- Just try a bunch of stuff and see what works. This seems pretty good, especially early on. There is just a bunch of value you can get out of doing a bunch of experiments, and getting stuff wrong, and then seeing what works. So yeah, maybe consider this whole episode as a list of things to try. Try some of them, and if they don’t work, throw them away. But if they do work, maybe this is something you can use for a long time.
- You can just get a ton better at stuff by really intentionally practicing it. And I think I do make this point a couple of times. So intentionally practicing works best when you have clear success criteria, and also when the thing you’re practicing is the right level of challenge for you. Basically like if you want to get better at something, just try and do that thing. That seems pretty key.
- Think carefully about what you want to get out of a situation. Like, what are you shooting for? What’s your main goal? Really considering that question might lead you to act in quite a different way in a particular situation, or use quite a different strategy, as the one you would have defaulted to, had you not been considering, “What’s my actual goal here?”
- As some of you might have suspected when Keiran and I were talking about things I personally found hard when I was at school, since this episode, I’ve actually been diagnosed with ADHD. And so maybe there’s some final lesson, which is: If you find stuff difficult, maybe just ask for help with it. Maybe ask someone else if there’s some way of you finding the thing less difficult. Because for me, it took a bunch of friends and colleagues and my partner really supporting me along the way. But it’s made a massive difference to my life already, having a diagnosis and being able to access treatment for something which turns out I’ve been finding hard for a really long time.
Actually learning vs trying to seem smart
Alex Lawsen: If you’re interacting with someone — let’s say you’re interacting with a teacher or with another student — one thing you may be trying to do in a situation is actually trying to learn, and some other thing you might be trying to do in that situation is trying to seem smart.
Alex Lawsen: And I’m actually not going to make a claim about which of these things is the better thing to try to do in each situation. It’s useful to sound smart. I actually think that one thing that I am kind of good at in some situations is sounding smart. And maybe I caveat too much to try and compensate for this. I think probably what happens is me just being able to caveat really heavily the things I’m saying — but then still saying them — actually doesn’t help with the “sounding smart” thing at all.
Alex Lawsen: I think it’s valuable for people to think you are worth spending time on, so maybe in some situations you should try and sound smart. But I think it can also be really harmful, because one of the most valuable things to help you progress your own learning is to actually notice when you’re uncertain about something, and ask for clarification immediately. It’s just way easier to have someone who already knows the thing tell you.
Alex Lawsen: If you’ve got two models — two explanations for a question, or two things that might be an interpretation of what someone just said — sometimes it’s just going to be really hard to work out which one’s true on your own. You can just ask them, and then you just get the answer instantly and you don’t have to do all that mental labor — and then you could bother working out what that piece of information is useful for.
Alex Lawsen: This is a really clear example where, if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to learn, I claim you should not care at all about sounding smart, and you should be prepared to ask pretty stupid-sounding questions. And you should be prepared to look stupid occasionally, because you asked something that was very obvious to everyone else in the situation. But actually — especially if it was very obvious to everyone else in the situation — it seems really important that you know that quickly, so you can then access all of the other stuff.
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think this is the best example, because it doesn’t seem super extreme, and it seems plausible that lots of people are trying to do at least some of both of these things in lots of situations. Basically you should actually think, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this thing?” And then say, “Okay, if the reason I’m doing this thing is X, then how can I do this thing in a way to maximize X?”
Actually trying to learn a subject
Alex Lawsen:I think maybe it’s easiest to talk about what this doesn’t look like. Something that frustrated me when I was teaching sometimes — in that it didn’t look very like this, it didn’t look very helpful — was people going like, “Sure, you’ve told me this idea, but what do I need to know for the exam?” And I’m speaking specifically about maths and physics here — because these are the subjects I ended up specializing in — but they both have many connections between them. I claim that trying to see the big picture — and trying to work out where the current thing you’re learning fits into the big picture, and how it connects to other stuff — is very valuable for gaining actual, deep understanding of the subject.
Alex Lawsen: If, whenever you get a new piece of information, the reaction to it is, “How do I package this to be able to reproduce it in a certain format later?” then you don’t try as hard to make those connections. You don’t try as hard to actually grok the thing. And this feels like a fairly severe mistake unless you are under some time pressure — i.e. unless there is an exam around the corner.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. I imagine for a lot of students, this is just ingrained, that they’re trying to learn things for the exams. So even if this sounds good, do you have tips on how to actually achieve this mindset shift?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe something to do is try and work out what it would look like to be doing this well. I think there’s a few things I can point out here.
One thing is actually trying to look for these connections — so trying to ask the question yourself, “Why is this valuable?” But not why is this valuable as in “because I can use it in an exam” — but “Why did someone bother to invent this thing? Why does it matter?”
Alex Lawsen: Another thing is, “Can I explain this concept to someone else?” You could literally do this, and I actually really strongly recommend this. I think one of the best ways of improving your knowledge of a thing is trying to teach other people that thing, because they ask you questions — annoying, basic questions sometimes — about why: “Why do you do it that way? Why does that thing work? Why does that step come after that one?” And you have to come up with an answer, especially if you are better than them in some sense. There’s no option to be like, “Oh, I actually don’t know,” because then the response is, “Well, why are you explaining this then?”
Alex Lawsen: So yeah, if you have someone that you feel able to help, who’s a bit worse than you, then explaining it to them seems great. If you have some friends who are studying the same stuff, then trying to explain stuff to each other, and check that you all get it. And trying to argue with each other about whether you understand the things in the right way seems good. And failing both of those, imagining a younger version of you, and seeing what you would say to them, including a much younger version. You can be like, let’s say you are 18. “How would I explain this to a 15-year-old? How would I explain this to a 10-year-old? Is there anything meaningful I could explain to a five-year-old about this?” The ages are arbitrary, right? But “Can I explain this at multiple levels of simplicity?” seems a good way of checking whether you’ve actually got it.
Struggling with motivation
Alex Lawsen: There are many reasons to struggle with motivation — the things to say, and the things for students listening to this to try, will somewhat depend on the thing that’s going on. So maybe a useful place to start is like, is their motivation coming from feeling overworked, or stressed, or burnt out, or something like that? This was probably the most common thing for students I taught. The school was pretty high performing — it got very good exam results — and lots of the students there were working very hard, and all of their friends were also working very hard. So this is an environment where there’s an expectation to do lots of work, and this can feel overwhelming.
Alex Lawsen: In this case, you’re just like, “I have to be working. Everyone else is working.” This seems really overwhelming. This can lead to just being like, “I don’t want to do any work at all.” And I think one really valuable thing to do in this case, and maybe some of the most value I ever gave to students, was I explicitly gave them permission to rest, or to switch off, or to not be productive. I literally mean I said the words: “I give you permission to rest if you are not doing useful stuff.”
Alex Lawsen: I actually think maybe this is useful to do now. So if you’re listening to this, and you’re feeling like there’s too much work on, you have permission — for whatever it means — to actually stop. And maybe the way to phrase this — that feels most allowable for someone who’s in the mindset of “I must work because it’s really important that I work” — is that it seems pretty true to say something like, “You should do as much as you can and no more.” And the key thing about this is “as much as you can” is sometimes zero.
Alex Lawsen: If in fact you are not being useful — and when we say “not being useful,” we mean not being useful on net, so it might be you’re working at like 2% capacity — because you’re really stressed, and also costing yourself the ability to work in the future, because you’re making yourself even more stressed, and more tired, and more burnt out — then doing nothing is the most you can do. And in those scenarios, actually doing nothing and saying, “I am going to stop; I need to rest” is the best thing you can do. And so you should actually do it.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. That just sounds like obviously great advice. I can imagine that being really hard to actually follow through with. Beyond listening to this podcast and hearing you say, “I give you permission” — which is hopefully helpful — do you have any other tips for how to actually make this feel okay?
Alex Lawsen: I think there’s something I can point at, which is the case where you have pretty strong evidence you should be resting, and maybe that will help. The thing I’m thinking of here is like a state that, if I describe it — even though I probably won’t do a great job of describing it — I think people who’ve been in this state will recognize what I’m talking about very quickly. This is the state of like kind of working and kind of resting, and feeling bad about both. And so this could look like having books open and staring into space. It could look like scrolling on your phone, or watching TV, or messaging your friends in between answering questions. But the “skew of time” is mostly the relaxing thing — most of your time is spent doing the relaxing thing, and then sometimes you’re doing the work thing.
Alex Lawsen: And actually what’s going on here is the relaxing part of whatever you are doing isn’t relaxing you — because the relaxing part is just making you feel bad about not working, but you’re also not doing any useful work. And if you feel like you’re in this state — where you are not really doing work that’s that useful, and you are also not really relaxing — the claim I want to make is that it is strictly better to be actually relaxing. Because if you are actually relaxing, you will have the capacity to work in the future, whereas if you stay in this state forever, you will never recover enough to get out of it.
Alex Lawsen: I think probably the most important thing to really do — and this is actually not super action-guiding, and maybe is one of the things that’s going to generalize more than the other stuff — is actually bother to think about what your goal is in a particular situation, and then decide how hard to shoot for that.
Alex Lawsen: So one idea here is if you’re doing a piece of work, and you don’t think the piece of work is super valuable to anything you care about — so let’s say, you don’t think this thing is going to be super valuable to you getting better grades, or super valuable to you actually understanding something you want to understand. Then what is the goal of you doing it? If the goal of you doing it is to not get in trouble, then doing sufficiently well that you don’t get in trouble — and no better than that — seems like a good strategy.
Keiran Harris: Can you give an example of something like this, where you think a student should actually be fairly confident this has no value?
Alex Lawsen: I think maybe something to flag about the UK school system is that often people will just pick a few subjects to specialize in fairly early. If this is not the case — if you’re studying multiple subjects and you know that there are some that are just going to be the thing you’re focusing on later — then it seems at least plausible that your goal in the other subjects should just be to get the grades you need, or to pass the thing.
Alex Lawsen: Maybe the canonical example for someone in the UK would be: You’re finishing your GCSEs. You know you are going to get the highest score you can in English, and you know you’re dropping English and don’t have any other writing subjects. That seems a reasonable case to just be like, “I’m going to do what I’ve been asked to, and absolutely no more.”
Keiran Harris: That seems right.
Alex Lawsen: I think this is maybe the example that teachers will most dislike, so I should probably flag here that it seems at least possible — if your teachers are vaguely competent — that you’ve been asked to do something that you don’t see the value of, but there is actually value in. So you should be sure that that isn’t the case, before you go, “I’m going to half-ass this.” But yeah, maybe this is the one that I think is going to be most salient to bright kids who are sitting in school or something.
Shifting your focus over the academic year
Alex Lawsen: One thing that I have tried to do in my teaching — and I think that students should be trying to do in their learning — is as an academic year progresses, changing the focus. My rough claim is something like, at the start of the year, you are pretty far away from any exams, and your focus should be — as much as possible — actually try to learn the subject, actually try to just get good and understand the subject.
Alex Lawsen: Then as you get further towards your endpoint, as you get closer to an exam, I think that becomes less important or maybe less tractable or something, and you should start being much more specific and going, “Okay, I have an exam. How do I pass the exam?” And learning the subject and passing exams are correlated, but you can do somewhat different things to try to actually achieve those goals.
Keiran Harris: When you say, “as you get closer to your exam,” do you have a rough estimate of how long that should be? Are you saying a month before the exams come up? Longer?
Alex Lawsen: I think I picture this as somewhat continuous, but as a rough guide in my teaching… In England, we have three terms, and I approximately spent the first two terms introducing new material and trying to convince the students that they should actually try and understand that material, and then approximately the third term going, “You have heard at least once all of the material. Let’s try and work out how you are going to reproduce that in an exam, get ready for that.” So approximately two-to-one across the year, but I envisage it slightly more continuous than that.
Prepping for exams
Alex Lawsen: Let’s start with the obvious stuff. You are going to go and sit in a room and be tested on your knowledge of a bunch of material by having to answer questions that you haven’t seen before, without any notes in front of you. So to first approximation, the thing you should do to prepare for that is be in a room without any notes, and have some questions in front of you that you haven’t seen before, and try to answer them to the best of your ability.
Alex Lawsen: And kind of nothing else matters. And I said “kind of,” and I do actually want to dig into some things you can do that aren’t exactly that — because that can be stressful, and certainly you shouldn’t do it all the time and at the start, unless you’re just incredibly resilient and have an arbitrarily large stack of past papers.
Alex Lawsen: But if you’re spending the majority of your time doing anything other than something that looks very like the thing you’re preparing for, you should have a very good reason for that. Because actually if you want to get better at a thing, you should do something that looks extremely like that thing.
Keiran Harris: Okay, so you said that you shouldn’t just be practicing exam papers. Why not?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, so one reason might be that you just don’t have that many. Let’s say you are preparing for an A Level maths paper. In this case, you are relatively lucky, because A Level maths has existed for a long time, and the format hasn’t changed that much. So you can probably find a bunch of papers that look at least somewhat like the paper you are going to be sitting, or a past year’s version of the paper you’re going to be sitting, and you can just try a bunch of those. And then leave the ones that look most like the thing that you are preparing for towards near the end.
Alex Lawsen: It may be though, that your exam looks different to previous years. Maybe the syllabus has recently changed. That might be one reason that you can’t just — if you’re starting three months before — say, “I’m going to do a past paper every day,” because you don’t have 90 past papers left.
Alex Lawsen: One thing that seems really important is actually that doing a past paper — if you’re really trying to prepare for an exam — doesn’t quite look like sitting the paper once, and then going, “Cool, I’m done. Next paper.” I think the full exercise of getting as much out of the paper as possible looks something like this: You do the paper without notes in the time that you are allowed for it in the exam. Then stop, change color — do something to notice that that’s how much you did in the time — and then try using either additional time, if you think that’s going to be enough, or additional time and notes, to answer the questions fully. So basically then cheat your way to as best as you can do on the exam, and then mark it.
Alex Lawsen: The last stage — which you could do without the “cheat your way to the finish” stage anyway — when you mark an exam yourself, it’s incredibly valuable to work out what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and why the right answer is right. And this is actually a place where just asking a teacher can be really helpful — it’s incredibly easy for teachers to give you a ton of value. If you’ve tried a question for ages and then marked it already, and found what the right answer is, and that your answer isn’t right, and you have thought about it but you don’t understand why, then going to a teacher and saying, “This is the whole process I’ve been through. Please, can you explain this one concept?” just lets you get a huge conceptual boost for very little of their time, assuming they are knowledgeable enough to know what the right answer is.