It takes a while to learn some things

Tips for strengthening your understanding of a difficult concept

(originally posted March 17th, 2019)

Backpropagation is a hard concept to learn, and so are many ideas in programming and math. Maybe you read an article about it and still feel like you just don’t get it. That’s normal. A good understanding of a difficult concept isn’t something that suddenly appears. It’s like the roots of a tree, starting out small but growing over time, with parts wrapping around and strengthening each other. Here are some ways to build on your shaky foundations.

Reread the article

It’s hard to understand everything in a written explanation the first time through. It’s like learning a new board game: to understand the function of the pieces, you have to understand how they interact. But to understand the interactions between pieces, you have to understand what the pieces represent. Each time reading through the article is like filling in details on a sketch, until all the pieces come together.

Read articles from other people

Different people have different ways of explaining the same concept. They might use different analogies, comparing the concept to their own life experiences. Each analogy has strengths and weaknesses for comparing certain ideas. Each writer will also assume certain knowledge from the reader, so some people will connect more with certain articles because they take the time to explain a concept the reader may be unfamiliar with.

Explore explanations in other mediums

Written articles are easy to navigate and explore, but some concepts are hard to convey through text. Videos and images can show visual concepts that would be hard to explain with only words. Even adding diagrams to written articles can help a lot with explaining visual concepts. Interactive demos with adjustable sliders can give you a hands-on feeling of how concepts interact with each other, and let you experiment with your understanding.

Work through the concept on your own

It’s hard to fully understand a concept by only absorbing other people’s explanations. Working through the concept yourself can solidify your understanding and keep you from forgetting it. You could draw diagrams and work through equations on paper, get something working in code, or try to explain the concept to someone else. Writing a blog post is a great way to do this.

But you don’t have to stop there. You can continue to grow and strengthen your understanding of a concept, making connections with all the other concepts you know. Then you can create your own explanations to help other people through this same process.