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I've run into this issue in many fields in which I'm interested in learning about. For the purposes of this question let's assume electricity/circuits/power systems. I find myself starting at the basics and as I try to understand each concept, I start thinking of more of how this concept really works instead of accepting it at face value. In addition to this I also start to ask more complicated questions which I'm assuming I could answer if I would read on. The problem I end up running into is I won't let myself continue until I understand the concept completely. For example: I start learning about how current is always consistent in a single circuit which makes me start thinking about how total current/draw is measured in a household. Then this leads me to think that if everything is connected by wires, then shouldn't this be one large circuit with the same current.

As you see I start diving too deep. This seems like an inefficient way of learning and it usually causes me more stress than understanding.

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    A similar discussion regarding going down the "rabbit-hole" in the mathematics SE site: math.stackexchange.com/questions/617625/… – Paul Oct 16 '14 at 17:25
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    Essentially, you're doing a "depth-first" search, when you should be doing a "breadth-first" search. – Paul Oct 16 '14 at 17:25
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A good way to force yourself to focus is to try to actually do something with the knowledge that you are trying to acquire. To paraphrase one of my former advisors who I much admire as a teacher, there are three levels at which you can understand a subject:

  1. Familiarity with the concepts: able to recognize and talk meaningfully about them.
  2. Ability to employ the concepts effectively in solving problems
  3. Ability to teach the concepts to another person well enough to get them to level 2.

It's easy to get stuck at mere familiarity if you aren't attempting to actually use the things you're learning in order to do things. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is actually the main value of homework exercises.

Now, what about doing it in the absence of an external forcing function (i.e., grades)? If you can't motivate yourself to do homework-style exercises, why not pick a project that you actually think would be cool and fun, and let that be what forces you to put the learning to work. For example, taking the electricity/circuits example, a nice classic example is to try to build your own FM or AM radio receiver from basic components (transistors, resistors, etc.). It's low enough power to be physically safe and complex enough that you'll probably have to deal with a lot of interesting problems even if you start from schematics found online. Then try to make it better... before long, you'll understand not just the basic concepts but why you need to know them and how they fit together.

  • Thanks that's helpful. I did try that kind of approach by building a simple air quality detector but the schematic essentially told me the components I needed to use (what kind of resistors, voltage source, etc). This led me to start asking questions about what I was doing and why I needed those exact parts. I stopped actually making anything because I spent time researching what was going on and getting further confused, Maybe this example was too advanced for me and I should have started smaller. The overarching problem is I start asking more and more questions at the basic level. – edaniels Oct 16 '14 at 19:32
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I'd suggest enrolling in night classes at a community college. I've taken several night classes in subjects I'm interested in, and found that having a prof guide the learning either allowed me to ask my question immediately (they are usually quite happy to have enthusiastic students in class), or guided me to the answer quickly.

I have yet to have a bad experience as either everyone in the class is taking it "for fun" or I have been one of the best students since I'm genuinely interested in the topic. Community colleges also tend to have faculty that is extremely student focused, which was a refreshing change from getting my "day-job" degrees.

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    Hmm I've never though of that. I guess without a guide I start getting stuck in my own mind. I guess teachers don't mind you're taking a course not for a degree but just to learn? I've already got a degree in CS and have my full time job so maybe this would be useful. – edaniels Oct 16 '14 at 20:48
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This helps me a lot:

Dont think about the subject matter too much from the very beginning. Read a lot of literature and as you gather more and more knowledge, many questions will eventually be answered, whitout you even realizing it.

Then, when your knowledge of the topic is more profound (it could be after 1 week of reading, 2 months of projects or 1 whole semester of classes) -> depends on topic, how difficult it is and what sources of information you have (dont set any hard deadlines, just let yourself get into it and take as much time as needed).

In my case, many things clear up just after the end of semester, when I am done with exams and I have free time to rethink the things I have studied during semester.

BTW, I am an engineering student (Mechatronics).

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