A blog that needs work

The Difficulty of Learning

Movies are a pretty interesting thing. Over the course of a few hours (alright, just shy of two hours usually), your brain takes in a massive amount of visual and auditory information, and somehow manages to make sense of it. In that short time, your brain is introduced to a setting, a cast of characters, personal or political motivations, conflicts, and so on, and somehow your brain manages to figure it out. Sure, there are common filming and writing techniques that make the film easier to understand, and your brain is hard at work chunking data together, and your brain probably filters out a lot of the visual information (what colour was the room in that scene? Who cares!) but still, your brain sorts it all out.

Where was I going with this? Right. Learning.

Your brain makes sense of it. Really, it's all a mess of information, but over years of training, both deliberate and accidental, a series of scenes shot out of order and cut and spliced in all sorts of ways manages to make sense. It's a very special kind of learning (see what I did there? Of course you did)

Why am I going on about learning?

On the way back from a recent movie, I was thinking about the movie itself. Not the characters or the plot, or the filming or acting, just the movie itself. Mentally, I stepped through the movie scene by scene, trying to recall the entire movie. The first thing that I noticed was how easily most of the information came to me. Sure, I wasn't focussing that closely, but with a bit of effort, I likely could remember much of the dialogue.

This isn't some sort of special skill I've learned. I'm sure with a bit of effort, if you think back to, say, earlier today, you'd have a pretty good shot of remembering your entire day. If you'd try again tomorrow, maybe you wouldn't have as much luck.

If I can remember a movie so clearly, why not, say, my first-year calculus class (L'Hopitals rule? It's been a while)? Well, obviously there's a bit of recency at work, but that isn't the point.

Learning is difficult. It isn't difficult just because remembering is difficult, it is difficult because understanding is difficult, and it's difficult to understand why remembering is difficult.

Enough pontificating, what am I getting at? I can remember the movie because it just happened. Great. I can't remember my first-year calculus course, not because it happened a long time ago, but because I didn't understand how important it might be to remember that material. Even that is a simplification: at the time, I didn't realize how a simple review after the lecture and at the end of the week would go a long way (it isn't as though no one told me this, I just didn't understand the effect it could have).

Just take a look at the forgetting curve. It's a bit sad to imagine how much I've forgotten.

But I digress. As I said, I'm sure that I was told to review, I just didn't. It's not as though I wanted to fail (which I didn't, fail that is), it's that even if I had done the review, I wouldn't have known the why, I wouldn't have understood.

That's just one of the reasons that learning is so hard. You can teach really well, you can teach people to memorize and review, but if you can't help someone to understand why they do something, none of it matters (well, not none of it, but I'm sure you get my meaning).

Learning is difficult because we have to pack all the learning information (rules, facts, theories, etc.) plus all that meta-information (why do this? why do things this way?) all while your brain has already forgotten what you did this morning.

Of course, I'm no neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist. Knowing what I know now, I'll have to see if its worth trying to remember the movie tomorrow.

Either way, I guess I'll have to make a more... conscious effort.

Nicholas Terwoord

A self-titled software developer, "code archaeologist" (whatever that means), and professional geek. Spends too much of his time coming up with new projects, and not enough time working on them. Likes video games, board games, anime, manga, and Pathfinder / Dungeons and Dragons (GOTO: Line #1 - Geek).