The 3 Kinds of Learning That Influence Your Work
In our work as software developers, we often need to draw upon information and concepts we’ve learned in the past. However, you may find that the degree of confidence in your knowledge varies—this often has to do with the process you went through to learn the concept.
An understanding of how different learning techniques affect the depth of your knowledge can help you with how you process information you already have and how to approach learning new things.
When I think back about technical and scientific subjects I learned in school or at work, I realize that they fall into three broad categories:
- Things I memorized or learned by rule: Some physics equations, like Ohm’s law, or certain programming idioms
- Things I worked through once and then forgot the details, confident that I could do it: Basic computer engineering topics fall into this category for me, along with some tools and simpler programming idioms
- Things I can deeply understand by working through it: This often applies to topics that I found particularly engaging, but sometimes for things where hints and shortcuts are not readily available—for the latter, I often realize I develop a sense of expertise in areas I didn’t expect to
The first category is useful for getting specific tasks done, but not to generalize outside of specific situations.
The second might describe a lot of what we learned in formal education, or work skills that we need regularly to support a primary goal but don’t need to know deeply. “I worked it out once” is good for informing your confidence in your decisions, but it usually doesn’t help when trying to explain things to or influence others.
The last category, working through it, are the things we understand most deeply and thus can explain and apply to a wider range of related situations.
These categories map closely to some concepts David Epstein describes in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein’s focus is on applying knowledge broadly, and he points to studies showing that learning that is slow, with mistakes along the way, tends to be more durable and easier to generalize to other situations. In other words, the things you work through and struggle with are more likely to be things that you understand deeply enough to apply.
However, we can’t always take the time to learn slowly. As Epstein notes:
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.
But understanding the benefits of struggling with a concept or tool may reduce the frustration you feel and energize you to continue.
You won’t always have the time or desire to go deep and learn slowly. But if you work through the concepts and make some mistakes along the way, you may find that you’ll have a greater ability to apply and share the knowledge in useful ways.