Nathan Laundry's Blog

Prime then Immerse: How I Learn Difficult Things Quickly

Learning My-Life-Philosophy

💡If you want to learn French, move to France.

🧑‍💻 How I Learned Terminal Driven Linux

This is my mantra and it all started in 2016, my first year as a Computer Science Undergrad at the University of Guelph. I had been looped in by SOCIS — the Society of Computing and Information Sciences — which sounds a lot more official than it really was. At the time, it was a small community of fellow geeks, nerds, and tech enthusiasts (it’s grown to be much larger than that these days) and the cool thing was Linux. For the uninitiated, Linux is an operating system like Windows or MacOS, but what makes it stand out is it’s completely free, and it’s developed, and used primarily by programmers. In 2016 I decided I was going to learn Linux.

At 18, I saw things in extremes. I thought you either commit 100% of yourself to learning something or you fail to learn it. There could be no in between. With this black and white thinking driving me, I gave myself no chances to back out; I wiped my laptop of anything that could be traced back to Microsoft and installed Ubuntu 16.10. Not only did I strand myself on the island of Linux with no life raft in sight, I added another stipulation: I was going to do everything via the terminal. Needless to say, I had a tough first semester.

Every little task that we take for granted on Windows or MacOS I struggled with. Don’t get me wrong, Ubuntu is a fine and relatively user-friendly linux distro, but the training weights I placed on myself, the terminal only approach, had me flailing about in a foreign environment. Tiny things like connecting to Wifi, getting my laptop to connect to my printer, learning how to install applications, all of it had me spinning. But that’s exactly what I was hoping for.

I craved the urgency that having no alternative solutions would bring. I’ve got an assignment due on Friday and I don’t know how to print? Well I guess I’ll have to learn how to print on Linux or fail the assignment. Can’t connect to Wifi to open the lecture notes? Going to have to figure that out now or be lost in class. And so I learned, my stress levels only matched by the speed at which I learned.

Today, I’m far from an expert on Linux — it’s an incredibly vast and complex system — but I know enough that from time to time a first year is referred to me with Linux questions. That’s plenty to stroke my ego.

🤿 Immersion

One learns from books and example only that certain things can be done. Actual learning requires that you do those things. — Frank Herbert, author of Dune

Of course I didn’t do anything new, this is a process called immersion learning and it’s often used by language learners. The idea is if you remove alternatives and force yourself to practice in all the little things: ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions, calling up customer service, you’ll learn rapidly and in authentic environments. That’s what I did with Linux and the terminal.

There are plenty of cases of people either intentionally or by accident realizing the benefits of immersion learning. The Beatles famously exclaimed how hastily they improved when they first began recording 8 hours a day. I hear coop students lament how they learned more in the first 4 to 8 months of their placements than they have in the entirety of the 2 years of school prior. I attribute this to immersion; the constant compulsory application of skills and knowledge deepens and quickens the learning process.

🪜 The Missing Step: What Makes Immersion Learning Effective

18 year old me and many of these stories miss a key step though — priming. The Beatles spent years practicing and playing before being immersed, coop students learn a variety of computer science topics in the 2 years prior to their first job, and I had spent my entire childhood around computers — the last 2 years of highschool learning to program. This is the first half to successful immersion learning. We need a few shallow end lessons before being plopped into the deep end.

By building familiarity with key topics, and practices, even without truly learning them, we become vastly more receptive to them during our immersion. That’s what I had done in my years building up to my deep dive into Linux. Years of helping my mom troubleshoot e-mail, wifi, printers, and other mundane computer issues taught me the metaskill of how to solve problems on computers. When I finally faced Linux, instead of learning both computational thinking and the terminal, I only had to map what I already knew to this new medium.

The second half of the key to immersion learning is to take the plunge before you feel ready. In part, the uneasiness of so much novelty shocks the system into absorbing, sorting, and categorizing everything. Without it, we lean on the tiny portions that are comfortable and familiar, scarcely branching beyond the safety net we carved out for ourselves.

Of course, I could be talking out of my ass. I have a handful of anecdotes to back this all up so take from this what you will and apply grains of salt to taste.

📓 Applying my Immersion Learning Approach to Research

It can’t be my mantra if I don’t apply it to every aspect of my life. So the natural question is, how do I immerse myself in learning to do research?

🖌️ Priming

What I want to do at this stage is expose myself to the metaskills of research. These skills: doing literature surveys, effectively analyzing papers, selecting appropriate experiments to test hypotheses, and analyzing finding, are transferable no matter the field of research. Focusing on a niche field of research and its methodologies, at this stage, would narrow my view. I can rely on Immersion later to learn the intricacies of my chosen field.

It’s easy to be seduced by the most tantalizing parts of a paper — the results. But the results don’t tell the story of how the researchers got there, the metaskills they used. Instead I’ve been focusing on search criteria for literature reviews, methods sections to learn how to conduct experiments, analysis to learn what can be extracted from data and how, and finally discussion — what we can learn and what can go wrong when we do research? Like my years of computer troubleshooting had primed me to learn Linux, this I hope will prime me to do research.

The last step of priming is to identify an open research problem that I’m excited to solve. I survey the field to learn key words, notable authors/researchers, and conferences/journals. I emphasize fun and collaboration because I want to be excited about practicing research, and collaboration because I want someone to bounce ideas off of when I face those “how do I get the printer to work” problems. This is pretty much summed up by the literature review process which I’ve written about before (LINK).=

🪂 Immersion

Remember it’s key to start immersion before we feel ready. So, before I’ve done much more than survey the authors, venues, and open problems in a field, I decide on a problem to solve and start.

Next I set a deadline. I pick one of those publication venues and commit to finishing some research in time to submit it.

The urgency of the deadline and the fact that we’re actually conducting research is what forces us to solve those printer style problems. The unforseen problems like: how does one apply for ethics approval? how do we store data and anonymize it? how do we deal with interviewees who don’t want to answer questions or get stuck on a tangent? I don’t have the answers to any of these things, but I assure you I plan on learning. The most important takeaway is that when you face these problems, resist the urge to shy away and ask that your supervisor or collaborator intervene. Address it for the purpose of learning how to do so.

As of right now, I’m working on a paper about the nature of gaming communities. I get to work on a project near and dear to my heart, and collaborate with a friend and a professor I have great respect for. I’ll be learning how to conduct interviews, select methods of data analysis for qualitative data (something I’ve scarcely done prior), and of course, write it up. Is it related to my thesis research at all? Not in the slightest, but I’m developing those metaskills of research so when I do get to my thesis work, I’ll have the experience under my belt..

Nathan Laundry

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If you liked this post you may like my previous 2:

Breaking Down the Literature Review
From Undergraduate to Masters/PhD: How to Handle the Mindset Shift

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