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Want to learn something new? Consistency is the key

01.25.2022 | Tutorial Culture | Peter Swartwout

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If you've ever taken a fitness class, you've heard the instructor talk about consistency. It's not about how fast you pedal or how much weight you lift. It's about showing up, doing your best and not giving up. Regularly.

It's the same for your brain. If you are learning a new framework, a new programming language, or working on a side project to expand your skills, you are much better off doing a small amount every day, or several times a week, as opposed to bingeing. When I hear a friend say something like "I'm dedicating this coming weekend to learning React" I cringe because I fear they will go back to their day job and forget everything from the weekend by the next weekend.

But don't take my word for it. The science backs this up.

Frequency

In a 2011 study at University of California Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, researchers proved that when neurons interact frequently the bonds between them grow stronger and more information is retained for later use:

"When learning new things, memory and recall are strengthened by frequency and recency. The more we practice and rehearse something new and the more recently we have practiced, the easier it is for our brain to transmit these experiences efficiently and store them for ready access later. This process is called fluency." 1

In short, think about something frequently and it will stick.

Recency

The concept is simple. Our brains retain the information we have received most recently, but only for a short time. This makes sense give the huge about of incoming information the brain has to process. Why retain the license number of the car in front of you for more than 10 seconds?

But if you want to deliberately retain new information, the trick is cumulative review. Every time you start a reading session, or coding session, spend the first 5 or so minutes reviewing what you did in the last session. Once a week, review something from much earlier that you might now be fuzzy on. So simple but it will return huge dividends. This technique has long been known to educators but can be challenging to implement when self-guided.

When I was first learning backgammon (a game that is wonderfully complex when you get past the basics) I proved that this technique works and I still use it today. I start every study session with a short review of what I did in the previous session. Once a week I review concepts I haven't looked at for awhile. This has helped my game tremendously.

The same technique works for all learnings - technical and in life. Follow these two simple rules consistently:

  1. Study frequently, every day if you can manage it
  2. Review regularly

Good luck with whatever you are seeking to learn!

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