Learning How Things Go Together

[This is my attempt at converting my dissertation abstract to “Up-Goer Five speak” (i.e. using only the 1000 most-frequently used English words).  For context, here’s the xkcd comic that started the trend.  Search the #upgoer5 hashtag on Twitter for more.  Try it yourself on the Up-Goer Five text editor.]

Big things are just many small things put together. It would be good to know which small things go together. You could learn how a brain works by thinking this way. Or you could learn which people like which other people. Thinking about how small things are put together to make big things is a good idea. It would be good to know how we learn, and how we should learn which things go together.

To this end, I did five studies in which people learned which things in a set were joined together. To show you what I mean, some people learned “who is friends with who” in a friend group. But other people learned about other things that were joined together – like which cities have roads that go between them. By doing these studies, I found out a few things. One thing I learned was that it matters how the things are joined up. To show you what I mean, think about the friend group again. It is easier to learn who is friends with who in a group where few people have many friends and many people have few friends. If things are more even, and all people have about the same number of friends, it is hard to learn exactly who is friends with who.

It doesn’t matter if the joined things are people or cities or computers. It is all the same. Also, it doesn’t seem to matter much why it is you are learning what things go together.

I also show that people learn better by seeing a picture of joined-together things rather than reading about joined-together things. This is the case even more when the things that are joined are made to be close together in the picture.

Finally, I talk about an all-around idea for how people learn about groups of joined together things. I say people start out by quickly sorting things into much-joined and few-joined types. Then they more slowly learn which one thing is joined to which one other thing a little at a time.

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