Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects
Recently, I took the course Learning how to learn , it's a free online course about the science of learning, taught by Dr. Barbara...
Recently, I took the course Learning how to learn, it's a free online course about the science of learning, taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of the best selling book A Mind For Numbers. At the end of the course there was an assignment and I took it as a chance to summarize and solidify what I've learned from the course. I recommend taking this course if you want to learn new things faster and easier.
Learning when you’re “old”
It is a general belief that past a certain age, you cannot learn effectively anymore. Most people in Vietnam believe that because they’re bad at English back in school, they cannot learn English now, especially that they’re not young anymore. This can not be further from the truth.
In the course, Dr. Barbara Oakley pointed out that our brain is constantly producing new neurons even when we’re older, which means we can still learn new things even when we’re not in school anymore, and that learning itself is also a skill that is extremely useful at any age, for anyone. This is proven by Dr. Oakley herself, who kept learning new things, even things that she was not good at in school, like maths and engineering, as well as Benny the Irish Polyglot, who learned many different languages when he was out of school, by removing the mental block that kept him from learning.
Focused mode and diffuse mode
To learn effectively, it is important to understand how the brain works. There are two modes, focused mode and diffuse mode. In focused mode, you’re paying close attention at something, like looking through a telescope, your view is narrow, however you get clear details. You’re in this mode when you’re trying to understand new things.
In diffuse mode, which is the state of your brain when you’re relaxing, you are not looking through a telescope anymore, you’re just chilling and looking at the whole picture, like when you’re relaxing on the beach, watching the sunset. In this mode, you can see the relations between the details in the picture, how they fit and connect together, it is in this mode that you can produce the most creative ideas.
It’s important to mix focused mode and diffuse mode, so that the things that you learn in focused mode can solidify and connect to other things that are already in your brain while you’re in diffuse mode.
How memory works
There are two kinds of memory, short term – otherwise called working memory that can hold four things at a time, and these things can be “dropped” easily due to distractions. Long term memory, on the other hand, is like a gargantuan warehouse that would put Amazon’s to shame, where you can store things and access them later. To put what you have learned or want to remember in long term memory, use a technique called “spaced repetitions”, revising what you want to remember in spaced out blocks of time, which help solidify the neuron patterns of whatever you want to remember. The stronger the pattern, the easier you can access the memory. I like to think of a neuron pattern as a path to something in the memory warehouse, the more you walk that path, the more familiar it is.
Learn more effectively by chunking
Chunking is packaging what you’ve learned into a box, and put it into the long term memory warehouse. “The box” is a neuron pattern, once a neuron pattern is solid enough, it will only hold one out of four of your working memory slots when you access it. The more chunks you have in a subject, the better at it you are. You can form a chunk by FUP, Focused attention, Understanding and Practice.
To be more flexible and creative, you need to be able to connect chunks from different fields, to do this, try interleaving, which means scrambling your learning, it will help you have a deeper understanding, as well as make it easier to connect chunks.
If you’re a video game nerd like me, think of a chunk as a combo that you make from different moves, when you’ve practiced enough, you can perform a combo effortlessly. The more combos you have, the better you are at the game. You can even combine combos to make a longer, better combo. Just like how you can combine chunks to make a larger chunk.
A useful technique to memorize something is to look at it, then look away from it and try to recall what you remember. Repeat until satisfactory. Another technique is to imagine a visual imagination of a concept, the more absurd the imagination is, the easier it is to remember. Another popular technique is to create a meaningful group for things you want to remember, like FUP, Focused attention, Understanding and Practicing, that’s how to chunk!
Practice makes perfect
Illusions of competence, understanding something does not mean that you’re now an expert. You might look at a solution for a math problem and think that you’ve got it, but you actually don’t. Only by practicing that you will earn mastery. Understanding is not enough, do not fool yourself.
I am guilty of this, that’s exactly why I’m writing this post. By trying to explain and recall what I’ve learnt from the course, I am practicing my knowledge on the subject. Therefore solidifying my loosely formed neuron patterns about the knowledge. I will then reread this post intermittently, in order to further cement the knowledge in my long term memory warehouse.
Procrastination, the bane of productivity
In order to fight procrastination, you need to understand it. Procrastination happens when a certain task trigger pain in your brain, which makes you turn to another task that gives short term pleasure. Procrastination is a destructive habit that affects many areas of your life.
One trick to fight procrastination is by focusing on the PROCESS instead of the PRODUCT, because it is usually the product that trigger the pain. Like thinking “I have to solve this maths problem” will trigger pain in your brain, because subconsciously you know that the problem is not easy and it will take a lot of time and effort to finish, instead, think “I will spend 25 minutes on this maths problem”, this shifts the focus away from the product to the process. Once you start, you will find that you will finish the task most of the time.
Pomodoro is a method that helps you focus on the process, by setting the clock for 25 minutes and give undivided attention to a task, then rest for 5 minutes. The Pomodoro technique also help your brain to switch from focused mode to diffuse mode repeatedly, which helps with learning and remembering, as mentioned above.
Procrastination is a habit
To understand procrastination deeper, let’s look at it as a habit. There are usually 3 parts of a habit, the cue, the routine and the reward. By the way, I heavily recommend the book The Power of Habit.
The cue of procrastination is the pain, the routine is to shift your attention to something else and the reward is the short term pleasure. To change a habit, you need to identify the cue and then change the routine, identify the pain associate to the task, then, instead of shifting your attention to something else, tell yourself “I will spend 25 minutes on this task”, and start a Pomodoro. Reward yourself when completing a task by congratulate yourself.
For a good habit to stick, it is also essential to add another component to the habit loop, the belief, you need to believe in yourself and believe in the system that it will work, otherwise you might fall back into the old habits.
Journaling is a good habit
Coincided with Dr. Barbara Oakley recommendation, I’ve found that keeping a journal helps immensely in learning and remembering, as well as fighting procrastination. In my journal, I write down whatever I learn in that day, and write to-do tasks for tomorrow. In the course, Dr. Oakley mentioned that by writing your to-do tasks for tomorrow before you go to sleep, your unconscious mind has the time to work out a plan to achieve the task in your sleep. Keeping a journal and reread it occasionally is also a natural way to practice spaced repetitions.
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