This Year (2018), Let’s Learn Better

We only have a few hours before 2017 ends.  Before long, we’ll find ourselves welcoming the new year and with it comes challenges, joys, disappointments, failures, and great opportunities to learn.

This past year, I’ve learned so much from one of the most popular online courses on Coursera entitled “Learning How to Learn.”  Did I mention it’s free?  I think it’s great to study and apply principles from the course so we can all take advantage of every learning opportunity that comes our way.

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This course was based on Dr. Terrence Sejnowski’s discoveries in the field of neurology (study of how the brain works) and Professor Barbara Oakley’s book “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)”. From the very first pages of the book, I was captivated because I felt like I was that girl she was talking about.  I love languages and communication but I detested advanced Math.  I’ve had for more than a decade. I’ve come to believe that there are just certain things we’re gifted at and others we should forget about. But this book convinced me that learning difficult things could be fun and worth the journey.  While it’s true that we’re better off spending more time on harnessing our strengths, it’s also important to make an effort to learn other things that we need to have a good working knowledge of in order to manage areas of our lives like our finances and to learn skills that would help us in our careers and personal lives.

Don’t let the title of the book fool you.  The principles there are applicable even for the Math wizards or for anyone, for that matter.  It encourages us to open our minds and to practice some things that would help us learn anything.

The course is comprised of several short videos where the two professors explain how the brain works, how it processes information, and what is involved in retaining it, and how understanding these things can help us learn everything, no matter what the topic, so much better. along with several other expert learners in different fields.

Let me share with you what I’ve learned about learning more effectively:
Here are some key points

  1. Use the two modes of thinking to learn anything effectively.

These are the two modes of thinking:

a. Focused Mode – This is the kind of thinking  we do when we concentrate on something.   Think of it as a route that has specific turns and if you make one wrong turn, you won’t get to desired result.  It doesn’t allow for much leeway. This kind of thinking is done when you have learned the basics of the subject well.  It’s also the reason why people who have mastered one area like Math would have difficulty understanding a different one like language.

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Screenshot from Brian’s Notes

b. Diffuse Mode – This is what most would consider freestyle learning.  You can use this while you’re doing other things like cooking, running, or just about anything else.  You don’t have to make much effort to exercise this mode of thinking.  You can turn it on just by leaving what you’re working on and doing something else to take your mind off it.

This has led to many discoveries in the field of science and masterpieces in art.

  1. To learn anything from the very beginning, it’s best to use the diffuse mode of thinking for that’s when we entertain all possibilities and absorb any information and pattern.  Think of it as writing on a blank canvas.  Only when we have learned the basics of the topic are we better off using the focus mode often.  Using the focus mode when we’re learning something new is almost like trying to make a ball fit perfectly in a rectangular box.
  2. Most of the time, procrastination is what prevents us from effectively learning the basics of a subject and progressing in our knowledge of it. For many of us, studying a topic that we think we do poorly at is such a painful process, it almost feels like torture.  What prevents us from making a breakthrough is focusing on the product and not the process.  Most of us think the most important thing is whether they are good at something or if we know a lot about it.  This is one example of how success in one area can work against learning another field.  We somehow expect that another subject will come to us as easily as the one we excel in and we are willing to put the same amount of effort but when we don’t seem to be making as much progress, we give up.

    For subjects that come difficult for us, we often do so poorly that we no longer want to subject ourselves to further disappointments by continuing to study it.  But I learned from this course that we should stop looking at the end result right away but learn to enjoy the process and at least bear with it from the beginning, with the help of –

  3. The Pomodoro Technique – It’s named after the tomato-shaped timer that the inventor used.  This technique makes it easier for us to just start working on or studying something.  It prevents us from getting overwhelmed by how much work we need to do as each task would only last for 25 minutes. This is a technique that helps in doing any task, esp. one that you feel like putting off, such as writing a post (much like this one).
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    -as seen on the Microsoft blogInstead of feeling pressured, you can just go ahead set the timer and focus on the task at hand.  You don’t even have to decide whether you like it or not, you just do it.  Do this several times and it can lead to mastery.
  4. Review the lessons intermittently.  This is called spatial repetition.  I do this in my classes to make sure that students don’t forget what we have previously learned.
    Since our memories are connected, the brain needs time to consolidate them, which happens in our sleep.  This explains why it’s better to study something for 15 minutes each week over a few months than to do it for an hour in one day.
  5. Our working memory is limited – it can only hold about four things, so it’s better to avoid burdening our brains unnecessarily by writing down information that you want to remember.

    One thing that memory juggernauts make use of is the memory palace technique.  They place memorable images in a scene familiar to them.  This way, they can group seemingly different things together, which makes it easier for the brain to access them quickly.  This is how many medical students remember things.  For example, for the cranial bones, they use “Old People from Texas Eat Spiders.”
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  6. Exercising enhances our brains.  It helps the neurons (the cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system) make better connection.  Neurons help us learn new things but they die when we don’t use them.  Exercise helps them survive.

These are just some of the important points I remember from the course.  I’ll probably add some more at a later time.  You might be wondering why I’m making such an effort to share all this? From the same course, I learned that a good way to master a subject is to be able to explain it or teach it well.  More importantly, I might have loved and excelled at Math (or another subject difficult to me) if only I knew these things years before.  It is my hope that others would learn from my experience, though I’m still in the process of rediscovering topics I once disliked or avoided.  The point is: you can learn anything, and it’s never too late.  It’s only a matter of determining what is worth learning.