Ultra-Learning and the Drill Down Method

Scott Young completed every course from MIT’s computer science online offerings in one year. There are 33 total courses. Since a typical college student takes 8 courses per year, this amounts to roughly doing a bachelor’s degree in one year.

Of course, he did not receive a diploma for it. But he outlines how he did it in Cal Newport’s blog. He describes how he was able to learn so much so quickly in this post, and he describes this process as the “Drill Down Method.” It is a three step process, which I will summarize below:

  1. Coverage. “You can’t plan an attack if you don’t have a map of the terrain. Therefore the first step in learning anything deeply, is to get a general sense of what you need to learn. . .A mistake students often make is believing this stage is the most important.”
  2. Practice. Do problems.
  3. Insight. “The goal of coverage and practice questions is to get you to a point where you know what you don’t understand. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. . .Often when you can identify precisely what you don’t understand, that gives you the tools to fill the gap. It’s the large gaps in understanding which are hardest to fill.”

I think that this matches up very well with the way I have been structuring my courses lately. The first half of my semester features students reading the textbook and answering clicker questions—coverage. Students are also taking quizzes during this time—practice.

The second half of the course features students working on problems and presenting them. This is designed to lead to insight, although I am not quite there yet. I need to figure out how to design the problems better.

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4 Responses to “Ultra-Learning and the Drill Down Method”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    I really like that quote for number 3. I think it would be cool to have students work several similar problems until they could tell you the parts that they really struggle with.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      How do you envision working this? Would they work on the similar problems in class? Out of class? What sort of discussions would you have with the individuals/small groups/large groups?

      I like the idea, and I think that it could be doable. Tell me more! Bret

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

        I think I’d have it be outside of class. Tell them to work several problems,keeping track of similarities and to identify the harder steps. Require a video just reporting the results, not showing all the original work.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Hmm. . .if I weren’t teaching a new course next semester, I might be tempted to try that.

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