Accelerated learning

Derek Sivers tells how a mentor was able to teach him a semester’s worth of music theory in three hours. His mentor also prepared him to place out of four more classes in four sessions. He gives the details in his blog post There’s no speed limit. It’s an inspiring story.

However, Sivers didn’t go through his entire education this way. He finished his degree in 2.5 years, but at the rate he started he could have finished in under a semester. Obviously he wasn’t able to blow through everything as fast as music theory.

Some classes compress better than others. Theoretical classes condense better than others. A highly motivated student could learn a semester of music theory or physics in a short amount of time. But it would take longer to learn a semester of French or biology no matter how motivated you are because these courses can’t be summarized by a small number of general principles. And while Sivers learned basic music theory in three hours, he says it took him 15 years to learn how to sing.

Did Sivers’ mentor expose him to everything students taking music theory classes are exposed to? Probably not. But apparently Sivers did learn the most important material, both in the opinion of his mentor and in the opinion of the people who created the placement exams. His mentor not only taught him a lot of ideas in a short amount of time, he also told him when it was time to move on to something else.

It’s hard to say when you’ve learned something. Any subject can be explored in infinite detail. But there comes a point when you’ve learned a subject well enough. Maybe you’ve learned it to your personal satisfaction or you’ve learned it well enough for an exam. Maybe you’ve reached diminishing return on your efforts or you’ve learned as much as you need to for now.

One way to greatly speed up learning is to realize when you’ve learned enough. A mentor can say something like “You don’t know everything, but you’ve learned about as much as you’re going to until you get more experience.”

Occasionally I’ll go from feeling I don’t understand something to feeling I do understand it in a moment, and not because I’ve learned anything new. I just realize that maybe I do understand it after all. It’s a feeling like eating a meal quickly and stopping before you feel full. A few minutes later you feel full, not because you’ve eaten any more, but only because your body realizes you’re full.

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2 thoughts on “Accelerated learning

  1. I’ve wondered if knowledge in a subject you don’t use very often decays to some non-zero base level. If so, how fast is the decay? For example, over the course of my education, I spent a lot of time and effort learning American history. But that was some time ago, and now I think that what I remember could easily be summarized in a well-written booklet. If I had learned the material in such a booklet back then, would I now know just as much as I do? Perhaps books such as the “idiot’s guide to..” series are on to something. Is there really any lasting marginal benefit of studying beyond that level of detail?

  2. Steve, your point is good, but for the specific example of music theory, it doesn’t apply. Music theory courses teach a broad set of basics that supply the needs of a broad set of musical practices. What a student retains will be determined not by what they initially learn, but by what they do with it afterward. A (worthwhile) composer will build on most of it, a classical performer will retain almost instinctively bits of voice-leading and large-scale form, and a jazz pianist will retain and extend other parts of it entirely. What Kino taught Sivers is a perfect application for accelerated study: basics that will be honed in the practice for which they’re a prerequisite.

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