Spare-time learners are usually the best learners
Spare-time learners are usually the best learners. Their rate of learning is helped, of course, by the fact that they want to learn and consequently try to learn. But they are also helped by circumstances — they are forced to take their learning by easy stages.
Edgar Burchell, the janitor who became a leading medical scientist and teacher, is an example.
He was one of nine children, and he had to leave school and go to work before finishing the grades. At twenty-two he was scrubbing floors twelve hours a day at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.
But during his lunch hour he attended staff lectures, carefully pretending he was in the lecture hall for janitor work, but drinking in every word that was said. When his twelve-hour shift was over he remained at the infirmary, watching the interns in the laboratory. “Teach me how you do these things,” he said to them, “and I’ll do them for you.” Then, from his small savings, he bought a second-hand anatomy text which he studied in his other spare moments.
Picking up his education in this way, Burchell made himself one of the world’s authorities on bacteriology and on the anatomy of the head. Surgeons from all over the country consulted this former janitor before performing puzzling head operations.
He had never been a medical student, yet he was given one of those rare honorary degrees of Doctor of Science.
Such spare-time learning is especially efficient since there is time for it to soak in between learning periods. When learning complex things, there is an extra advantage in taking breathing spells. When beginning something new, it also speeds up learning to have breathers. Most eager beginners push themselves too long at a time. Such crowded study or practice produces fatigue or boredom which hinders learning.
You can’t gain wisdom quickly, but you can gain wisdom steadily by easy stages.
Instead of practicing at the typewriter, or piano, or behind the steering wheel, for two solid hours, practice only one hour. Then take a breather before doing the second hour of practice or study. You will be fresher when you start the second part. Such spaced practice or study is better for learning than is continuous practice of the same total length.
Spaced practice not only eliminates fatigue and boredom, but also some maturation of the nerve connections which have been exercised seems to take place during the space between practice periods. Whatever the reason, however, distributed practice is better than continuous practice. Long practice periods can be safely used only after one has acquired considerable skill.
The most efficient distribution of practice or study sessions varies with the kind of material being learned. Each person has to find the best distribution of practice that fits him and his task. Follow these two guides in spacing your learning periods:
1. Each practice should be long enough to warm you up and to allow the peak of your present skill to be reached.
2. It should be halted when fatigue, boredom, error, or slowness appear.
Learning is more efficient when it is fun, less efficient when it is drudgery. Practice periods can safely be made longer if the learner is excited about learning. Learning is often more effective in a group, since individual progress then acquires some features of a game or contest. The clever teacher, or expert job trainer, has the knack of arousing the learner’s interest to the point of actual excitement. The ambitious individual often lets his ambition provide the excitement.
Keeping score on oneself gives some of this game spirit to the single learner. People usually master a sport such as golf or bowling quickly largely because they naturally keep tabs on how they’re doing. Score keeping is easy for some kinds of learning, such as typing speed. These scores can be charted week after week to show one’s learning curve, or rate of progress in mastering the subject. As for language learning, it may seem more difficult to keep a record, but there are still ways to find an indication of your progress. The expanded vocabulary, as well as the improved reading speed and accuracy, will be a record that can encourage you to get over the boredom.