So here's what I do: I answer questions on an online forum."), that would be especially helpful.

posted by kristi to Education (8 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I was reading about this last night in Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide and he cites some studies that show the main way the brain learns improvement is by pinpointing mistakes (I'm paraphrasing here). He interviews a guy who is one of the best backgammon players in the world (and a chess grandmaster) and the guy is obsessed with finding his own mistakes, and then trying to repeat processes without those mistakes. They liken this to how computers "learn" in some forms of artificial intelligence. So I guess I'd say: 1) be meticulous about figuring out what mistakes you are making in any of these fields and keep practicing by trying to eliminate these mistakes, and 2) find someone who can give you honest feedback if you can't get it yourself.
posted by mattbucher at 11:18 AM on October 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, 1) from mattbucher's answer is the most important part. The second most important is repetition.

Do something. If you did not do the something perfectly, identify exactly where you want to improve, and repeat, trying to correct that mistake. "Slower", or "easier" if you have to, until you do the something perfectly. Do it perfectly 5 or so times in a row. Then "bump up the difficulty" (could mean a number of different things depending on the activity) and start the process again.

That's the general way to master something, it seems to me. I use it for guitar, music production, video games, work (legal-assisting), interpersonal communication, chess, sports, etc. It works pretty well. The x-factor is willpower/dedication. Mastering/perfecting stuff is usually hard, tedious and inefficient.
posted by 3FLryan at 11:31 AM on October 29, 2010

Also, an understanding of 1) WHY you make the mistakes and 2) WHY they are mistakes, not just that they are mistakes, greatly enhances 1) your general understanding of yourself and how you relate to the task at hand and 2) the speed at which you will achieve mastery.
posted by 3FLryan at 11:34 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Verbatim repetition can be too broad to be useful.

Personally, I prefer variations on a repetition. For example, if you're trying to learn about an historic era, don't just read one passage on it, read several that all describe the same period, but each in its own way.

After a while, not only will the main ideas sink in (from the repetition), but you'll find that certain ways of framing them will resonate more than others--and one of the variations will stick. The more repetitions, the more likely you are to find the "frame" that resonates with you. The linguistic concept of "idiolects" backs up this idea a bit. An idiolect is a term that describes an individual dialect--words that you use a little more frequently and that are, somehow, idiosyncratic to you.

My theory is that learning is most effective when you stumble upon some sort of idiolectical connection, which, of course, you're more likely to do with increased exposure to multiple ways of describing an idea.
posted by Violet Blue at 1:32 PM on October 29, 2010

Please tell me you are already using spaced repetition. Because if you are using spaced repetition then obviously you are really just asking for simple ideas to make your use of spaced repetition more effective, since that should be a foundational method you are using whenever there are a lot of new facts or concepts to understand and/or with such subjects as: everything.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. But seriously, I doubt there's a subject where using spaced repetition can't help, and with anything that includes a lot of new random information you must absorb before acquiring mastery (languages, programming, math, chess, history, etc. etc.) I feel confident stating that you are wasting your time if you are not using spaced repetition.
posted by dubitable at 3:06 PM on October 29, 2010

Also, continuing on the discussion of mistakes, I've found that failure is indeed the key to success. And one of the keys to failing often is not getting distressed when you fail. This article about Stephen Krashen's Theory of Second Language Acquisition presents a lot of ideas relating to how self-confidence contributes to positive outcomes with language learning in particular (see the parts especially about the "affective filter" and to a lesser extent the "monitor"). I think we can generally extrapolate this to everything. I personally feel like confidence can almost be defined as a willingness to fail. This is how we grow in everything in life I believe—we find the limits of our abilities through failure and then push at that boundary, extend that boundary. Only through failure can we grow (learn). And the more confident we are the more we are able to learn (and vice-versa).

This doesn't necessarily even have to do with interactions with people. I know that when I'm going through my card repetitions daily I can choose to either beat myself up because I've forgotten the same damn word or sentence for the 100th time, or I can roll with it and give it another shot. When I roll with it I tend to do better on everything else, 'cause my head is in a good space and I believe I can do it: but the key is that, while I'm trying hard, I don't mind when I screw up.

So all this is to say: I believe that feeling good about yourself, feeling confident (not arrogant—arrogance embodies an unwillingness to fail, quite the opposite I think!) is a key to success—mastery—in learning!
posted by dubitable at 3:18 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

GREAT answers so far - thanks!

Just a few quick responses:

3FLryan: The x-factor is willpower/dedication. Mastering/perfecting stuff is usually hard, tedious and inefficient.

I actually really enjoy working at the things I want to learn, and I tend not to mind the tedium. If I can find any ways to be more efficient about it, though, I'd love to pursue them. Your suggestion about aiming for perfection, reviewing AND UNDERSTANDING mistakes is exactly what I'm looking for.

dubitable: Please tell me you are already using spaced repetition.

I totally am. I love spaced repetition, and it's a perfect example of what I'm looking for here. It can be all too easy for me to just review and reinforce stuff I've essentially already learned, which is not the best use of my learning time. Spaced repetition makes me focus on the stuff I haven't learned well yet, and spending 5 seconds of flashcard time on "scorso", which I keep forgetting, is more effective than spending 5 seconds reviewing "gatto", which I never get wrong.

Keep 'em coming, this is great!
posted by kristi at 3:53 PM on October 29, 2010

When I need to memorize something, I physically write it out. The physicalness (?) of the pen against paper seems to help my retention.

Sometimes, I try to come up with an elevator speech for the concept I'm working through, as if I had only 30 seconds to explain the big picture to someone.

If I'm reading through a lot of details (or a lot of code) or I'm trying to figure out how different ideas relate to each other, I draw pictures - usually flowcharts or mind maps or whatever occurs to me that could explain the overall structure of something.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:17 PM on October 29, 2010

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