11 Tips to Learn (Anything) Better!
This post is also available in: Spanish
At the beginning of October I enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called Learning How To Learn, at Coursera. It was my first MOOC, and believe me, it was completely worth it… and guess what? It was free!*
The course, headed by two of the most recognized figures in neuroscience, Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, was not only quite useful but really fun.
Now, let me share with all of you some of the tips I learned at the course, so you too can learn anything better:
1. Take advantage of your brain’s diffuse mode
At the course I learned that there are, fundamentally, two modes of thinking: a focused mode and a diffuse mode. The focused mode is when you are fully concentrated on something. This is the way most of us normally approach learning, including myself before I took this course. The diffuse mode is when your brain is relaxed. It is the opposite state of the focused mode. Your brain is in a diffuse mode when you are exercising, or taking a shower or simply relaxing. When you are not focusing on anything at all.
Your brain is always processing information, independently if it is in a focused or diffuse mode. Nevertheless by switching between the two modes back and forth, when you are learning or trying to understand something, you are allowing your brain to create stronger “neural structures” that eventually will improve your cognitive, memory, thinking, decision-making and even creative skills.
Just like your body needs to rest after a gym session in order to build better muscles, your brain also needs to rest in order to work optimally. So, if you are stuck at a math problem or if you cannot seem to grasp a particular topic or if your creativity is off, do not try harder. Instead, go for a walk, do some exercise, meditate, engage in a mindless activity or simply relax. You will see an immediate improvement after or during your diffuse mode activity.
Chunking is the process of dividing into pieces (or chunks) whatever you are trying to learn. Basically instead of trying to learn, or understand, everything in one go you divide it into little pieces, as if you were trying to put pieces of a puzzle together. For example, if you would like to learn how to play tennis, it would probably be impossible to learn it in one afternoon, so you need to chunk (or divide) the process in different parts. Let’s see how to create a mental chunk effectively, using that example:
- Fully focus on the information you are trying to chunk: So if you are learning how to play tennis, it would be useful to learn how to hold the racket first, right? In this case, you would need to fully focus on how to hold it. What I mean by fully focus is to put all your attention on that information, or activity, without any distractions.
- Understand the idea you’re trying to chunk: If you’re learning how to hold your racket but you don’t understand why you are holding it that way you will create a more or less useless chunk, as without understanding a concept you wouldn’t be able to associate this chunk to the “big picture”. Moreover, if you don’t understand the chunked information you would probably forget it quite easily. Dr. Oakley says that “understanding is like a superglue that helps hold the underlying memory traces together.”
- Practice: Practicing the recently chunked knowledge will help you master it and connect it to its big “puzzle”, or even relate it to other apparently unrelated topic.
Chunking makes it easier to remember, store and process information.
Interleaving refers to using different problem solving techniques, strategies, concepts or procedures when you are learning. For example, solving a math problem with a different technique than the one shown in the book. Interleaving will help you build flexibility and will enhance creativity as it’s a way to stimulate independent thinking.
A lot of us fool ourselves by thinking that reading over and over some material in a short period of time will help us master that information. We might be able to remember that material in the short term but we are not necessarily understanding it or storing it for the long term. A more effective approach is to recall the information we just went through. That is, to close the book, turn down the pages, or look away, and try to remember the main ideas of what you just read. This process is a sort of mini test for your brain that will help you learn more and at a deeper level. It will also help you form chunks.
5. Switch the places where you normally study
Your mind can subconsciously associate the place where you usually study with what you are trying to learn so by changing your study spots, the knowledge you are acquiring will be reinforced as it will be independent from the location and the settings of that location.
6. Make notes
Many of us highlight and/or underline, but according to studies this is another illusion of competence, as by doing this you might be thinking that you are indeed learning or memorizing the material, only to realize later that you did not. That explains why highlighters need to re-read the texts. An alternate and more effective technique would be to make notes on the margins to synthesize the main ideas. If you mix this with recalling, I bet it should be even more powerful.
7. Test yourself
On whatever you are learning rather than just stare at the material or re-read it. Testing yourself will allow you to see if you truly learned. If you make mistakes on your self imposed tests you will reinforce your learning while you fix them. Like I mentioned before, recalling is a sort of mini test, but make sure you do more than that, specially if you are preparing for a big test.
8. Spaced repetition
Instead of repeating the material you are learning in one session it is much better to repeat it, or revise it, over the course of several days. That way you will build better long term connections. It is like if you were building a wall: You need to let the cement dry before adding more bricks to build a truly strong wall.
9. Deliberate practice
This consists on practicing the most difficult content you are studying. By practicing the hardest bits of whatever you’re learning you are making sure that you are not fooling yourself on thinking you master that particular subject.
10. Metaphor, story and visualization
Use as many senses in your learning sessions in order to build more neural connections. Involving more senses will make it easier to recall the concepts you are going through and their meaning. Use metaphors, flashcards, or mnemonics (techniques like a memory palace). The more vivid your metaphor and/or story, the better.
Last but not least, you should sleep well enough. Research has shown that when you are sleeping your brain is washing away harmful toxins. Without proper sleep your brain would be unable to remove toxins that could be precursors to Alzheimer and other diseases that we mentioned in a previous article on tips to sleep better. Besides cleaning itself out, your brain is deepening and strengthening your learning while you are sleeping as, like you can imagine sleep is the ultimate diffuse mode. It is no coincidence that whenever you study and you immediately go to sleep you frequently dream about solutions to the most difficult problems of your study session. Actually, some of the most important creative geniuses induced themselves into sleep like states whenever they get stuck in a problem. Two of the geniuses mentioned in the course were Salvador Dalí and Thomas Edison.
So these are some of the tools I acquired in that amazing course. I would advice you to mix them in order to benefit the most, and would definitely encourage you to sign up for the same course whenever it opens again. In the meantime you can get the main recommended book, written by Dr. Oakley:
*All of the courses at Coursera are free, nevertheless if you would like to receive a Certification you would need to pay a small fee. These fees are what keep Coursera running. Pretty fair, if you ask me.