(Trying To) Study Textbooks Effectively: A Year of Experimentation

When I started studying the art of studying, I wanted to understand the role of book learning. How do we best learn from a textbook, scientific article, or nonfiction book? What can a student of average intelligence do to stay on top of their homework? Is it possible to improve your annual knowledge growth rate by one or two percent by learning how to learn? Should a motivated student take a maximizing or satisficing approach to their coursework? How many of the skills of a top scholar are strategic, collaborative, psychological, or involve merely a set of habits and technological proficiencies?

Fortunately, I started with the most esoteric of approaches, exploring visualization. I tried using a memory palace to memorize a textbook. It was vivid, fun, and creative. Exploring visualization helped me understand chemical diagrams, led me to invent a math problem, and made learning a lot more fun. But I simply couldn’t jam that much detailed technical knowledge into my head. The method didn’t help me pass my final exam, and I dropped it.

Posts from this era include Visual Babble and Prune, Using a memory palace to memorize a textbook, The point of a memory palace, Visualizing the textbook for fun and profit,

After that, I explored speed reading. I read the theory, experimented both with physical technique and speed reading apps, and kind of broke my reading habits developing this difficult-to-correct tendency to skim. This tendency to read too quickly persisted long after I’d dropped deliberate attempts at speed reading. I finally made some intellectual progress, which preceded correcting the reading habit itself, in The Comprehension Curve.

Then I explored the world of Anki and tried to use flashcards to memorize a textbook instead (or at least a few chapters). After simulating the sheer amount of flashcard review I’d have to do to keep a strategy like that up long-term, I dropped that too. I felt that forming memories of narrow facts (like the structure of RNA polymerase or the name of the 7th enzyme in glycolysis) was the costliest way to learn. And I found the achievement of world-class memory champions irrelevant to real-world learning, which just seems like an entirely different task.

Posts from this area (not all on flashcards specifically) include The Multi-Tower Study Strategy, Define Your Learning Goal: Competence Or Broad Knowledge, Progressive Highlighting: Picking What To Make Into Flashcards, Goldfish Reading, Curious Inquiry and Rigorous Training, and Using Flashcards for Deliberate Practice.

During this time, I also played around with “just reading,” without a conscious technique. Posts from this era include Check OK, babble-read, optimize (how I read textbooks), Wild Reading,

Notes are cheap. It takes a lot less time to write down a fact than to memorize it. But I went further. I developed an elaborate and carefully-specified system of shorthand notation to represent causal, temporal, and physical structures. It used Newick notation for tree structures, variants on arrow signs to articulate causation, sequence, combination, and more, templates to rewrite the stereotyped information presented by textbooks in a uniform format, and hyperlinks in Obsidian to represent the relationships between concepts.

Not only did I take notes on the textbook, I also took notes on each individual homework problem. I also developed notes for other problems. I wrote Question Notes for The Precipice. This means that for each paragraph in the book, I wrote down one question to which that paragraph was a valid answer.

I never published any posts on note-taking. Partly, note-taking itself scratched that itch. But more importantly, it was a very fast iterative cycle. My methods developed day by day, over the course of months. I was experimenting with different software apps, tweaking the templates I used, figuring out how to expand my particular method of shorthand to represent complex structures. After all the shifts I’d made on my previous experiments, I thought I would spare LessWrong the tedious minutiae of my developing thoughts on note-taking. I’m confident that crafting the perfect notes in an elaborate and precise shorthand system is no a panacaea, so I don’t know if it’s worth bothering.

Exploring note-taking was as useful as visualizing was fun. The rigid structure of my note-taking approach gave me clear guidance on what it means to “read” or “study” a textbook chapter. They became a useful reference for looking things up. The idea of bringing together any data, formula, charts, or techniques I needed to solve a problem, and then making a plan of attack before setting to work, was a big upgrade for my accuracy and sense of ease.

Yet when my note-taking apotheosized after several iterations of improving my diagrammatic shorthand to deal with weird edge cases, and shifting from Evernote’s WYSIWYG editor to Obsidian’s markdown editor and full support for folders and hyperlinks, I found that not only was my approach to note-taking incredibly laborious, it was also profoundly distracting. It shifted my focus from building an intuitive feeling of understanding the material to constructing a precise translation of the material. At the end, I’d have a carefully notated description of a biochemical process, but virtually no ability to describe even the basics without reference to my notes. The experience of reading shifted from enjoyable, while visualizing, to the frantic skimming of flashcards, to sheer drudgery with note-taking. It didn’t feel at all like programming, which is an activity I enjoy and that I’d hoped my note-taking would mimic.

It came back to me, then, after almost a year since I’d given much focused thought to visualization, that I should try just reading a chapter—no flashcards, no notes, no nothin’ - and just try to picture everything as I went along, with no worries about trying to remember it all as I went. What do you know? The old spark returned! It was fun again! I breezed through a chapter on transcription, and had no trouble banging through the homework immediately afterward. Not only did I understand it better as I went, I was having more fun.

Now that I look back on the last year of exploring these issues, I see that I’ve only just now completed a single iteration of the Grand Study Problem, which is explaining how all these techniques, and possibly others, fit together into a technique for effective scholarship. Surely, it’s partly about focused memorization (flashcards). Partly, it’s about searching, note-taking, planning and problem-solving. And partly, it’s about visualizing, anthropomorphizing, storytelling, model-building, and all the other ways of engaging your senses. What can I say about each of them?

If you’re visualizing it, almost every textbook sentence provides you with an opportunity to create a new image in your mind. As you progress further through the textbook, it will call back to more and more earlier concepts. In biochemistry, it’s things like the relationship between Gibbs free energy, enthalpy, entropy, and electrostatic potential; the amino acids; the nucleotides; different types of lipids; and a variety of major enzymes (i.e. DNA polymerase) and pathways (i.e. glycolysis). If you can figure out what those concepts are, and memorize them, you’ll be able to picture them when it mentions them casually in passing. If you can’t remember glutamine’s abbreviation or chemical structure, then every time the book mentions G (or is it E?), you’ll miss out on an opportunity to practice recalling it, or else you’ll have to interrupt your flow to look it up for the umpteenth time. This is a role for flashcards and super-convenient reference charts. Some knowledge is most helpful if you can access it in five seconds or less.

Note-taking is incredibly helpful for focusing, but so is visualizing. I still think that there’s a big role for taking really good notes, and assembling other reference and search tools. Yet taking notes needs to be balanced with enjoyable reading and building an intuition for the subject matter, and I think that comes from a visual approach first. Render it down into symbols later.

Along the way, I’ve written an informal scientific journal with my current working hypothesis, motivations for trying it out, tests, limitations, and future directions. This has been very helpful for giving these experiments a sense of direction.

One unifying trait so far is that each experiment has focused on one technique: visualization, memorization, note-taking, and now back to visualizing. It seems to me now that each of these has a purpose. Visualization puts the fun, creativity, and intuition in learning, and it’s also fundamental to understanding anything that has a physical form. Memorization is important so that when you learn a concept in Chapter 2 that reappears persistently over the next 22 chapters, you aren’t just reading words on the page, but are able to recall a concept to mind. That way, the rest of your reading refreshes and extends your memory of that initial concept. Note-taking and reference-sheet-making is helpful as a way of optimizing and compressing the natural-language, beginner-oriented version you get in a textbook into a format more suitable for review or looking up particular details. Figuring out how to interleave these three techniques will probably be the focus of my next iteration of this exploration.