How to Learn Boring Subjects

Scott Young 12-17

How to Learn Boring SubjectsLast week I did a post on mistakes learners make. One of the biggest? Believing a subject is intrinsically boring. When you’ve decided something you have to learn is boring, that makes every attempt to learn it harder.

You’ll want to study boring subjects less. Worse, when you do study, you’ll remember less. Our brains don’t remember everything equally. Emotionally charged information, narratives and vivid imagery are remembered far better than dull facts.

Despite this, there’s almost always going to be something boring you’ll need to learn. Maybe you’re in school, and you need to pass that boring class to finish your degree. Maybe you want to master a skill, but it involves learning about something you find dull.

Why Learn Boring Things at All?

The easy solution would be to just not learn boring things. Don’t pick degree programs you hate. Don’t specialize in skills just for the money. I’m not a believer that passion must precede every life decision, but if you’re bored from the first day, that’s not a good sign.

But even if you choose a career path you generally like, you will be forced to learn boring things at times. Even in my career, which has considerably more flexibility to outsource than most, I’ve had to learn skills that don’t interest me considerably to reach a particular goal. Knowing how to tackle these boring subjects is a life skill that pays dividends in many areas.

The other reason is that most “boring” subjects aren’t actually boring at all. You just haven’t figured out the right way to learn them. Learning how to learn these subjects can open you up to new interests and opportunities.

Boring or Just Difficult?

Sometimes calling a subject “boring” is simply a way to dismiss a subject you find difficult. Many people find math boring, but I believe that this is almost always because those people can’t see the patterns in math. When math is just symbol shunting to you, it is hard to truly appreciate it.

This difficulty might be conceptual. Physics, math, computer science are often boring to many people because they can’t see the true pictures they represent.

The best analogy I have with this are magic eye pictures. They are those pictures that look like a slightly distorted, abstract pattern. However, if you can change the focus of your eyes just right, you can see a 3D image within them. (See examples here)

When I was a kid, I couldn’t see those 3D images. I knew they weren’t boring, because of how much other people seemed to enjoy them. But they didn’t interest me because, to me, they were just abstract blobs of color. Wallpaper was about as interesting.

Then one day I saw one of those pictures in a glass frame. I found out that by focusing my vision on the reflection of the surface of the glass, I could pop the 3D image into view. The best part was that once I had learned this with the glass-covered prints, I could do it at will, even if they were on a matte surface.

I think about math in a similar way. Many people find it boring only because they’ve learned to see it as abstract symbols. Maybe they’ve even learned to pass tests by pushing those symbols around. But they don’t find it interesting because they don’t realize there’s a 3D picture hidden beneath it.

I’m not going to go into all the ways you can hone your skill to see that picture in conceptual subjects. Tools like metaphors, visualization and the Feynman technique are strong starting points. But above all, what matters is recognizing that a picture does exist and all you need is the right insight to have it click into place.

In other cases the difficulty isn’t with a hidden insight, but with the volume of information to be learned. Law, accounting, biology and languages all suffer from the problem of having thousands of seemingly isolated facts to remember. This frustration can lead to labeling a subject as boring.

The problem here tends to be that those facts are divorced from contexts you care about. When you start connecting those dull facts to actual consequences in the real world, they start becoming more interesting.

Languages are more interesting when you actually read, write and speak in the language you want to learn. Law is more interesting when you connect it to the stories of actual cases. These connections aren’t enough to guarantee success in your subject (there are many other techniques to help with that), but they are an essential starting point.

Make Dull Subjects More Interesting

When I get emails from students, I often get asked what studying routine I follow. When I ask the student what studying routine they currently have, they sheepishly admit that they procrastinate much of the time and find it hard to focus.

If that’s the case, however, why ask for my studying routine? What good is a studying routine if you’re not going to follow it?

Discipline and training your ability to focus is important. But even those rarely work if you truly believe the subject you’re learning is boring. Adjusting that belief has to come before anything else.

I’ve found three general strategies work well to make a subject more interesting. Next time you have a dull subject, try one of these (or all of them):

#1 – Discover the Context

I remember my days in school where the professor would start the first class by scribbling down example problems and formulas. That was it. No context, no motivation for why those problems were important. I had enrolled in the class, therefore the professor didn’t feel he needed to sell me on what made the topic worth studying.

Unfortunately many teachers, textbooks and subjects start off on this footing. Worse, the buildup of facts and problems means that the students already feel pressured to memorize. Who has time to learn about things that won’t be on the test?

You’ll do yourself a huge favor if you do take the time to sell yourself on the subject before you start learning it. Figuring out why something is useful, relevant or important is the first step to believing it is interesting. Believing something is interesting solves a lot of downstream problems with motivation and memory.

When I would do an MIT class during my MIT Challenge, I’d often read Wikipedia articles on the subject during lunch when my concentration was less. Wikipedia isn’t always the best source because it can be overly technical, but most articles usually bring up real-world contexts for a topic if you dig through them.

This exercise wasn’t hard and it wasn’t time consuming. But the benefit of this was that it helped me form a real-world picture of how the knowledge applied outside of the textbook.

#2 – Make Stories and Mental Pictures

One of the techniques I recommend to any of the students in my programs is to make stories and mental pictures. The clearest reason for this is that we remember narratives and imagery better than acausal or abstract information.

A side effect of this process is that learning is a lot more fun when you do. Most of the comments I get from the students who try this is that they say that they used to learn this way, when they were younger and did better in school, but as they got older those habits of imagination faded away.

Learning is a creative activity, except the product of your creativity isn’t something tangible, but something inside your head. Whenever you learn a subject, you’re creating connections, you’re creating pictures, insights and intuition pumps. These tools help you think about a subject better, but they are also interesting objects in and of themselves.

I’ve found this tool works even on subjects where I truly feel the information is useless. I remember taking a legal class with an old school professor who insisted on having us learn article numbers and signing dates of various treaties. A waste of time considering none of us were training to become lawyers who might actually use such data.

Despite my disagreement with the curriculum, I found using mnemonics and mental imagery was interesting even when the subject was not. This works in the worst cases, but it also works in the more typical cases where you can find something that interests you.

#3 – Use the Knowledge

Another weakness of classroom environments is that students spend so much of their time studying, that they don’t use the knowledge they’re learning outside of that environment. Then, by the time they graduate, much of it is forgotten or boxed away into memories that are hard to retrieve in practice.

The fix for this is to actually do something with the knowledge you’re learning. Pick a side project in your field of study and work on it with your classes. The only rule is that it has to be something that genuinely interests you.

I’ve found this method invaluable in making many subjects more interesting. Note: you don’t need to make a project for every fact, idea or even class you’re taking. Having one project is usually enough to generate a real-world context for what you’re learning.

For example, when learning AI programming, I designed a Scrabble game that has a computer opponent. In terms of the breadth of my AI class, however, I used only a fraction of what was taught. I didn’t use neural nets, support vector machines or alpha-beta pruning. Maybe only 5% of the class applied to my particular project.

However, even if only 5% of your subjects apply to your class, you can still ground them in that context. When I studied business, most of the concepts for managing large organizations didn’t fit into my solopreneur pastime. But running a small business while in class helped me make connections between what I was learning and my actual projects.

What if I Still Find it Boring?

No, you won’t love all subjects using this method. Think of it instead as a shift. The boring subjects become less boring. The subjects that interest you becomes subjects you love. More interest is better, even if relative differences exist.

Isn’t it the Teacher’s Job to Make a Class Interesting?

I fully agree that this process is aided immensely by having great teachers. This is one of the reasons why I strongly support the open education movement and the access to classes from the best universities online. Walter Lewin’s physics lectures, for example, were the best classes I’ve ever taken for any subject (and I wasn’t even in attendance).

Already you can access some of the best introductions to hard topics at places like Coursera, edX, KhanAcademy, PatrickJMT, BetterExplained and MIT OCW. The quality in some cases is still lacking, but given the growth we’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if the intuition about whether you learn better online or at school was flipped in the next decades.

For this, I believe as much as it is the teachers’ job to inspire their students, it is the students’ job to find inspiring teachers—even if they happen to be online. This means sifting through a lot of dirt to find gems, but the investment is worth it.

But don’t let poor teachers decide your fate with a topic. Learning how to learn boring or hard subjects can get you through the various educational nadirs that inevitably exist on your path to learning anything well.



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