Thoughts on Learning

int main() {
   puts("Please review in one week?");

I promised a more detailed post on my current thoughts for learning. This is based on my reading of Transformative tools for thought along with supplemental reading and some thinking. It marks the start of my journey experimenting rather than one based on years of experience.

The rest of this post assumes you have read the article and know what SRL (spaced repetition learning) is. I would say instead of reading this post read the linked to article.

I don’t have much to add to the article and certainly am not in a position to dispute or confirm their discussions. It looks like quite an interesting field to be working in. Rather I want to discuss my thought process after reading it and many other articles on the topic.

As an aside I got briefly chatting about the concept of SRL with my children and at least two of them could identify the technique being used at school. Picking out their math classes as the primary example. While the ideas are not new discovering teaching based on evidence based techniques has made its way into schools in the UK is nice to see.

Thinking for me is rarely linear, it is more a shuffling of pictures and visual models being built and rebuilt as my understanding alters. Transcribing it into a linear blog post is not easy for me and to be coherent I have to put it in an order that is not exactly the same as the way my thoughts were built. I will do my best.

Where I was at

I had had a growing dissatisfaction with my learning process, this I think is what made me read the article. It has also became apparent much of my recent self learning was not effective.

It was actually when I started to walk more regularly it became apparent something was amiss. Initially I listened to podcasts, but after a few weeks I decided to just walk and let my brain think. What surprised me was some topics I was interested in and learning about I could not load up enough information to have a good ponder. I was reliant on google as my external memory. Other topics I could easily load up so I figured it was not cognitive decline from aging or indicative of some disease. Just some information was not sticking.

I really encourage you to try this. The walk part is probably not required, you could pace in a room or just sit comfortably.

Having identified the problem and found techniques that could solve them. I could leave it there but I had all this information loaded up in my head and it was the christmas/new year break. Why not think about it a little deeper to better understand the problem. This is obviously now leaving the domain of being evidence based and more into the realm of random person on the internet figuring out stuff he doesn’t understand…

Sources of learning

I was seeking to make a small mental model that I could use to direct my learning and provide simple checks to keep me heading in the right direction.

I rapidly arrived at what I considered learning material where clearly not good sources of learning. This is may be obvious to many but I will labour the point a bit.

YouTube contains a huge amount of educational material but consumption was not directed and I would just consume material to tangentially related material to a topic I was interested in.

This is not totally a bad thing and can be used to supplement a domain of knowledge you have and use regularly. I was just finding it not effective in punching through new domains of knowledge. Effectively I was using it as entertainment in a passive way.

I need to be clear that if I am being passive then it is moves closer to entertainment as there is not long term value to it. So if I wanted to spend 5 hours a week learning then this should not be counted towards it.

I should add YouTube (and other video delivery platforms) can be great. Talks by Jonathon Blow, particularly the saving civilisation talk, or the Data Orientated Design by Mike Acton are stand out examples.

Increasingly I see videos like these as a great way to raise awareness of a topic. The decision to dive into the topic or remain at as an I am aware of it level is a choice for you to make.


I read Reddit, particularly the C++ and Rust subreddits. I considered it educational but in hindsight it does not serve to educate in the long term. What is does do is provide a news like stream of articles that reflect the current state. As there is a steady stream of articles there is a tendency to skim any single topic. All the arguments against Newspapers and News websites can be made against subreddits.

If you dug into a single articles before moving onto the next one, it would probably be much more educational. As I read Reddit over lunch I would only need to visit reddit once every week or two to pick up a new article.

Again this is not to say reddit is a bad thing. It is just not deep educational work so I should be clear on its classification, so as to not mislead myself.

I enjoy tech news and can find it motivational so it’s not something I want to totally remove from my life.


I am pretty sure I could identify other activities that I consider educational that had limited long term effect on my knowledge. The superficial reading of technical books would be another great example.


On top of changing the way I learn to be more in line with the linked article I plan to classify activities correctly. If I am not active learning, that is making notes, writing code, answer questions, writing flash cards then I am probably in the domain of entertaining myself with technical content.

The goal is to increase the amount of active learning, reducing the amount of technical entertainment.

It will be interesting to see if I can actually achieve all this changes. If I can shift in the general direction I will be happy.

Random notes

Education/Entertainment crossover

Until I wrote the first draft of this post I had not realized how many ways I used to learn are also used for entertainment or unwinding.

That is

  • reading
  • Video streaming
  • Browsing (Reddit and co)

are all used for both while

  • Gaming
  • Exercise

are only used in the entertainment/unwinding category. Gaming can be educational and I am only really considering solitary activities.

It is worrying as it is easy for entertainment to be masked as education without realising it, so something to be very aware off. That is perhaps the actual take away from this post.

Org mode

I plan to use Orgmode to take notes and track things. Orgmode also has a plugin for SRL. I tried it and it was pretty easy to use, alas I could not get it to work on my Linux desktop. Odd as usually my windows laptop is the one that struggles with emacs plugins.

In hindsight this is actually a good thing. Availability of Decks is important. So I moved over to Anki as it supports all popular platforms including mobile and web. That means I can easily practice my cards sat in a coffee shop, waiting in line for things. I have not excuse.

1275 Words

2020-01-07 00:00 +0000