Optimize Last

Drawning Students in an Ocean of Alternatives

When I started delivering computer training I used to provide students with several methods by which they can accomplish one task right from the start. For instance, when I was teaching them Microsoft Word I told them that they can perform the cut and past operation through the Edit menu or through right clicking on the selected text and using the context menu or through the shortcut keys Ctrl+X and Ctr+V. I thought back then that providing studetns with a lot of information was a good thing. I thought that providing them with all the alternative methods for accomplishing the same task was clever. After all, it helped show off my knowledge as an instructor. Most of all, I thought that providing them with the shortest and fastest method was a good thing that they needed and liked. It was not until later that I discovered that all those beliefs I used to hold on to were totally baseless.

Taking the Long Road

I noticed later on through observation that when you start teaching someone something new, he does not mind to learn the lengthy multi-step method of performing it. He will have patience in carrying out multiple steps and performing the action slowly as long as he manages to accomplish it at the end. His focus at that time is on being able to accomplish the task and not on how to accomplish it in the fastest way possible. For instance, if we go back to our cut and paste example, a new learner would be satisfied to learn the Edit menu method for performing cut and paste even though it is not the fastest method available for carrying out such an action. He will not mind the slowness of the process nor the multiple steps involved in doing it as long as he will eventually be able to accomplish this task which he did not know how to accomplish before learning the long method.

Sense of Achievement

When he actually manages to accomplish it with his own hands he becomes really excited and greatly satisfied even though an experienced user may look at such action as trivial and not deserving such heightened feelings of satisfaction and sense of achievement. At such stage, the new learner will not be interested in learning the many other methods to accomplish the same task, and even if he was, it is not a good strategy to bombard him with the other methods right from the start. Using Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V shortcut keys to perform cut and paste may be quicker and more handy yet using the Edit menu is easier on the new learner’s brain and his memory. The instructor should choose the easy-to-remember method to teach at the beginning and not the one that provides the highest performance.

Parallel Parking

Although the example I have given here is about cut and paste yet the optimize-last concept should be used when teaching just about anything and not just things in the realm of computers. Let’s say you are teaching someone how to drive. When teaching him how to park the car parallel to the pavement it is best to teach him at first one method only for accomplishing this task and to select the method which is clearest and easiest to follow not the one which is fastest and shortest.

Optimize Last

The other methods by which a task can be accomplished may be mentioned by the instructor later but not before the student has achieved mastery of the first slow method through lots of repetition. At that time only can he be appreciative of the time savings the shorter method can provide and the fewer steps it involves.

What examples other than learning to use computer programs and learning how to drive a car do you think the optimize-last method can be applied to?

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How I learned Personal Shorthand

Shorthand Textbook

My sister needed to use shorthand for her work. She kept looking for shorthand training courses at so many places but couldn’t find a single place offering shorthand courses. After a long search, she finally stumbled upon one place that offered shorthand courses. After she took the training course and brought the textbook with her, I got curious about shorthand. I was still studying at university by that time. I started looking through the shorthand textbook and my interest grew.

Practice

I then set about to learn shorthand from the textbook on my own. I used lectures I attended at university as an avenue for practicing my shorthand skills. It was not that I was learning shorthand so that it could help me write down lectures I am attending but it was actually the other way around. I was curious to learn shorthand so I used university lectures I was attending back then as an excellent opportunity for practice.

Personal Shorthand

I remember I started on that journey during the second semester of my third year at Cairo University. The type of shorthand I was learning is called Personal Shorthand or PS for short. It is a renaming of what had been known before as briefhand. What distinguishes PS from other types of shorthand, such as Pitman shorthand, is that it relies solely on the 26 letters of the alphabet and therefore is very easy to learn compared to most other shorthand methods and can even be typed on a computer since it contains no special symbols and relies only on letters of the alphabet.

Full Lecture Transcription

I started reading in the personal shorthand textbook and doing the exercises it had. I started practicing during all lectures I attended at university. It was a lot of fun. By the second semester on my fourth year at university I was able to write down every single word the lecturer was uttering during the lecture. I no longer needed to rewrite my shorthand notes into longhand as I came back home. I just kept the shorthand sheets I had written during the lectures as they are and studied from them directly.

Tools

When I went to university I did not need to take any notebook with me, all I needed was a few folded foolscap folios and a pen. A whole 2 hour long lecture could be transcribed in full in just 2 foolscap folios since I wrote on both the front and back sides of each folio.

Exams

As the time for the final exam came at the end of the semester, I used the transcripts of the 12 or so lectures that I had stapled together as a way to revise all lectures before taking the exam. I was surprised at the amount of information they contained most of which I would have totally forgotten had I been attending the lectures without caring to take notes during the lectures.

Lessons Learned

There are many lessons to be learnt from this story. One of them is that a new skill can help you do better in life. Another lesson is that lots of practice is required to master a new skill. Practicing in a real life context also proved more effective. A third lesson is that one can learn some skills from a book plus practice without the need for external help.

Have you ever thought about learning shorthand? If so, what might you be using it for?