Learn Faster and Better with these 9 Principles from Ultralearning

Although a lot has been written about the learning process, there has been very few clear, direct step-by-step guides on how to go from zero to mastery. Scott Young’s book Ultralearning has changed that. 

Ultralearning is a technique, developed by Young, for learning any subject matter thoroughly and quickly. He has used the approach for some impressive learning projects  such as completing MIT’s 4-year undergraduate computer science curriculum in 12 months. Learning and training techniques often borrow from sports and other physical activities. Therefore, you are left to figure out how to translate those principles for your own learning projects at work. What’s refreshing about Young’s strategy is how well it lends itself to learning goals for knowledge work.

In this post, I will provide a broad stroke summary of some of Young’s techniques and how you can apply them right away.

Principles of Ultralearning

Scott Young introduces us to the following principles:

  1. Metalearning: First draw a map
  2. Focus:  Develop concentration and allocate time
  3. Directness: Learn by doing
  4. Drill: Attack your weakest point 
  5. Retrieval: Test to learn
  6. Feedback: Don’t dodge the punches
  7. Retention: Pace yourself for better retention
  8. Intuition: Develop intuition through play and exploration
  9. Experimentation: Explore outside your comfort zone

Let’s briefly take a lot at each of them.

Metalearning

Metalearning is a research step that takes a broad look at the structure of the subject matter you are about to learn. The goal is to first focus on mapping the knowledge and develop specific learning strategies before diving deep into an area. At this stage, take the time to explore your motivation for embarking on this learning project. 

Young encourages us to ask 3 key questions:

  • “Why?” – uncovers the actual motivation to learn. 
  • “What?” – identify knowledge and skills that needs to be acquired to achieve results.
  • “How?” – assemble the resource, environment and methods needed to learn.

For an example metalearning roadmap for Software Engineering checkout: How to Learn Programming: A Roadmap for Becoming a Software Engineer

Focus

This principle is rather obvious – to learn well we need to be able to cultivate deep focus and a sense of flow. To achieve this there are three common distractions that need to be managed:

  • Environment – work in a space that is conducive to learning
  • Task – Organize the task to maximize it’s learning potential (See the principles of Directness and Drill next).
  • Mind – Prime the mind into a state of flow that creates and sustains focus

Directness

Directness is learning that is closely based on the situation or context where the skill will be used. Simply put, directness is learning by doing. This requires you to stretch yourself to execute on things that you are still trying to learn. Most people prefer to go through a period of learning before doing, and so feel uncomfortable doing as they learn. But simply going through the motion of knowledge accumulation is not learning. The ultimate goal is to be able to apply the knowledge and act out the skills through action. Action separates those that succeed from those that only go through the motions. 

“The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.”

Scott Young

Also, learning in the real context will uncover many hidden aspects of the skill. Aspects that will otherwise not find in theory, books or literature. 

Drill

As you spend more time directly applying the skills and knowledge you learn, you will discover there are specific steps that act as bottleneck towards progress. Young calls these “rate-determining steps”. These bottlenecks are the perfect candidate for drills. 

Drills require some creativity to isolate and structure the skill to make it repeatable in a safe controlled setting. Learning through repetition and quick feedback is the goal here. A well designed drill will help you conquer bottlenecks decisively and further improve the quality of your learning.

Note that it is this process of repetition and drills that most learning literature often focus on. However, in Scott Youngs framework, drills are just one specific tool in a larger strategy.

Retrieval

For some learning projects, especially in the academic setting, retrieval during key moments (like tests and exams) determines your success. Practice retrieval by creating mock tests. Writing is also a great way to exercise this. 

An interesting approach Young talks about is the Concept Map. This is a map, that you can develop from scratch, that highlights key concepts you have learnt so far and how they relate to each other.

Feedback

Feedback provides a real measure of the progress you are making in your learning project. Young discusses three different types of feedback:

  • Outcome feedback: are you doing it wrong?
  • Informational feedback: what are you doing wrong?
  • Corrective feedback: how can you fix what your are doing wrong?

The faster the feedback the more you will improve. Therefore it’s important to devise a tight feedback loop into your drills.

Retention

You cannot retrieve or apply what you do not retain. Without strong retention, your learning process will feel stuck without progress. Principles of directness, drills and retrieval will naturally contribute to improved retention of knowledge. In addition it is important to pace yourself to allow for adequate rest. For example, if there are 10 hours to learn something, its better to spend 10 days studying an hour than 10 hours in a single burst.

Intuition and Experimentation

Intuition and Experimentation together are the bridge that takes you from being good to becoming a master. To develop strong intuition in your subject matter you need to go deep before you go wide. Josh Waitzkin often talks about this as a way of learning the macro from the micro. Going deep means recreating the foundations and reasoning behind the various concepts from first principles.

As you internalize these foundational principles, you will come across opportunities to start experimenting with different directions and challenge existing assumptions. Experimentation will take you from the early phase of knowledge accumulation to a mature phase of new knowledge creation and innovation.

Final Thoughts

Although these learning principles are presented in sequence, it is best to see them as different pillars that support your quest for growth. 

Ultralearning is a technique in it’s own right. In the long term, the more you apply these principles the better you will get at the meta skill of learning.

Finally, don’t forget to check Scott Young’s book Ultralearning for deeper discussions and examples on these principles.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: