Category Archives: self-development

Rapid learning

You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.

josh-kaufman
Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.

There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.

So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).

First 20 hours

Expert performance and rapid learning

There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.

Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.

Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.

dog-driver

Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.

So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.

Typing: learning it fast

Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.

The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?

QWERTY_keyboard_layout
QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.

Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?

If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.

First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.

colemak
Colemak keyboard

Deliberate practice is the key

How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.

After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.

While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.

I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?

I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?

After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?

Forty WPM. Zero improvement.

Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.

If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)

Other skills

Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.

To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.

He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.

Kaufman-playing-ukulele
Josh Kaufman on the ukulele

What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.

If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.

Implications for learning

Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.

There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.

Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.

Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.

20 hours, but not so rapid

Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.

Juggling

While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.

I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!

Kaufman versus textbooks

A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.

But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.

If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.

You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.

What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

libraryPapers3

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.

Pacing

Because marking is generally seen as unpleasant, it is very common to postpone starting. Doing other things, such as reading a book, checking emails, searching the web or even doing housework, suddenly seems more appealing. After all, it really won’t matter much if you start tomorrow. Days and sometimes weeks go by until it becomes urgent to do the marking. Then it becomes a matter of long exhausting hours of mental labour. It seems like a marathon, and only goes to prove that it really was something to be avoided.

The habits of procrastination and bingeing are deep-seated. Most teachers learned them when they were students, cramming for exams or doing all-nighters to write essays.

desk-and-papers

The solution to the syndrome of procrastination and binge marking is simple: tackle just a few essays each day. If I have 80 essays and need to finish marking them in two weeks, I set myself a target of six every day. Six essays seem much less daunting than 80.

The hard part is getting started. It’s best to begin marking the very first day or, if some essays come in early, before the due date.

Robert Boice researched the habits of highly productive new academics, and found the secret of success was working in moderation. Academics who did a little every day — research, writing, class preparation — were vastly more productive than those who waited for big blocks of time to complete tasks in lengthy sessions. Furthermore, the ones who worked in moderation were less stressed.

I can’t tell you how to change habits of procrastination and bingeing; you can learn a lot from various self-help books. All I can say is that it’s one of the most important things you can do to make marking easier.

keep-calm-carry-on-marking-essays-2

Staying fresh

My goal is to approach each essay feeling fresh and positive. Doing only a moderate number of essays per day helps. So does taking breaks. After marking one or two essays, I’ll take a break: a stretch, a snack, some research work, some reading, perhaps the dishes.

If I’m doing only an hour’s worth of marking per day, a break may not be needed. For anything longer, breaks are vital.

Marking requires mental effort, and the mind behaves like a muscle. Do too much and it gets tired and cries out in pain. Do the right amount and it gets stronger day by day. This is another reason for pacing: marking gradually becomes easier. So often it’s better to start with a few essays on the first day and increase the daily target later.

stressed teacher

Going faster

How long does it take to mark an essay? A few teachers I’ve met may spend an hour or more, reading and rereading the essay, writing lengthy comments and agonising over the mark. My goal, though, is to go faster while maintaining quality.

Many people read at 200 to 300 words per minute. Yet it is possible to read several times this fast while maintaining comprehension. To do this requires practice, going a little bit faster until it seems natural, and then pushing to go faster still.

Going faster is similar to progressive training of the body, with greater speed or strength developing over time. It’s also similar to typists who train so they can achieve amazing speeds with great accuracy.

My aim is to be fresh and to maintain concentration so I need to read an essay only once and retain a short-term memory of it, perhaps jotting down a few notes along the way. I then type all my comments. If I feel a need to read the essay again, it usually means I haven’t maintained concentration. Time for a break.

Marking less

Even the most efficient marker can be daunted by the prospect of hundreds of essays. If you have some control over assessments, then there are ways to cut back on the marking load.

One option is to simply reduce the number of assignments. Students are often overloaded with work, and could do a better job on fewer assignments, putting more effort into each one.

Another option is to mark some student performance during class. I used to have students do short oral presentations. With a simple template, I would scribble feedback on a sheet of paper and give this to the students at the end of the class. One advantage for students was getting feedback promptly, which seldom happens with essays.

Yet another option is to have frequent small assignments, but only mark some of them. For example, in one class students had to write eight mini-essays, one per week. However, only two these were marked, in weeks chosen randomly after weeks four and eight. Some students complained that they wanted all their submissions marked; I responded by saying that marking just two of them was equivalent to having an exam in which only two of eight possible questions were asked.

Another source of essay marking overload is writing too many comments. I discovered that some students were discouraged by too much red ink. Others never bothered to read my comments at all. In one case a student – one of the weakest in the class – glanced at the mark and immediately deposited the essay in the rubbish bin. All the effort I had put into commenting on strengths and weaknesses was for naught.

red-ink

For final assignments, some of my colleagues have a policy of asking students to say in advance whether they want comments. Students who don’t ask just receive a mark.

Years ago, I used to correct spelling and grammar as well as give comments on content. But I don’t teach English composition, so why become a proofreader? So I stopped giving detailed feedback on expression, and concentrate on content.

grading+essays

My current system is to write brief comments on each assessment criterion, mentioning strengths and ways to improve, and to supplement this with “general comments” that are generic for the whole class. The general comments explain my expectations and elaborate on how essays could be better. I say in my feedback that if my specific comments don’t say anything about a particular aspect of the assignment, then the student should look to the general comments. This approach avoids the need to write the same comments on essay after essay.

Varied assignments

Monotony is a great source of pain in marking. If there are 50 essays each answering the question “What are the factors behind the rise of social media?” the task quickly becomes tedious. If you are marking essays for someone else’s class and have no control over essay questions, you have my sympathies. Luckily, I’ve usually been able to set my own assignment topics. One of my goals has been to make it interesting for me to mark essays — even the ones that aren’t so good.

Thinking up assignments that are stimulating for students to carry out and for me to mark is not easy, but it has been worthwhile. Two ways of doing this are to give students quite a bit of choice in their topics and to invite or require them to use unconventional formats.

In an environmental politics class, we covered a series of topics such as sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Each week I asked the students to write a comment on that week’s environmental topic using a randomly chosen political, economic or other theory or framework, such as liberalism, militarism, feminism or Buddhism. Then for the final assignment, students had to write a dialogue between two characters, as in a script for a play, with footnotes as appropriate. Each character had to represent or embody some theory, for example Mao Tsetung for Marxism and Gandhi for pacifism. The characters had to discuss some environmental topic. So one possible dialogue would be between Mao and Gandhi discussing sustainable development.

For marking purposes, this assignment was delightful. Every submission was different, and many students were creative in their choices. One student crafted a discussion between Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Small Engine. Percy was a Rastafarian and used rasta slang; footnotes explained unusual terms.

When designing such unorthodox assignments, it can be challenging to explain to students exactly what is expected. I’ve found a fairly good method: with students’ permission, I post top assignments from previous years on my website. These show the format expected, for example a dialogue, and by demonstrating really good work can provide an inspiration to do well.

Designing an assignment that is interesting to mark has a spin-off effect. It can change the mode of covering the content. In many cases, I’ve found it effective to let students investigate topics themselves rather than me delivering lectures. For the environmental politics class, we had an excellent textbook for the environmental topics, and I let the students (many of whom were doing an environmental science degree) look up topics like liberalism and Buddhism on their own.

To some, this might seem to be abdicating a teacher’s responsibility to provide authoritative perspectives on content. For me, it is part of encouraging students to learn on their own, including finding relevant readings, understanding concepts and applying them to case studies.

In making marking more enjoyable, I also hope to make learning more enjoyable for students. By getting students to do more work on their own and tackle unorthodox assignments, I hope to encourage student creativity and initiative. I remind myself that for the teacher to work hard often is not all that relevant to student learning. Students learn more when they work hard, and they are more likely to work hard on an interesting assignment. When the assignment is interesting to both students and the teacher, it is a win-win solution.

posting-on-fb

Other applications

If marking can be made reasonably enjoyable, what about other dreaded tasks? What is dreaded depends on the person, and might be paperwork filing, housework, gardening, tax returns or practising the violin. Often it’s whatever you’re avoiding. Whatever the challenge, the same sorts of principles can be applied.

1. Work in moderation, a little bit each day, rather than procrastinating and bingeing.

2. Remain fresh and alert by taking breaks when needed.

3. Practise going a bit faster while maintaining quality.

4. Aim to do what’s good enough, not at perfection.

5. Redesign the task to make it more interesting.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Further reading

Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000): on moderation as a philosophy for academic work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012): a fascinating account including advice on changing habits. (See Brian’s commentary.)

http://www.bmartin.cc/classes/: subject outlines and outstanding student work illustrating unusual types of assignments.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn and Anne Melano for helpful comments.