What does solving a puzzle have to do with effective learning?
In this post, I will argue: everything.
A “puzzle” is something new to you which has a mysterious answer. The very act of solving a puzzle requires an act of learning, as we will see, which is what makes them so compelling.
The simple truth is: puzzles will help you learn more, faster.
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The Unsolved Puzzle
A technique called pretesting might be the most frustrating yet effective way to speed up learning, because it introduces the idea of an unsolved puzzle.
Here’s how it works: you simply take a test on the subject you wish to learn before you learn it. You can imagine that perhaps later, as you actually learn the material, things might jump out at you simply because you remember seeing it on the test.
In the book How we Learn, Benedict Cary explains:
In a series of experiments, psychologists like Roediger, Karpicke, the Bjorks, and Kornell have found that, in some circumstances, unsuccessful retrieval attempts—i.e., wrong answers—aren’t merely random failures. Rather, the attempts themselves alter how we think about, and store, the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we learn from answering incorrectly—especially when given the correct answer soon afterward.
When the conditions are created for learning, the brain cannot help but absorb information. It is the sole responsibility of the organ. The trick of skillhacking is to understand how the brain does it, and give it exactly what it needs. Pretesting does this by using our innate curiosity to virtually guarantee that we will want to learn the things that frustrated us on the pretest.
When someone provides an answer to us after first frustrating us with an unanswerable question, it’s like giving a cool drink of water to a man in the desert. It is relief to know the answer. It is what drives us to solve puzzles, compete and play games. It is why we are maddened by magic shows. It is why cliffhangers to TV phenomenon are talked about around water coolers.
So when we think of an unknown answer, we must fill the void. But what does the brain fill it with? How does it get all that information inside?
The sheer number of things a human can remember, invent or think is astonishing. To do this requires a massive feat of data compression, much like a computer does. Even if no scientist can definitively say how this compression works, exactly, it must occur.
And we do know at least a little about how this so-called compression works… via a system of shortcuts.
The Brain’s Shortcuts
Depending on how you look at it, your brain is either very lazy or very efficient.
In the post about experts’ brains, I explained that the very process which makes us good at something also causes us to create simplistic rules. Another way of looking at this is that being “skilled” means that you’ve consolidated a whole bunch of information into one piece. This is great: tricks like these are what allow a musician to be able to sight-read music, for example.
However, if you don’t give your brain enough variation, these shortcuts will work against you. Think of math class in high school. Why were some students so good at the story problems, while others struggled?
The students who struggled with story problems probably learned the mathematical formulas by rote, without ever diving into the derivation of the formulas and the surrounding context. They learned the facts, but not the knowledge. They memorized the numbers, but never comprehended the reasons. So when it came time to actually apply the information in a novel context (a story), they could not understand how to translate the basic facts into general comprehension.
Solving Puzzles to Learn More
Create a puzzle for yourself, and you’ll be compelled to learn more.
But how do you do this? When you use flashcards to memorize by rote, it’s not much of a puzzle. Your brain becomes lazy. It uses shortcuts and, if you’re not careful, you’ll stop practicing deliberately.
Instead, you can use a combination of interleaving and setting learning goals. It works like this: you first develop many different methods of practice. If you’re studying for a test, do not just use flashcards and reviewing notes… create different types of practice sessions based upon pretesting, so that you end each practice session with a quantified sense of how far you’ve come.
Now comes the fun part: switch up your practice sessions!
In my post about my perfect guitar practice schedule, I explained that I use 30 minute sessions; each session has a different goal, a different technique, and different exercises (scales, chord progressions, playing songs, etc.). I even spend time reading about music theory or watching other people play the guitar, using many different medium to absorb the information. I repeat this interleaved approach throughout the day. The result is that I make lots of very fast progress in each session, but each session is a different kind of progress.
This avoids the brain’s ability to make shortcuts. If I just played the same song over and over again, I’d become a trained monkey. I’d be able to move my fingers quickly to that song, but unable to improvise or understand the musical theory underlying it. But by varying the practice and interleaving my schedule, I end up learning “music” instead of learning a song.
The same approach can be used with foreign languages, for example. You can use duolingo as a game to learn the language, but also read books in it and create a language bubble. You’ll find that you’ve exposed yourself to the language in so many different ways that you actually understand it, instead of just memorizing a list of vocabulary words.
It takes a bit of creativity to apply this to learn faster, but that’s what makes it so much fun. Don’t just memorize by rote, but interleave your practice and truly understand the material.