How to Master Any Subject

This science learning tip will definitely help you at the college level and beyond. Use this tip in high school and you'll be able to learn at a level far above the established curriculum.

A physics teacher told me about this technique when I asked him a question about a Feynman lecture.

“A student should be OK with feeling a little bit lost,” he said.

He was referring to his practice of regularly giving his students material that was above their heads. I've adopted this custom, and each week I give my students a report that was written by and for specialists with advanced degrees.

The student will probably not understand the entire paper. (Yet sometimes they do!) They will recognize key terms, and possibly see a familiar pattern in the graphs and data. If they read the abstract and the headings, they can get the gist of the article. This is enough.

When a child learns anything new, he or she goes through an awkward phase of trial and error. A baby falls down a lot while learning to walk. Later the same thing happens when you learn to ride a bike.

This hit-and-miss process repeats when you learn to spell, play an instrument, or throw a football.

Academically, too, you have to attempt things that you can't yet do. If you always stay in your comfort zone, your learning will be limited to the acquisition of new facts. This is important, but when you do something beyond your ability you:

  • Expand your sense of what is do-able
  • Train your brain to find meaning amidst confusion
  • Learn to assimilate new ideas and perspectives

This learning tip, in a nutshell is: Struggle on a regular basis. Find something that's to hard for you, and attempt to do it.

My own experience with this learning tip

I moved to Italy at the age of 29. This is relatively late to learn a language, so I had to put a heavy foot to the accelerator.

In addition to practicing the basic grammar and memorizing useful vocabulary, I also went where I would feel lost: I bought college-level books on art and history, and started reading them almost immediately. Sometimes I would spend 10 minutes on a single page, and have to look up a dozen words. But slowly I would gain a vague interpretation of what was being written.

Within a year, I was fluent. I wrote letters to Italian friends and they told me I wrote like a college student. After two years, strangers would ask, “What part of Italy are you from?” If they could tell I was a foreigner, they would assume I was from France or another country where a Latin-based language was spoken.

Babies and young children are constantly stretching the envelope, trying to do things that they can't. The result is a natural, rapid learning curve.

The teen brain (or even the full-grown adult) still has a lot of neuroplasticity. New synapses can be formed at any age. The rapid learning comes from reaching for something that's just beyond your reach.

Try it!

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