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Experience, exposure, and the building of knowledge

November 29, 2018

A few weeks back I went from an absolute novice to being invited to present on a topic in the span of five days. The experience was humbling and I felt like an imposter throughout the session. In the days since, I have thought a lot about the episode and how I seemed to build the foundation necessary to be able to teach my peers what I’d learned.

The Experience-Exposure Cycle

The basic premise behind the Experience-Exposure cycle is that building knowledge (quickly) is best achieved by combining both a theoretical background of a problem with the practical hands-on experience. There are certainly fields and areas of focus where this combination is not strictly necessary, but, particularly in technical fields, I’ve found it particularly beneficial - even if I didn’t always have a vocabulary for it.

To understand how the cycle works, I find it useful to think of a simple example. Let’s say that John is a student who wants to learn calculus. If he’s never been exposed to Algebra or worked through problems, he’s going to be in for a bad time. But even going back to that level, just listening to lectures (even the very best ones) won’t be sufficient grounding to prepare him for Calculus.

Exposure are the lectures while experience comes in the form of practice problems afterwards.

Exposure offers a lens through which to view a problem and can offer the vocabulary necessary to understand the problem. Until you get into practice, and really experience the problem, it’s impossible to know how well you understood the topic though. Experience serves two clear benefits:

  1. It reinforces the pathways in your brain that connects the concepts to the shape problems take. From here you can start to see new patterns and imagine other applications.
  2. It shines a bright light on the gaps in your knowledge. When you see a problem that you have no idea how to handle - whether it’s because you’ve never been exposed to it or not - you know have new information for where to look next in your research.

Building A Foundation Takes Time

Outside of a school environment, most learning is self-directed and often has a specific aim in mind. We don’t need to know everything. We just need to learn enough.† Even when we limit the scope of research to a specific task at hand, we often need a foundation of knowledge. Depending on what you’re coming to the table with, this can take more or less time.

Knowing where you are in the process is almost as important as understanding the process generally, because what you need in terms of resources for exposure changes dramatically.

Returning to my case, I didn’t feel like I understood the topic at all until I had a breakthrough on the fourth night when I read an article that clicked the pieces into place.

The point is, though, not that I had a breakthrough, but that I had read that same article on the first day! At that time, however, I didn’t have the foundation necessary to understand the knowledge the author was trying to impart. It took me three days of reading, practicing, and struggling to grok the topic to be able to return to it and glean some of the information.

After reading the article, it turned out I still didn’t have everything locked down either! That, I figured out, because I took the principles and tried to apply them to my specific use case and stumbled. But it was that combination of exposure and experience that gave me confidence. Having taking a concept and applied it to a different situation meant that I had created connections and a basis of understanding that was extendable.

Conclusion

Experience without exposure is a frustrating experience. Nothing seems to make sense or work the way that you want it to.

Exposure without experience can be stimulating intellectually, but it’s rarely useful. Exposure introduces new ideas and familiarizes topics so that they aren’t foreign.

Experience exposes gaps in understanding, builds up problem solving skills, and establishes connections for concepts.

What happens when you put them together, then rinse and repeat? Well, that’s practically magic and my recipe for accelerated learning.

Learn Enough to Be Dangerous - A fantastic site that I was grateful to be shown early on by my friend Sam


Stephen Weiss

Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!