Ultralearning by Scott Young should be a required reading for educators and people who want to learn effectively. I thoroughly enjoyed the principles of ultralearning which Young describes as “a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.”
The word “ultralearning” seems to be the extreme version of learning. But after ruminating the ideas in this book, I think ultralearning is how we should be learning anything whether it is playing the guitar or physics. Juxtaposing the current method of learning in schools and the ultralearning strategies, I could not help but see the many flaws in our education system. I have disliked the traditional way of rigid learning in schools because it provides no context on how I am going to use that knowledge in real life. A teacher could have an hour of lecture on the pythagorean theorem but unless I am given a real life example on how the theorem applies to my life, I consider learning it to be moot.
Hence, this idea of ultralearning which includes strategies like metalearning (learning how to learn the subject) and learning by doing should be championed in schools or in any skill acquisition projects.
The greatest value I got from this book is the different case studies of people who were obsessive about self-directed learning. Eric Barone, for instance, developed the game Stardew Valley all by himself. Barone did the programming, visual art, musical composition, story writing, game design, and other jobs that big-name gaming companies would employ hundreds of people. Stardew Valley sold 15 million copies as of 2021. Barone’s determination and obsession for learning is truly remarkable.
Nine principles that underlie ultralearning projects:
I. METALEARNING: Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Understanding how a subject breaks down into different elements and seeing how others have learned it previously.
Why? Are you learning something to advance your career/business/interests or are you learning for learning sake? Tactic: Expert Interview
What? Tactic: Make a list with three columns titled concepts, facts, procedures. Revise the list as you go. Once you’ve finished your brainstorm, underline the concepts, facts, and procedures that are going to be most challenging.
How? Tactic: 1) Benchmarking – finding common ways in which people learn the skill. 2) Emphasize/exclude – omit or delay elements of your benchmarked curriculum that don’t align with your goals.
When distracted with thoughts: when we are engaging in a behavior, our typical reaction is to try to suppress distracting thoughts. If instead you “learn to let it arise, note it, and release it or let it go,” this can diminish the behavior you’re trying to avoid.
High arousal creates a feeling of keen alertness, which is often characterized by a fairly narrow range of focus, but one that can also be somewhat brittle.”
More complex tasks, such as solving math problems or writing essays, tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus.
II. DIRECTNESS: Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at.
- If you learn with a direct connection to the area in which you eventually want to apply the skill, the need for transfer is significantly reduced. Learning activities are always done with a connection to the context in which the skills learned will eventually be used. Directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing. By learning in a real context, one also learns many of the hidden details and skills that are far more likely to transfer to a new real-life situation than from the artificial environment of a classroom.
How to learn directly:
Learning directly is hard compared to reading a book or sitting through a lecture
1) Project-based learning
2) Immersive learning
3) Flight simulator method
4) Overkill approach – put yourself in an environment where the stakes are high
IV. DRILL: Be ruthless in improving your weakest points.
Tactic 1: what is the rate-determining step in learning a skill – the one component of a complex skill that determines your overall level of performance?
Tactic 2: Direct-Then-Drill Approach
The first step is to try to practice the skill directly. Practice a language by speaking it. Learn programming by writing code. The next step is to analyze the direct skill and try to isolate components that are either rate-determining steps in your performance or subskills you find difficult to improve because there are too many other things going on for you to focus on them”
One strategy I’ve seen repeatedly from ultralearners is to start with a skill that they don’t have all the prerequisites for. Then, when they inevitably do poorly, they go back a step, learn one of the foundational topics, and repeat the exercise.
V. RETRIEVAL: Test to learn. Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it.
The idea of desirable difficulties in retrieval makes a potent case for the ultralearning strategy.
Pushing difficulty higher and opting for testing oneself well before you are “ready” is more efficient.
How to practice retrieval?
Tactic 1: Flash cards
Tactic 2: Free recall
Tactic 3: Question-Book Method – rephrase statements to questions
Tactic 4: Self-generated challenges
Tactic 5: Closed-book learning
Understand what you forget and why.
Why we forget?
- Decay – Forgetting with time.
- Interference – overwriting old memories with new one
- Forgotten cues – many memories we have aren’t actually forgotten but simply inaccessible
How can you prevent forgetting?
- Spacing – repeat to remember
- Proceduralization – Procedural skills, such as the ever-remembered bicycling, are much less susceptible to being forgotten than knowledge that requires explicit recall to retrieve.
- Overlearning – additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.Mnemonics
VIII. INTUITION: Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills.
How to build your intuition?
- Rule 1: Don’t give up on hard problems easily
- Rule 2: Prove things to understand them – process of mentally trying to re-create things
- Rule 3: Always start with a concrete example.
- Rule 4: Don’t fool yourself – being skeptical of your own understanding
The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when someone with inadequate understanding of a subject nonetheless believes he or she possesses more knowledge about the subject than the people who actually do.
It is true that the more you learn about a subject, the more questions arise. The reverse also seems to be true, in that the fewer questions you ask, the more likely you are to know less about the subject.
- Write down the concept or problem
- Explain the ideas as if you had to teach it to someone else
- When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your book, notes, teacher, or reference material to find the answer.
IX. EXPERIMENTATION: All of these principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.
Getting better, however, increasingly becomes an act of unlearning; not only must you learn to solve problems you couldn’t before, you must unlearn stale and ineffective approaches for solving those problems.
3 types of experimentation:
- Experimenting with learning resources
- Experimenting with technique
- Experimenting with style
How to experiment?
Tactic 1: Copy, then create
Tactic 2: Compare methods side-by-side – trying two different approaches and varying only a single condition to see what the impact is.
Tactic 3: Introduce new constraints – how can you add limitations to force yourself to develop new capacities?
Tactic 4: Find your superpower in the hybrid of unrelated skills – be engineer and be good at public speaking
Tactic 5: Explore the extremes