A Little Learning IV

sunset-in-indigo(If you’re a young’un just joining us now, you might want to go back to¬†the introduction to this series¬†to learn what it’s about.)

Think about¬†the analogy¬†of the marathon, from yesterday. ¬†If learning is a marathon, that means that avoiding hurting or exhausting yourself during the first half of the marathon matters far more than going a little bit faster at any given point. ¬†This is hard for¬†teenagers to grasp because they are at the beginning of their first real marathon, so they don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be, and they don’t realize (to deepen the metaphor) how differently the longer race will challenge¬†their muscles, their joints, their lungs, their spirits.

Youthful inexperience would¬†be a serious obstacle to the marathon analogy, all by itself. But what makes the analogy¬†counter-intuitive¬†is the fact that students are coaxed and prodded through primary and secondary school with deadline after deadline after deadline. ¬†There is nothing wrong with deadlines, but they encourage a sprinter’s mindset: from Day 1 to Day N, work as hard as you can, stagger over the finish line, and then go out and party. ¬†If the teacher sets the student unchallenging tasks, the student’s natural inclinations will make his study-habits more and more sprint-like over time, and he starts to learn exactly how long he wait¬†before finishing the entire task in a frenzy of continuous activity.

There are lots of tricks that will help you win a sprint (or at least, will help some people) that are terrible for a marathon. ¬†Here is a dark secret: the best way to be able to recall some fact at, say, 9am on the day of your final exam is to cram it into your short term memory for the 6-12¬†hours before that. ¬†Just rote memorization, repeating everything you’re trying to remember over and over again. ¬†Do not try this, please. ¬†I’m sad to say I have tried it, and it gave¬†me good results on the test (the sprint). ¬†But it has had terrible consequences for my understanding of the subjects I was studying, because you don’t form any long-term memories when you don’t sleep. ¬†So 12-24 hours of hard¬†work¬†that should have been a great¬†permanent addition to my knowledge, a treasure no one could take from me, withered into dust over the course of a few days, because I had my eyes on the sprint, not the marathon.

Now imagine if you took this approach (frenzied sprint of effort, followed by exhausted collapse and relaxation) to every single problem-set, quiz, essay, presentation, lab, research project and exam you had a deadline on ‚ÄĒ over a period of months, or years.



  1. A Little Learning I
  2. A Little Learning II
  3. A Little Learning III

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