TL;DR: The Brain That Changes Itself → Hooked on reading → Discovered Anki → Read “Make It Stick” → SuperMemo: Incremental Reading
This is my 8-year timeline on learning how to learn compressed in one article: a collection of some memories and reflections. Like all things in life, it takes time and effort to become good at something, and learning how to learn is no exception.
It All Started With a Book
My journey of being swallowed into this meta-learning rabbit hole started with the book ”The Brain That Changes Itself”. It was part of my high school biology reading program: we needed to finish a book report on it. Usually I’d do what I always did: scrambled something together from the back of the book sprinkled with some of my imagination. This time however, for some reason I actually read it… from cover to cover. The stories were so fascinating that I borrowed it and read it again. This book kindled my love for reading and I was mesmerized by brain science ever since. I immediately read Brain Rules, The Power of Habits, The Willpower Instinct and the like, which ultimately led to the birth of my meta-learning book list.
My meta-learning growth was never linear or gradual. There were three periods of significant sprouts:
1st growth period: read Make It Stick. I consider this book my enlightenment teacher. It opened my eyes to all the learning techniques from cognitive science.
2nd growth period: discovered Anki.
3rd growth period: discovered SuperMemo. Full story here
From “The Brain That Changes Itself” to “Make It Stick”
Reading “The Brain That Changes Itself” got me into reading, but my real meta-learning journey started when I read Make It Stick in 2015. It was eye-opening. The book is the expanded version of Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. It’s full of fascinating stories and without much the jargon. At one point I stuck various core concepts like “Testing”, “Interleaved Practice”, “Self-explaining” in front of me to remind myself to incorporate these learning techniques.
Side note: Make It Stick or Anki first? Before Anki, I remember doing paper clozes on my Biology textbook: making paper strips to cover the keywords and then tested myself. Upon further reflection, I didn’t discover Anki after reading Make It Stick, which was published in 2014 but I was already using Anki in 2013. Before Anki, there was a short period when I was using some other flashcard app on my iPod Touch. I remember using some random flashcard app. To this day I have no idea how I got into Anki at all; some lucky Google searches is the probable explanation.
Splurging $800 on a Memory Workshop
In 2012, I spent $800 to join a memory training workshop that claimed to “10x Your Memory”. A memory teacher did a live demo where she would ask each of us to give her a binary number (either 1 or 0). She would write the binary string on the board, stared at it for a few minutes, and cited the whole string flawlessly. My younger self was very impressive: “think about how much easier school would be if I had her memory power!” Spoiler alert: I didn’t become a top student and the whole course can be summed up in the book Moonwalking With Einstein.
Aromtherapy for Memory Retention
Back in 2013 I somehow discovered Aromtherapy for memory boost. This electric aroma diffuser along with three essential oil cost $300. It was expensive to say the least, but somehow my family agreed to my ridiculous request. I remember inhaling it like “Quick! Inhale this magic mist for instant memory boost!”
I just realized how I got into Aromtherapy. If memory serves (and it’s not false memory), I was reading Brain Rules and it mentioned the following:
Some researchers report that smell-exposed experimental groups [with popcorn] can accurately retrieve twice as many memories as the controls.
The “Rage to Master” Due to Academic Struggles
The psychologist Ellen Winner coined the term “the rage to master.” My obsessive desire to learn how to learn born out of one simple desire: I wanted to get better grades. I didn’t become interested in memory, brain science or learning methods suddenly; I didn’t bump into Anki the way YouTube’s algorithm would recommend some random videos to you. It was simply that I wasn’t getting the grades I wanted in high school: my grades were not proportional to my (perceived) effort.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
It’s particularly malicious because we’re often told that, if you fail, try try try again, that you need to double down the effort. So triple down I did: I stayed up late; spending hours re-reading my textbooks or copying verbatim to notebook, forgoing sleep and exercise. My “hard work” never yielded “appropriate” results. Of course with the benefit of hindsight (and my current meta-learning knowledge) it was all wasted effort. It seemed like the harder I “studied” the worse my grades were, like filling a leaky bucket for years. I remember waking up at 5am on the exam day just to re-read my history notes. My unconscious belief was that the information would get “soaked” into my brain the longer and the more I re-read it.
“People would do better, if they knew better.” - Jim Rohn
It never occurred to me that I was studying incorrectly in every perceivable way. It’s almost impossible to step outside, pause and re-evaluate my whole learning approach. When I didn’t get the grade I wanted, my knee-jerk response was to study longer and harder because I attributed it to my lack of effort and not spending enough time “soaking up” the textbook. I didn’t consider other approaches simply because I didn’t know there were any other ways.
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld
Out of the sheer frustration and desperation ignited my desire to “master how to learn”.
It is important that [students] understand that learning should begin with the thinking through of what is needed to learn effectively by deciding on study and memorization techniques that can be expected to be effective. That is, the thinking through of study and memorization techniques to learn effectively, precedes the actual learning itself.
Being able to make this distinction in the thinking through of learning before executing one’s learning activities is one of the characteristics that distinguishes expert learners from novice learners. Metacognitive Learning: Advancing Learning by Developing General Knowledge of the Learning Process
Before SuperMemo, I’d print out the research papers and read them. Look it’s Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques again!
You Know Better Now
Academic success or failure can be a matter of life or death. If you want to understand I recommend the movie 3 Idiots and this news about how Even The Planes Stop Flying For South Korea’s National Exam Day.
It seems outrageous that meta-learning was never taught in school. The closest thing I came across in school was the time management The Eisenhower Method. Like we have this school curriculum, and you’re expected to know this and that, you’ll be tested on that and that, but how to learn you ask? You’re on your own.
Fortunately, there are now cognitive scientists (Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide or Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education) spreading the learning gospel from cognitive science. I hope I’ve done my part too. I would never wish anyone to go through the same academic struggle like I did. I was fortunate enough to have discovered Anki which had salvaged my academic life. If you’re in school I can assure you’ve discovered the academic cheat code, like the
sv_cheats 1 in CS1.6 that lets you fly through walls and make others rage quit by headshotting everyone.
My intention for this article never was to brag about myself. If anything, I wanted to show you that everyone has a beginning, and that I didn’t know what I know now years ago. Also, I hope you can see the value of knowing how to learn. Sometimes I fantasize about discovering Anki or SuperMemo when I was in elementary school.
My meta-learning journey will not end with having discovered SuperMemo. The more I know the more I know I don’t know. Learning how to use SuperMemo correctly (yes there are ways to abuse any SRS) is a major meta-learning itself. Maybe a few years later when I re-read this article I will be dumbfounded at how ineffective my current learning methods are.