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.

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