Mechanical Versus Conceptual Difficulty

On finding gaps in your STEM education and enhancing your lifelong learning

Photo by imgix on Unsplash

Mechanical and Conceptual Difficulty: the “How” and the “Why”

A problem is mechanically difficult if it takes many steps to solve, requires lots of intermediate information to be stored, or has many possible actions to be tried.

  • In what situations would I expect to encounter a problem like this?
  • How is this similar/dissimilar to other things I’m familiar with?
  • Can I explain what I’m doing in words?
  • Are there different but equivalent ways of looking at this?

Examples and Strategies

My personal difficulty rankings.
  • Plain words
  • Diagrams
  • Code

Parting Thoughts

In this article, I’ve shared a framework I use to find learning opportunities, and determine what attitude I should approach them with. The framework is based on the idea that mechanical difficulty and conceptual difficulty don’t always go hand in hand.

  • Mechanically Easy, Conceptually Difficult: this is where you’ll find gaps in your education. Try to explain things in many different ways.
  • Mechanically Difficult, Conceptually Easy: you’ll find quick wins here, especially because mechanical difficulty can be circumvented with software.
  • Mechanically Difficult, Conceptually Difficult: be thankful that these exist. Don’t try to take too many shortcuts.

Data Scientist at Proximate Research. Love thinking about AI, Python and R, Machine Learning, and Personal Growth.

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