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Relearning to Learn

| Posted by Don Denoncourt Follow 2 Followers , reviewed by Shane Hastie Follow 11 Followers on Dec 07, 2017. Estimated reading time: 18 minutes |

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Key Takeaways

  • Reading and understanding isn't enough, you need to be able to remember what you read.
  • Do active reading -- where your brain takes part elaborating on the concept and making it your own.
  • Slow down, take creative notes, and know that whereas rereading doesn’t work, quizzing does.
  • Always reflect on what you just read and apply it to your imagined or real context.
  • Take control of your learning queue and your offline storage (such as bookmarks, Evernote, and wikis.)

“He’s forgotten more than you know?” That’s me. I’ve been a developer for over three decades and I’ve forgotten quite a bit. But, here’s the thing: Do I know -- that is to say, remember -- as much as a Millennial or Gen Xer?” Is my knowledgebase really comparable? In competition with these younger, smarter, generations that are pre-wired for tech, I’ve done a lot of things right. What I’ve probably done best is to learn continuously. But I need to do it better. I need to stop forgetting both old and new knowledge.

And here’s more self-doubts: The Dreyfus model of skills acquisition says there are five levels: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, and Expert. Most developers stay in the Advanced Beginner stage for most of their career. I’ve accomplished enough in my career to think I’m, at the least, Competent. But what do I need to do to get to Proficient and Expert? For a detailed look at programmer skill levels read "7 Ranks of Coderhood: Coder, Programmer, Computer Scientist, Developer, Engineer, Architect".

I’ve been using roughly the same approach to learning for most of my career but, now that I’m a few years shy of sixty and competition will soon include GenZs,  I’ve been giving a critical eye to my learning strategy. To that end I’ve read a half-a-dozen books and a bunch of blog posts and articles on learning. This article details my revitalized strategy for learning.

I’ve classified my reformed learning strategy into three areas:

  • Queue Management
  • Active Reading and Listening
  • Catalogue

Queue Management

Until recently, my queue was a stack of books on my office desk, an expanding list in my Kindle, and a mass of hastily bookmarked blog posts. I’d been using the good old LIFO (last-in-first-out) method for pulling stuff off the queue. I needed to, and perhaps you need to as well, actively manage that queue. Please don’t visualize the queue at the DMV (Department of Motored Vehicles.) Picture, instead, a muscle-bound doorman at one of those exclusive Studio 54-type clubs. Articles, blog posts, and books stand in line as he squints his eyes and skips past the first few and then picks one that looks intriguing. Then, to clean up the queue, he points to a few of the boring ones and say “You guys, beat it.” That queue, after all, represents your future knowledge, and nothing short of a secret service type person should manage it.

Books

For books, I cut my stack down to, on average, three dissimilar books. I’d leave those three books on my desk (or Kindle root folder) and put the others on the shelf. Your favorite reading device undoubtedly has a folder management facility (on the Kindle it’s called collections) so put your reference libraries in named collections and put a few current books in the root. I like having three dissimilar books such as: one on Ruby, one on JavaScript, and one on a motivational topic like The Passionate Programmer. When I’d have a moment to read, I pick the one that appeals to my current mental energies.

Blog Posts and Articles

Actually, I now put less emphasis on books. Because of my pre-Internet learning style, for a decade or two, I pretty much ignored the blog post stuff and web article thing. Yeah, sure, I used the proverbial Google IDE for instant solutions, but I procured most new knowledge from books. That was incongruent of me when you consider that I had been paid to write dozens of technical web articles and started my own blog in 2007. I woke up and smelled the coffee when I realized:

  1. Technologies I was working on were advancing so fast that books didn’t have current information
  2. I was often using a technology too specialized to warrant a book
  3. My Millennial co-workers were learning more in less time from blog posts.

But what blog posts should I read? How should they be vetted? My solution was to subscribe to a variety of email newsletters that, weekly or monthly, list article and blog post recommendations. I also began paying attention to or otherwise coercing recommendations from other devs on my various Slack channels. And I use sites like dev.to and medium.com that have articles rating by a multitude of readers.

For awhile I was leaving the article link lists in my email bin. I would do the LIFO thing for a few articles then delete the email when subsequent emails from the same source stacked up. But then a colleague turned me on to getpocket.com. Getpocket (and it’s alternatives like instapaper.com and flipboard.com) allows you to quickly add a an article or Youtube video to your own private index.

When I receive an email list I visit each article link, the description of which catches my eye, and, if a 20 second glance suggests it’s worth a read, I put it on Getpocket. And, within a couple of minutes, I’m able to delete the email. Now, when I’m on the crosstrainer at the gym or between tasks at work and want to go sit on the porch rocker and read, I go to Getpocket on my iPhone, Kindle Fire, or iPad and read a post or watch a video. When I finish reading an article, I do the queue management thing and remove it.

Reading Rites

I’m a book reader. When I was a teenager, during the summer, I would read all but a novel a day. When I began my tech career, I would consume technical books in that same voracious, cover-to-cover reading style. One of my rules was to read at least 100 pages the first time I opened a tech book. I wouldn’t open a book until I was ready to blast through it. But I was doing it wrong -- for 35 years. Yeah. I learned a lot but I did not retain any where near as much as I should have.

How to Read Tech

Did you ever work with one of those people that seemed to have photographic memory. You read the same books they did but they were the ones that, during pairing sessions, would spout out techniques from those books. Whatever, they were smarter than you and maybe had that photographic memory thing. Sorry to tell you this but photographic memory is largely a myth. What those brainiacs do differently is simply something called active reading (or active listening, in the case of classroom or seminar style learning.) Me, on the other hand, I’ve been reading wrong. I’ve been plowing through books and, although, for the most part, I was understanding what I was reading, I was forgetting too much.

Active Reading and Listening

The following summarizes my revitalized strategy for reading or listening:

  • Before starting, consider what you hope to learn
  • Visualize through association what you are learning as you are reading or listening
  • Take creative notes
  • Don’t read the sections you don’t care about
  • After reading, reflect on what you’ve read or listened to
  • Review your notes at least 5 times

Elaboration

My reading style had been the opposite of active. I would read looking to understand what I was reading. And that worked… sort of. I would understand a concept or technique but I wouldn’t always remember it. When you use an active reading style you associate the concept with something that you’ve seen or done before or things you’d like to do. You actively engage your creative parts of brain in the learning process. Andy Hunt, in his book “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning,” separates the brain into two areas: L-Mode and R-Mode for linear-mode and rich-mode. Andy preferred those terms over left/right brain as our “mental processes are not strictly hemispherically divided.” But the point is: The more associations your brain makes as you read the more you remember. Engaging your mental processes requires you to look up from the article or blog post or presentation and creatively elaborate on the concept or technique you’ve just read or heard.

Creative Notes

Part of active learning is taking notes. Without active reading, stuff I read poofs away from my brain like dreams. The simple process of taking notes nails the concept to the walls in my brain. I later use those notes as indexes to memory locations. My notes are often short and cryptic but I always try to make them creative. Case in point: One of my sons is in medical school and he draws pictures for concepts. Those scribbled drawings mean nothing to other students but, to him, they associate a visual memory with the concept.

Handwritten notes are better for reinforcing memory but if you are reading while on the stairmaster or listening to a podcast while driving, written notes aren’t an option.

Let me ask you a question: That device in your pocket, what is it? Is it a social device? Is it a camera? Is it an overpriced MP3 player? For this tech crowd, the last thing it is is a phone.True story: I recently switched from Droid to iPhone (after crushing my Droid in a backwards unicycling fall.) I had my iPhone several weeks before it rang -- and I had no idea how to answer it. My iPhone is a learning device. I use Kindle, Audible, Podcasts, GetPocket, Youtube, and Chrome to read, watch, and listen to tech. For note taking, the iPhone ships with two apps I now use all the time: Notes and Voice Memos. I type into Notes when my hands are available and then I create Voice Memos when they are not. For example, I listen to podcasts and books while unicycling and when I hear something I want to remember, I create a Voice Memo.

Understand that just the process of taking a note strengthens synapses in your brain. Yes, there will be a quiz, but more on that later.

Reflection

When I was a teenager, two times a week I would drive 25 miles from York to Harrisburg PA to work out under an Okinawan-trained Karate instructor. The class was made up largely of adult males in their 20s and 30s. But me, the kid, seemed to have photographic memory because I learned the complex Isshinryu katas faster than anyone. Now, I certainly did not, and do not, have photographic memory. My “trick” was that, during the 25 minute ride home, I would go over and over again in my head what I had learned that night about a kata. The time it took to learn the major katas usually determined that you were ready to test for your black belt. But I learned the kata so quick I was told to put off my test. (A few years later I had a successful test after experiencing the appropriate number of broken noses, black eyes, and cracked ribs.)

The process that I stumbled upon as a teenager is called reflection in Robert C. Brown’s book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” But although I used reflection so effectively  as a martial artist, I neglected to use it in my technical learning. I’d read an article or a chapter in a book, understand it, and then -- poof -- it was gone from my conscious brain, hidden in some obscure cubbyhole perhaps never to be seen again. Now, in my restructured learning strategy, I always reflect on what I’ve read. For example, after reading articles while putting in an hour on the crosstrainer at the gym, I actively reflect on newly acquired information while showering and then on the ride back to work.

Five Times

So now I actively read (or watch or listen) to a post (or video or podcast) while taking creative notes. And then I reflect on what I just learned. But the learning process for that piece is not over. I still need to review my notes. Schools call that quizzing. Tests suck but tons of research show that regular quizzing is a tremendous help to learning and remembering. The sooner after learning the better. And then a few times after that. When I review my notes I’m amazed at how it brings back the concepts I had understood but almost forgot. The magic number for how many times to look over your notes is five but what I normally do is delete notes when I’m confident I got it. I look over notes when I’m in line at a store, or waiting to be seated at a restaurant, or during TV commercials -- anytime or place that I’d otherwise be bored for a few minutes. The cool thing is: now it bothers me when my note bin is close to empty -- thus reinforcing active reading and creative note taking.

Let me make a big point: rereading is mostly worthless. When you reread your brain lies to you and tells you it is all familiar information. It is your creative notes made during active participation in the reading process that allows you to strengthen memory synapsis. Here’s a personal observation: I started teaching myself Italian five years ago and I’ve listened to dozens of novels on Audible. Many I’d listen to and later admit that I wasn’t following the story. So I’d relisten and my brain would tell me it heard it before and proclaim that it was bored. But that stupid brain of mine couldn’t tell you the storyline. I wasn’t listening actively. The real issue was, as I was listening, when I wouldn’t know a word or a phrase, the rest of the story came out as blablabla (which is Italian for blah, blah, blah.) Now, if I don’t know a word, I click the 30 second replay button once or twice, then I speak the word into my iPhone’s Voice Memo app (which saves it with a numerical reference, and, finally, I look the word up and rename the voice recording to the English equivalent. Later, I quiz myself on the Voice Memos.

Catalogue

In our home we used to have a junk drawer that was full of various and sundry things: pens, X-Acto knives, Super Glue, tape measures, and so on. Regularly we’d wonder if an item was in that drawer and we’d swirl through the contents aimlessly looking for a thing. Most of us throw new found knowledge into junk drawers: bookmarks, text stuffed hastily into forgotten folders, handwritten scribble in various notebooks. Think about your knowledge junk drawers. Are they as much of a mess as my home (and my knowledge) junk drawer was a couple of months ago?

A few months ago our kitchen had an insidious water leak under the floorboards of the sink. The whole kitchen had to be gutted -- including the cabinet that housed our junk drawer. When the rebuilt cabinets were installed my wife organized that junk drawer. 

Your knowledge needs to be as organized as well as our various things drawer (it can no longer be called a junk drawer.) That knowledge is your booty, your treasure. Organize it. Catalogue it. Review it regularly and throw out the things that are no longer useful. Throw out things like the Super Glue that is dried out or links to a myriad of articles you’ll never read much less reread.

Bookmarks

Remember that you are using bookmarks for things that you don’t remember so you need to remember where you put them. Imagine being in a pairing session and you say “you know, I think I have a miniature magnetized screwdriver in my drawer that would work great here.” And then you go swirling around your junk drawer full of bookmarks looking for the thing. Now think of going to an organized list with clearly named links and finding it instantly. Your pairing buddy will be impressed because your bookmarks worked as extensions to your brain.

Just the simple act of going through your bookmarks strengthens memory synapsis. If you haven’t read a post, put it in Getpocket (or similar tool) and delete. If you read it, and got it, delete it. Articles that are “really good and might be fun to reread or recommend” get put in GetPocket -- not in the queue but in the favorites section. I don’t let more than a dozen or so links be in a folder. If more are needed that suggests the requirement for another folder or subfolder. I also bubble sort the better links to the top of the folder.

My bookmarks are extensions to my memory. They are summaries of technologies. Look-up lists if you would.  Installation tutorials, cheat cheats, style guides. For example, I just added a cheat sheet for ES6. Also, checkout this. It’s a curated list of popular tools and languages such as CSS, JavaScript, and Bootstrap. Remove bookmarks to things that are already in devdocs.io and let them keep it updated.

Evernote (and competitors)

Until recently, my Evernote list could have been on the TV show Hoarders. For one thing, I was putting notes under notebooks named for various clients when they should have been under one named for a technology. Some of my notes were pages and pages long when it should have been multiple notes. Just as with my bookmark clean up, going through my Evernote and moving, renaming, and deleting was an enjoyable task. It was fun for two reasons: 1) I was recalling otherwise lost knowledge, and 2) I knew I was optimizing indexes to extensions to my brain.

Wikis

I believe that notes that we make, initially for ourselves, because they help us do our jobs, do not belong on our PCs. Those notes belong to your client or employer. They paid for that knowledge acquisition. Every IT project requires a knowledge base. My favorite is the wiki facility that is bundled with every github project. I’ve been using that strategy for several years and there’s been several times where upper management asks for feedback on the value add of what me, my team, have been working on and they have always been pleased when they hear of (and see) the volumes of shared knowledge in the wiki.

I also believe, that when we come to an understanding or have a worthwhile idea, that intelligence needs to be tracked. Perhaps in a github wiki. Whatever, put it in a shared resource. When I don’t put that thought in a shared area I call it “Lost Intelligence” because I undoubtedly won’t remember it and then client will never benefit from the brainwork that they paid for.

Pairing

In my current project, I’m taking over management of nine (or maybe it’s a dozen) Rails applications from Al, one of SimpleThread’s principles. In my remote pairing sessions with Al I feel like I’m trying to following a Lamborghini in a Ford Fairlane. He spins through screens rapidly describing processes and sometimes pauses saying “Did you get that.” “Yes,” is my typical response. But what I “got” was a screenshot and some hasty misspelled notes in my markdown-based journal. My hope is that my subconscious “got it”. Later, after I fall out of the Fairlane and catch my breath, I review the screenshots while cropping and renaming them. I then create a folder with a name that describes the process and plop the screenshots there. I then go through my markdown, clean it up, and cut-and-paste it to the company’s project wiki. At that point my conscious often, finally, “gets” it. And I have categorized and catalogued knowledge.

Reflection

The subtitle for my article close is appropriately called reflection. An article summary is basically the author’s queue to coerce you to reflect on the information covered. Slow your brain down as you learn, actively participate in the process. Elaborate as you consume information to convert it to knowledge and understanding. Take creative notes, mumble to yourself, look out the window and ponder about what you just read or heard. Make it yours. Active reading takes time. But whereas I now read half as much, I remember twice as much. Reflect after the presentation is over (reading, listening, or watching.) And review your notes somewhere around five times. Catalogue your knowledge in bookmarks, note software, and wikis and treat those catalogues like intellectual booty.

Books Recommendations

  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown
  • Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Refactor Your Wetware, Andy Hunt
  • Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
  • Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster,
  • Remember More and Be More Productive,  Kevin Horsley
  • Quantum Memory Learn to Improve Your Memory with The World Memory Champion! Dominic O'Brien

About the Author

Don Denoncourt is a developer for simplethread.com. He has been coding since before Windows and Linux, much less the Internet. In the early nineties, Don moved from RPG and Cobol to C and C++. He adopted Java before it was real: 1996. After coding his way through the proliferation of Java frameworks (including Struts, Spring, and EJB) Don pined for the Convention-over-Configuration framework of Ruby and Rails. Don did Groovy and Grails before finally moving to Rails in 2011. Don enjoys writing and has published a couple of books and hundreds of technical articles. Don has been working from home since last century. When Don is not working, he loves spending time with his 3 grandchildren. To keep his mind young, Don reads and listens to novels in Italian. And, to keep his body young, Don is an avid off-road and street unicyclist.

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Great Article by Lorenzo Pasqualis

This is a great article, Don. Wonderful insights and ideas. I truly enjoyed reading it.

Re: Great Article by Don Denoncourt

Thanks, Lorenzo.
Note that one of the books I listed at the bottom of the article, "Make it Stick" I had read after reading the blog post: www.coderhood.com/11-books-all-software-enginee...
@denoncourt

I Agree by Haroldo Macedo

This is a great article.
You put in words what I have thinking that should be the way to acquire infomation better and for a longer period of time.
Thanks for organize my thoughts and for the tips on the sites and apps.

I got to this article through Feedly, an RSS feede. I believe that using RSS is more practicle then newsletters.

Re: I Agree by Don Denoncourt

Haroldo:

Thanks for the RSS feed tip. I will look into using them over newsletter "feeds"

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