Incremental reading may hamper learning complex subjects

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From: JAM
Country: USA
Sent: Jun 11, 2012
Subject: Quantum Mechanics

Question:

I suspect that incremental reading could slow down or hamper learning complex subjects such as quantum mechanics. I do not believe in "remembring passages". When I read I look for concepts and methods that I can apply in real life. Any form of interruption or delay or working on many thing in parallel would slow down this process. Perhaps incremental reading could serve subjects that need a lot of cramming. However, I doubt IR can be useful in complex subjects.

more details

I believe that incremental reading (IR) may slow down or hamper learning complex subjects that require deeper understanding--as opposed to superficial remembering. From what I'm told, in IR, the students spends but a few seconds on a passage related to one subject, and then jumps to another, completely unrelated subject. Such switching among disparate subjects makes it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in deeper thoughts and thus to discover deeper truths beyond the superficial remembering of passages. When I read, I look for concepts and methods that underlie the necessarily descriptive language used to convey them, and I try to imagine their applicability in my other pursuits. In other words, discovering deeper truths requires deeper thoughts. The latter are difficult to reach if only a few seconds are spent on a subject at a time. As a practical aside, technical papers in hard sciences and engineering are peppered with notational inconsistencies among different authors, different research groups, and different journals. The same symbols may mean different things in different scientific papers. Similarly, different authors may use different symbols to denote the same quantity. Sometimes the differences are gross and easy to spot, and sometimes they are only subtle. When reading one paper at a time, the reader familiarizes him/herself with the terminology and notation, and can follow the line of reasoning while recognizing the subtleties. Having a few dozen (or hundreds!) articles read in parallel, frequently switching among them, creates a nightmare scenario of confusion where the meaning is lost in the jungle of various notations and subtle terminology differences. This makes it impossible to follow the line of reasoning in any one of the papers. Below are a couple of (imperfect) metaphors that may convey the sense of loss when trying to apply IR to learning complex subjects and to discovering deeper truths. 1. If you are a wine connoisseur (Disclaimer: I do not drink wine), imagine that you are only allowed to smell the wine, but that you are not allowed to drink it, or even to put it in your mouth. How good would your knowledge of wine be? With practice, you would probably learn to distinguish various wineries, age, etc. You may even be more efficient at it, and be able to do it in record time. Yet, I venture a guess that you would feel something missing, that you would feel somehow cheated, that you would feel that you don't know all that there is to know about wine. And rightfully so. Same with IR. You just 'smell' the knowledge, but you never 'taste' it. It may be enough if your goal is to learn a foreign language. But some areas require that you dig deeper if you want the real insight, the real truth. 2. Physical exercise. A well-rounded routine has both cardiovascular and resistance training elements to it. IR is like having only the high-intensity cardio. Sure, if you stick with cardio, after a while you will be able to deliver a small package across town in record time--and that may be all you aspire to. However, it will not give you the upper body strength to help move a 400-kg optics bench. Same with IR: you may impress your audience with the breadth of your knowledge, but you will have to leave the heavy intellectual lifting to others.

Hints

  • it is not true that in IR, you spend only a few seconds on each topic. The time depends on your needs. It may be a few seconds or it can be an entire day (e.g. before an exam or when doing research)
  • it is conceivable that an incremental reading novice would suffer from the lack of knowledge of the toolset and get lost in the process thus making it more confusing than it is the case with standard textbook learning. Weighing up pros and cons should always consider an ideal case in which the student truly understands the methods of IR. This often takes months of use. The learning process should beging with easier concepts and easier subjects before more complex subjects can be tackled.
  • some papers are not suitable to be read with IR. Papers that require a vast use of working memory or a large investment in short-term memory ARE NOT suitable for IR. IR is useful each time you study knowledgew with lifetime application. Research papers with methodology and rich new specific notational conventions are not suitable. You should read such papers in your own way and leave just a few notes ("deep thoughts") in SuperMemo
  • for novices, IR-knowledge may not taste as well as for an IR-pro. In the latter case, the "taste" may be exquisite due to a well-established contextual knowledge and solid semantic context that often relies on long-term memories
  • the effects of IR will always depend on your goals. If your goal is to "impress an audience", you will probably succeed. However, if you plan to do "heavy intellectual lifting", IR will provide a rich toolset to enhance that process and provide you with solid long-term knowledge needed for the job.
  • one of the main sources of complexity in learning is contradiction. In that sense, quantum mechanics is pretty neat in that it is a well-established theory with a precise set of vocabulary rooted in solid mathematical definitions. As such, quantum mechanics makes sure that whatever you learn, you never need to unlearn. Students may experience more problems with complex systems such as climate. Is there a global climate change? Is it human caused? Incremental reading is a perfect tool for resolving contradiction in large sets of data. When you learn about the climate as a system, you often need to learn and unlearn until the ultimate picture coherent with the scientific consensus emerges

Answer:

Incremental reading is suitable for all forms of textbook learning. It should not be seen as a replacement, but as an enhancement. Whatever complex concepts you need to analyze, and whatever computations you need to make on the margins, you can do in parallel with incremental reading of the textbook (assuming you have an electronic version). An old rule says: whatever you need to remember for life (or at last months), process incrementally (to improve memory, boost understanding, and save time in the long term). Whatever you need at the moment, for the sake of understanding the subject, do now (not incrementally). By combining the two, you can get the most of your learning.

Metaphorically, a pencil is a useful tool that can enhance your life. You will not want to replace your computer with a pencil, or use a pencil while cooking. However, you can still enhance your life by having the pencil handy. Needless to say, we believe, incremental reading is far more useful than a pencil.