When I took a mini sabbatical during my relocation from Beijing to Berlin I thought to use that time learning something new. But then I asked myself, what is the best way someone learns a new material? This course was one of a few suggestions I found on the Internet. This is a summary of Learning How to Learn course. It was insightful and I learned a lot of new concepts and techniques. I hope you can learn something new for yourself and decide whether this course is a good fit for you.
Although the course is divided into four weeks, I thought to collect the relevant information into topics and introduce them one by one.
- How our brain works
- Weekly/Daily List
Activities that require a lot of energy to perform can cause procrastination. Creating new synapses is energy consuming and your brain would rather conserve that energy to use it in a more important task, such as running from a hungry tiger. Yes, our brain still thinks we live in a forest and we need to take into account dangers that it brings. Your brain looks for a way to switch your attention to a more pleasing and less energy consuming activity.
So what can we do about it? According to the course the trick is to just start. Researchers say that not long after starting you don't feel the discomfort anymore and your brain gives you a green light to continue and even enjoy that hard activity. There have been many times when I made myself to read a book just for 5 minutes and I kept going for an hour or more.
Recently I have read that the reason your brain gives you the discomfort feeling before you even started is because of preparation for that particular activity. Sometimes you have to set up the environment, find that book to read, come up with a for a blog post and etc. The solution is to make the activity as less resistant as possible. Make it obvious, set up your environment, put the guitar you want to practice on a visible spot, remove the distracting apps from your home screen, structure your ideas in Notion so that you have always an idea to work on and not to start from scratch. Make doing it as easy as possible so that you don't spend your very limited willpower to make yourself step through that barrier. Once you started you can go a long way.
Avoid cramming and stick to a schedule. Spaced and consistent repetition is much better for building habits that one time 3 hour practice. Once you build a habit it will take substantially less energy to study/play/read because your brain will learn to automate these processes and procrastination will not be as effective in conserving your energy as before.
Focus on the process and not the result. It is the end result that might scare you or make feel negative. Instead of saying "I will finish this task today", put your best effort for a period of time over the days.
How our brain works
There are two main modes how our brain works in:
- Focused mode: Concentrating on things that are usually familiar.
- Diffused mode: A relaxed mode of thinking "your thoughts are free to wander".
Our working memory has a limited capacity. Think of it as how many things you can hold onto at once. Researchers say that this number is between 4-7. In Focused mode your brain takes the related ideas/concepts/solutions and searches for an answer to a problem in that small particular scope. It is narrow and targeted and essential for deep and deliberate work.
On the other hand, the Diffused mode makes it possible to connect ideas/concepts/solutions from one scope to a totally different one. This mode of thinking is turned on while your brain is not mentally taxed. For instance, when you go for a walk, take a shower or play with your fluffy pet. That's when you connect the dots and have "aha" moment. Artists leverage their diffused mode of thinking to come up with creative ideas and then focus on creating it. Donald Draper described the idea flow and the two modes of the brain in Madmen series.
"Think about it deeply, then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face."
The course gave a good overview for building and managing your habits. Habits have the following structure:
The cue that triggers the action
- Recognize what triggers your habit, e.g. location, time, feelings, reaction
- Try to change the environment to get rid of the cues
The routine that the cue triggers
- You should only use your limited willpower to change the routine.
- Focus on rewiring your undesired habits
The rewards in the form of dopamine release that your brain is craving for.
- Give yourself a reward if only you achieve your goal
- Add a new reward to overcome your previous cravings
- Once your brain expects the reward, it will try to rewire your brain and form a habit
The belief that the particular habit is part of your identity.
- You can change a habit or form a new one only if you incorporate it in your identity. You cannot become healthier if you don't enjoy sports or healthy food.
Overall, it is a good foundation to understand the underlying mechanisms that make you do things that you want or don't. I think there are much better explanations for habit formation, such as the book by James Clear Atomic Habits and in general this topic deserves a separate article or even a course.
- Use Spaced Repetition to strengthen synaptic connections. As you can see on the above diagram, we forget about 40% in the first 24 hours.
- Sleeping helps to "update" your brain cells. That's why sometimes when you learn something in the evening you dream about it when you sleep.
- Memory Palace: use a familiar place or space and associate visual images of things you want to remember with physical spaces.
- Similarly to Memory Palace use your visual memory to remember things. For instance, link a memorable and expressive image to a formula.
- Flashcards help. Consider using Quizlet or Anki.
- Handwriting helps you incorporate what you are trying to learn into your neural connections.
- Pairing a number with a memorable event can help to remember it.
- Create mnemonic phrases from first letters of the words you want to remember.
These are solid tips on how to improve memorization. The core idea is to use your visual memory to link it to the thing you want to remember. The visual memory is by far the strongest in our brain. If you want to learn more techniques that memory champions use, read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.
I would also suggest to learn about Active Recall technique. It's a powerful tool to have while studying or learning. Imagine that you are shown 100 pictures and after 5 minutes you are shown them again. Would you remember if you have already seen them? Could you recall them if you were asked to? The idea is that we remember what we've seen, but it's hard for us to retrieve that information from the brain. Active Recall helps to fill that gap.
Divide and conquer
A piece of information or a concept is an easy to access entities that can be hold by our working memory.
- Chunking is a process of combining and internalizing different concepts and information into a single easy to access item
- For instance, you learn and internalize a math formula so well that it takes very little energy to hold onto it in your working memory.
As we learned earlier, our focused mode has a limited capacity. Therefore, you should get rid off all the distractions that can take up any slot of your working memory. Deep and focused work is not possible with distractions.
- You have to solve the problem by yourself. Understanding or seeing the answer does not mean that you have internalized and learned it. Be careful of Illusion of Competence.
- If a topic seems overwhelming, divide it into smaller chunks and learn them one by one. Every following concept will be easier
- Use top-down approach. Master the major ideas before diving deep into the details. Skim through the material to get the general idea or a concept.
- Active Recall on the material. It is more effective than rereading.
- Consider recalling when you are in different places to become independent of the cues from any giving location. This will help you when taking a test in the class.
- Test yourself to make sure you are actually learning and not fooling yourself into learning. Mistakes are a good thing. They allow you to catch illusions of competence.
- Einstellung is a German word for Mindset. You can often fall into the trap of your initial intuition.
People think in patterns. Once you see a familiar one, you would want to map it to the problem and it could prevent you from founding a better idea. Try using First Principles model to question your idea and look at it from different perspectives. When I was studying drawing, my professor would always tell us to step back and look at the drawing from a different perspective. The concept is similar.
- Interleaving is the concept of mixing up the problems and solutions from different areas. It is helpful to create connections between your chunks. It has a learning curve but can help you to learn deeper. Interleaving is about practice, repetition and thinking independently.
- Research showed that outlining your daily goals or tasks the evening helps you accomplish them the next day. If you don’t write them down, they will likely be forgotten
- Plan your finishing time, this is as important as planning your working time.
- Work on the most important and hardest tasks first, even if it’s only one session of Pomodoro.
- Take notes about to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
- Have a backup plan for when you will still procrastinate.
As we learned earlier, you can fall in the trap of procrastination thinking about the tasks and preparing to accomplish them. You should always have your tasks listed so that you take actions on them and not spend time preparing to work on them.
There are a few topics that are not covered in the course. For instance, Learning Pyramid which clearly states which methods of learning are the most effective. However, overall it was a good experience and I learned a lot of new concepts and ideas. There is also a book by Barbara Oakley A Mind For Number which is the basis for the course. I have not finished it yet but I think the concepts in the course are discussed deeper. The course is free so you should definitely try it our and see for yourself!