The Lesson and the Meta-lesson

I remember my first big Aha! moment. After many frustrating hours cramming for a math final, a visual analogy for several formulas hit me. The mess of symbols became a description, painting a scene in my mind.

"Argh, why couldn't they have explained it like this the first time?"

The difference between a semester of pain and instant understanding was one stupid, missing analogy. It still riles me up thinking about how close I came to missing the key concept (and disliking math).

In class there's the lesson about a specific formula, sure, but the meta-lesson is how well the experience went.

What worked? What didn't? How can we get more of the first and less of the second?

Over time, I realized individual topics were chances to explore what truly worked when learning. Not what a learning theorist or book said (Flashcards! Mnemonics! Just study harder!), but what actually worked for you.

A few of my scattered meta-lessons:

  • Analogies, while imperfect, are a huge jump start. It's motivating to get the ball rolling and course correct along the way, vs. waiting to line things up perfectly.
  • Nearly every explanation is improved with a visual or diagram.
  • Humor and empathy put the reader at ease so they can tell you when they're actually confused (vs. mindless head nodding).
  • Share the gotchas. The Wise Teacher hiding the 14 mistakes he made when learning the topic does students a disservice.

Every lesson is a chance to silently wonder "How well did that work?".

These days, I use ADEPT as a running checklist for how I get things to click:

This was pulled from actual frustrations (Why can't they share a plain-English version first? A diagram?) and I'm sure you'll have modifications of your own.

Don't just take a single lesson away from a lecture, article, or video. Think How well did that work for me? and build your learning approach around the best parts.

Happy math.

P.S. My buddy Nasos runs the excellent MetaLearn podcast and we have several chats about learning, a previous interview is below:

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