Is learning useless stuff good for you?

Is learning useless stuff good for you?

We often require all students to learn things they may never need like latin, calculus, advanced trigonometry and classical literature. The implicit assumption is that learning difficult things is intrinsically good. It trains your brain. It makes you smarter.

True? Or false?

I worked on this assumption for the longest time. As an undergraduate, I took 6 courses per term instead of the required 5. I also took an extra year to graduate, doing the equivalent two majors. I probably took more college courses than 99.9% of the college graduates.

Why did I take all these courses? Because I was convinced that learning about all sorts of things would make me smarter. Many people think it works this way. That’s why we taught people Latin for a long time. In education, that is called transfer: learning something will help you learn something else, even if it is barely related. Does it work? We have reasons to doubt it:

Transfer has been studied since the turn of the XXth century. Still, there is very little empirical evidence showing meaningful transfer to occur and much less evidence showing it under experimental control. (…) significant transfer is probably rare and accounts for very little human behavior. (Detterman)

Caplan is even more categorical:

Teachers like to think that no matter how useless their lessons appear, they are teaching their students how to think. Under the heading of Transfer of Learning, educational psychologists have spent over a century looking for evidence that this sort of learning actually occurs. The results are decidedly negative.

These authors are not saying that learning French won’t help you learn Spanish. They are not saying that learning C++ won’t help you learn Java. Transfering does work, trivially, when there are similarities. Rather, they are saying that learning projective geometry won’t make you a better Java programmer. They are saying that learning fractal theory won’t help you be a better manager.

This has troubling consequences because, for many people, whatever they learned in college or in high school, has very little to do with what they do for a living. Does a degree in journalism makes you a better program manager today? You can legitimately ask the question. Yet employers are happy to assume that a degree, any degree, will help people do a better job, irrespective of the similarities between the job and the degree. For example, Tom Chi explains how his training in astrophysics made him a better business manager. From astrophysics to management? Really?

Can we at least hope that college students improve their critical thinking with all these literature, mathematics and philosophy classes? Roksaa and Arumb looked at the score of students on critical thinking tests as they progress through their studies:

A high proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in critical thinking.

The students have learned skills. It is difficult to go through years of studies without learning something. But this knowledge and these skills do not necessarily transfer to something as basic as critical thinking.

My point is that students might be onto something when they refuse to learn for the sake of learning. We look down at people who refuse to learn mathematics because it appears useless to them. We think that learning some mathematics would be good for them the same way we used to think that learning latin was good for the minds of little boys. We might be wrong.

But this has also a practical consequence for all of us: don’t bother learning skills “just in case” unless you do it for fun. If you want to be a better software programmer, just practice programming. This also means that if you want to acquire practical skills, a school might not be the best place to go: a degree in English might not turn you into a better novelist.

Another consequence is that you should not assume a transfer of expertise: if someone succeeded at one thing, you should not assume they will succeed at something else. If a famous baseball player starts a software company, wait before investing.

How to learn efficiently

I am convinced that much of the gap between the best college students and the worst is explained by study habits. Frankly, most students study poorly. To make matters worse, most teachers are incapable of teaching good study habits.

Learning is proportional with effort

Sitting in a classroom listening to a professor feels like learning… Reading a book on a new topic feels like learning… but because they are overwhelming passive activities, they are inefficient. It is even worse than inefficient, it is counterproductive because it gives you the false impression that you know the material. You can sit through lecture after lecture on quantum mechanics. At some point, you will become familiar with the topics and the terminology. Alas, you are fooling yourself which is worse than not learning anything.

Instead, you should always seek to challenge yourself. If some learning activity feels easy, it means that it is too easy. You should be constantly reminded of how little you know. Great lectures make it feels like the material is easy: it probably is not. Test yourself constantly: you will find that you know less than you think.

Some students blame the instructors when they feel confused. They are insistent that a course should be structured in such a way that it is always easy so that they rarely make mistakes. The opposite is true: a good course is one where you always feel that you will barely make it. It might not be a pleasant course, but it is one where you are learning. It is by struggling that we learn.

On this note, Learning Style theory is junk: while it is true that some students have an easier time doing things a certain way, having it easier is not the goal.

There are many ways to challenge yourself and learn more efficiently:

  • Seek the most difficult problems, the most difficult questions and try to address them. It is useless to read pages after pages of textbook material, but it becomes meaningful if you are doing it to solve a hard problem. This is not news to Physics students who have always learned by solving problems. Always work on the toughest problems you can address.

  • Reflect on what you have supposedly learned. As an undergraduate student, I found that writing a summary of everything I had learned in a class was one of the best ways to study for an exam. I would just sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to summarize everything as precisely as possible. Ultimately, writing your own textbook would be a very effective way to learn the material. Teaching is a great way to learn because it challenges you.

  • Avoid learning from a single source. Studying from a single textbook is counterproductive. Instead, seek multiple sources. Yes, it is confusing to pick up a different textbook where the terminology might be different, but this confusion is good for you.

If sitting docilely in a classroom is inefficient and even counterproductive, then why is it so common a practice? Why indeed!

Interleaved study trumps mass study

When studying, many people do not want to mix topics “so as not to get confused”. So if they need to learn to apply one particular idea, they study to the exclusion of everything else. That is called mass (or block) practice.

Course material and textbooks do not help: they are often neatly organized into distinct chapters, distinct sections… each one covering one specific topic.

What researchers have found is that interleaved practice is far superior. In interleaved practice, you intentionally mix up topics. Want to become a better mathematician? Do not spend one-month studying combinatorics, one-month studying calculus and so on. Instead, work on various mathematical topics, mixing them randomly.

Interleaved practice feels much harder (e.g., “you feel confused”), and it feels discouraging because progress appears to be slow. However, this confusion you feel… that is your brain learning.

Interleaved practice is exactly what a real project forces you to do. This means that real-world experience where you get to solve hard problems is probably a much more efficient learning strategy than college. Given a choice between doing challenging real work, and taking classes, you should always take the challenging work instead.

Chuck Reynolds




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