Chapter 4 of Ultralearning: Metalearning

I've read about metalearning (learning beyond, not gaining something from metal) before from several different productivity authors, but Scott Young has done an excellent job in this chapter, as before, I felt metalearning was explained thusly:

Metalearning is learning the concepts that are what you need to know to get the best bang for your buck, like "example 1" or "example 2" and you should have an idea of where to go and how to get it.

Errr, but I don't know where to go or how to get it! How am I supposed to understand what and how to study most efficiently if I don't know the subject area? Without those answers, and with the feeling of metafailure, I was confused and just gave up.

However, this book looks to be different. Young explains metalearning as an experiment and as a skill. The first time I apply metalearning, it might not reap huge benefits, but it hopefully will reap more than not doing it at all. And as I continue to use metalearning with different projects, I'll get better at it, and better at knowing what I can and should practice.

Young further breaks it down by describing 'why', 'what' and 'how'. Why refers to your motivation, what refers to the things you need to know, and how refers to the resources you'll need to learn the 'what'. The 'why' can be broken down to either 'instrumental' or 'intrinsic' learning. Instrumental learning is something done with the purpose of a nonlearning result. Intrinsic learning is for projects you want to learn for your own sake. My goal for passing four exams by November is an instrumental one. It will allow me the confidence and knowledge to be a full DBA. I can also say it's an instrumental learning project to pass certifying exams, as I've not done that, and can be an important skill for my career.

Young cautions people starting instrumental projects to be certain that the project will get to the goal intended, mentioning a lot of people get graduate degrees, but without a lot of understanding of what the degree will specifically get them. They find themselves in the same unemployed spot, just burdened with more student debt. It's best to know if your project will give you the effect desired.

There is a tactic to help figure out the questions of 'what' once you know your 'why': Expert Interview. Due to the internet, it's easier than ever to contact experts in the field you're desiring to learn to ask if your plan will give you your intended results. If you can get a 15 minute phone call with them, you're able to go beyond just the 'what' and into the 'how', hopefully getting information about things that are of utmost importance, and things that you can skip, and best ways to get the knowledge.

You can focus on 'how' by brainstorming and researching for your project. Write out 'concepts', 'facts' and 'procedures' on a blank piece of paper or document, writing out all you need to know so far, and start researching on what things you have yet to consider. Concepts are things you have to understand in order to be useful. Facts are things you will find helpful just be remembering, but not necessarily deeply understanding them. Procedures are things that would need to be practiced.

As an example for my first certifying exam, Querying with T-SQL, a concept I need to learn is Statistics. I don't know how the statistics work in SQL Server, and all I know is that sometimes they need to be recompiled. Perhaps eventually this just becomes a fact that "statistics need occasional recompiling" and some procedures over "how to recompile statistics" instead of it being a concept, but at this time, it has to go to the Concepts list. A fact that I know I'll need regards Partitions. They're just ways to group data, but there are several types and ways to create the types. I'll also have to know the procedures for the syntax for each type. 

Once the first pass is done for the brainstorm, you can see what bottlenecks you'll have and start researching ways to get over them. If there are many concepts to understand, you can work on explaining the concepts to some friends. If you have to memorize a lot of facts, you might invest in methods to work on quick recall.  And, understand that once you've identified a way to start, you may need to revisit your research as things start to get harder or you don't feel that you're progressing.

Lastly, you'll need to understand your 'how'. There are two methods that Young describes: Benchmarking and Emphasize/Exclude Method. Benchmarking is understanding the common way to learn the skill or project you want to work on. The other method of Emphasize/Exclude focuses on modifying what you found from the Benchmarking method and changing it to focus on explicitly what you want to learn. For example, I want to study for the Querying with T-SQL exam. I have a Training Kit book for a similar exam, Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 that people use for both exams and serves the benchmark method. Because the Querying with T-SQL exam does not include XML, like the previous version in 2012, I am not going to focus on the XML chapters of the book.

Young then discusses how much planning is appropriate, and suggests that about 10% of what you expect the entire project to take should be roughly the amount of time needed for an ultralearning project, though as you continue to do ultralearning, you may be able to find you can do with fewer research hours, or embark on a project so large that 10% of it just for research may not be reasonable. You want to do enough research so you don't get stuck, but not to do so much research that you don't get started with the project at all. If you're noticing that you're getting diminishing returns in the research phase, you've done enough research and need to start learning. If you're getting diminishing returns on your practice, you need to head back to do more research to find new ideas or talk to more people so you don't just spin in circles or give up on the project. It will be an ebb and flow, assuming that your research hours will get fewer and farther in between, but not non-existent. You'll still need to learn more of how to grow in order to grow efficiently. 

Since I feel like I've done enough research and started on the knowledge by watching the first EdX course on Querying with T-SQL, I'll pull out the parts of the exam I know little about, read and practice those items in my Training Kit book, then take one of two practice exams the book includes. Depending on the results, I'll do more practicing. After that I will subscribe to one of the test dump sites to start practicing those, and take the second exam from the book. After a few of those, I should be able to pinpoint what I have left to learn. If the book doesn't help, I'll look at other MS articles mentioned in the EdX course, and if those don't help, I'll reach out to others in the SQL Server or Database forums. 

After all that practice, my goal is to take and pass the MS 70-761 Querying with T-SQL Exam.


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