Learning How To Learn: You Might Be Doing it Wrong

I recently finished a course on the MOOC website Coursera entitled “Learning How to Learn:  Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the course!  It isn’t just applicable to learning but to life in general.

But I know many of you don’t have the time or the English skills to do that.  Below is my final assignment from the course.  There was much more in the course than this, and many research papers and studies backing up the presentations, but I selected only what I feel is most relevant to my students here in Japan and tried to present it in a simple, logical format for their needs.  What do you think?  Let me know.

Learning How To Learn: You Might Be Doing it Wrong

Did you know that we can only actively think about roughly four things at one time?  Our “working memory,” which we use while we are focused on learning something new, has four “slots.”  Your short-term memory will only contain about four things at one time.

How can we transfer what we just learned from our short-term memory to our long-term memory?  There’s no point in learning something if we forget it right away, is there?

Chunk it!

The main method we will focus on in order to remember things long-term is called “chunking.”  This means that newly learned information is chunked together with previously learned information in order to help the brain store and recall the information more easily.  What you have learned in one course may relate to what you are learning in another one – so you can chunk the two blocks of information together – TADA!  Now your brain only needs to recall one chunk, and all of the information is held together in that one handy chunk – as if you took two books from two different parts of a library and glued them together.  Now, when you are focusing on learning something, you can recall that one chunk.  Instead of two “books” filling two slots of your working memory, there is only one book taking up one slot!  Perfect!  Now you can focus more easily on the new solution with less attention devoted to your other slots.  As you chunk more and more information together, what started out as a couple of books stuck together may end up more like a chain of DNA molecules, each block of condensed information tied to another – so when you pull up one end of the chain, your brain easily recalls all the parts of the information chain when you need them.

When You Feel the Burn

Focusing is great, but after you have been focusing intently for a long time, you feel exhausted.  Your brain consumes ten times more energy by weight than the rest of your body!  Should you keep studying, pushing your body and your brain even though it is giving you signals that it wants to stop?

NO!  STOP!  You’re doing it wrong!  Your brain needs to take a break to consolidate what it’s been focusing on.  When you stop using your prefrontal cortex to focus intently on something, and change to a mindless, automatic task like walking, showering, or bouncing a ball, your brain is no longer in a focused, thinking mode.  It is like a light that is diffused, or dispersed over a large area.  Your “diffuse mode” is actually neural resting states.  Neuroscientists believe you are either in a focused or a diffuse mode of thinking – never both at the same time.  Now, you might think that if you aren’t actively thinking about a problem or studying it, you aren’t learning.  Wrong!  While you are in diffuse mode, your brain is sorting out what you were just focused on, even though you aren’t aware that it’s working away in the background.  That’s why you might suddenly come up to the solution to a problem while doing something completely different.  Eureka!

Bonus:  Exercise is not just a method of switching to your diffuse mode – it increases both the number of new neurons in your brain and their survival rate!  You need new neurons to learn new things and if they don’t survive, you can’t retain what you have learned.

It’s Been a Long Day

Do you think if you stay up late studying that you are helping your long-term memory?  NOOOO!  DON’T DO IT!!!  It’s more likely you will pass the next day’s test while in a studying-induced-hangover, and then forget what you crammed in the long-term.

When you are awake, toxins are building up in your brain.  Sleep is very important!  When you’re sleeping, your brain cells shrink, which lets more fluid flow between the cells and wash the toxins out of your brain.  Also, while you’re sleeping your brain retraces and strengthens the neural pathways that you were using trying to remember things.

Bonus:  If you review what you were studying right before you go to sleep, it’s more likely you will dream about it – and that also helps your brain to “chunk” information!  I bet you’ve noticed you often dream about what you were last thinking of before bedtime.  You can use this to help yourself remember what you learned!  Neat, huh?

The Next Day – and Beyond

One of the keys to cementing newly learned information into your long-term memory is recall.  Simply re-reading material is not an efficient way to learn.  Neither is highlighting text.  What you should do is close your books and try to recall what you have learned.  Try doing this in other places than where you usually study, so that your brain isn’t “cheating” by relying on visual cues it has tied to the information you learned.

You should also space out your recall with some kind of testing, so that you are sure you have learned something.  You don’t want to give yourself the illusion of competence by thinking, “Aha!  I understand!”  (“Naruhodo” is not good enough!)  We need to practice things and test ourselves on what we’ve learned over a long time period to build a solid wall of knowledge.  If all we do is think, “I know that” and never review it again, we’ll forget it.  There are free computer programs and cell phone apps that space out the repetition for you automatically so you don’t even have to schedule it yourself.  My favourite SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) is called Anki.  It’s available for Android, iPhone and Windows.

How you learn is up to you, but how you learn best is up to your brain. 

This course has been a wonderful eye-opener for me.  The latest neuroscience shows that many of our traditional study techniques are actually very inefficient!  I hope you will use some of the tips to learn more easily, remember what you learn, and have a healthier brain!

Thank you to Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski for their wonderful video lectures linking neuroscience and learning.


How to tell it’s time to expand your vocabulary…

When you buy the floor model of a large plastic chest of drawers and you end up with not one, but two UFO employees outside wrestling with the back seat of your car, trying in vain to get it to fold down, and one of them keeps saying “Candy…candy…candy…” over and over, you know it’s time to expand your vocabulary.  Because there’s no possible way candy can help this situation…  As it turns out, the other meaning of “okashi” is “strange.”  Definitely my word of the week.

Despite consulting the owner’s manual which clearly shows the method to fold down the seats, they DO NOT fold down.  Someone must have bolted them in place at some point because they are SOLID.  Finally the guy asked if he could try putting it in the front seat.  Of course!!  What else could I try, dragging it home behind the car? It fit just fine after (sic) folding the front seat down and removing the headrest.  I proudly carted my new countertop into my apartment.  I’m done cooking on a low table a mere 8″ off the floor.  Ridiculous.  Here’s my new bachelor pad cooking setup.


The Real Japan. Or is it? Part 2.

So it’s 2015…Time to finish off this beastly topic I brought up, and move on to more entertaining and mindless posts.

I took a whirlwind trip to Osaka and Kyoto this week, as I still hadn’t spent any time in these cities.  Kyoto was Japan’s capital city from 794 until 1868.  That’s a really freaking long time.  In fact, maybe you never noticed, but both cities use the same syllables and share one kanji – the character for “kyo” means capital.  Kyoto’s two kanji, 京都, both mean capital (proper pronunciation is a long vowel sound on the first syllable only: “kyouto”).  Tokyo’s two kanji, 東京, mean east capital (proper pronunciation is a long vowel sound on both syllables: “toukyou”).  So you tell me which one is the traditional capital of Japan…

Then there’s Osaka, which is the second biggest metropolitan area in Japan (next to Tokyo’s crazy megalopolis of course), and has it’s own set of values which are completely different to Tokyo and apparently most of Japan (not that I’d know, as I’m living in the country…with it’s rough dialect sounding similar to Kansai-ben but different, of course!)  In the rest of Japan, people stand on the left on escalators, walk on the left, etc.  Just like when you’re driving 😉

But hey, watch out when you get to Osaka.  This is Osaka and people have got a way of making that clear – for example, you better stand on the right-hand side of the elevator!  Why?  I don’t know.  Because it’s Osaka and they’re different here dagnabit!!!  Also, they really roll their Rs when they speak. “orrrre wa?” and so on was pretty common to hear.  I’d like to say it’s really strange to hear, but I actually hear people in my area do that sometimes…

But I digress, of course.  Back to the topic-finding out what “the real Japan” is.  It’s about time I stated my main argument, which is this:  Seeing the real Japan is seeing how people live when they have to live that way, not because they choose to.

It’s easy to make friends with fellow travellers.  Everyone is on holiday, doing fun things, blowing their excess money in a myriad of creative ways, experiencing new things and overall in a stupefyingly jolly mood that is pretty hard to break.  Everyone is doing what they want to, and generally they are able to because they are fairly healthy and/or rich or able to get by with a little extra.  Travellers are living the way they choose to when you cross their paths.

Let’s compare that to someone is working day in, day out and just managing to make ends meet.  Forget the whys, that maybe they smoke six packs a day (cigarettes are cheap here so I have to up it a little, okay?) and spend all their extra on pachinko and alcohol (again, must be a lot because it’s cheap here, except for beer…strange situation).  They aren’t going to be living in some trendy, clean, new, perfectly maintained area in the city.  If they’re in the city, they’re probably living somewhere like this area of Osaka, where my (ridiculously cheap) hotel was located:


Even in this shot, which I took merely as proof that graffiti does show up here now and then, you can’t see the garbage blowing around the street or smell the urine stench that didn’t ever go away (I’m guessing the subway entrances double as urinals as the scent ran down into the metro itself…  Pretty sure nobody’s living around here because they want to…a couple of locals were pretty horrified to hear the area where I was staying.  “It’s full of homeless people,” etc etc.  Well, where are they going to stay?  Namba Parks?  Osaka Station?  I doubt it!!  Staying here was another glimpse into what I am going to continue calling “the real Japan.”

Where the money is...?

Where the money is…?

One more thing.  The real Japan is located in its transit systems.  All of them.  If I was going to write a guidebook and claim to recommend a certain activity or location as “The Real Japan” this is what I would say:

Ride a shinkansen (bullet train) until you have a conversation with a Japanese person riding it.  Now ride an express train, reserved seat, until you’ve talked with a Japanese person.  Repeat this process with unreserved seats, and then use the local trains and the subways until you’ve been forced to ask for help at least twice.  By the time that happens, you should have observed a great deal of The Real Japan – from the apparent perfection of the shinkansens to the old, beaten, slow local trains that run lines few foreign tourists ever end up on intentionally.  If you can manage it, try to end up in a car with a Japanese person for a few miles at least, so you can experience the highway system as well.  Japanese transportation is The Real Japan in capsule form for tourists, in my clearly not-so-humble opinion.

The bubble of materialism, apathy, pleasure and narcissism is so huge and shiny that at first glance things appear literally perfect.  The vehicles are spotless, from the taxis to the garbage trucks to the semis.  The customer service is almost always impeccable and instant.  Voices aren’t raised.  Trash isn’t dropped or left (if people are looking).  Trains are very rarely late.  Appearances are everything.  Except sometimes, something appears that doesn’t fit into the bubble.  Like the occasional person on the subway train, lying on the floor in front of the doors, fingers and hands covered in bruises, rocking and talking to themselves, or standing at the door rubbing their hands over the Braille even though they can see, and talking to the window at their reflection.  All pretend that they do not see and do not hear these people.  The bubble disturbers leave the cars, the perfect hedonistic balance is restored, and lusty eyes exchange compliments once again without the distraction of disgust or pity.  It seems rather like the meeting of those living as they have to and those living as they want to.  Whoever you spend more time with will give you your own personal definition of “The Real Japan.”