Learning how to learn is a crucial skill for the 21st century. It's also a skill that few people fully understand.
It can make you flexible, adaptable, and future-proof your career.
Beyond that, learning how to learn infuses life with more potential and excitement.
Imagine being able to acquire a new language, take up a new sport, or learn to play an instrument in less time, by using the most effective, research-backed methods available.
Learning How to Learn, The Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) led by professors Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, lays out these methods and strategies in plain language.
While the course itself typically takes four weeks, I was able to complete it in just a few days, using some of the methods I picked up from reading Scott Young's book Ultralearning. You can too.
Because teaching and creating are such powerful learning tools, I distilled the main concepts of the course into a handy infographic.
While it doesn't include everything from the MOOC, it does offer a basic primer on the course content.
Hopefully, it gives you a framework to improve your own learning, and gives me something to look back at so that I don't forget too much!
Here it is:
If you want a more in-depth perspective for improving your learning skills, or if you want to overlearn the concepts above, keep reading to see my detailed notes on the course.
Learning How to Learn: Course Notes
Focused Vs. Diffuse Modes
There are two main modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. The focused mode uses familiar thought patterns, methodical routines and fixed awareness, while the diffuse mode makes broader connections and usually occurs during a state of relaxation or mind-wandering. Switching back and forth between the two is essential for learning.
Abstract concepts can be more difficult to understand and manipulate than more emotional or concrete ones. To better grasp them, practice bouncing back and forth between focused and diffuse mode. It will help you strengthen the neural connections required to really understand new ways of thinking.
Rest allows you to work on problems in the background while you reset your focus (think of it like adding neural mortar).
At its core, learning is the process of creating new dendritic branches through practice, study bouts, and sleep.
When we wake up every morning, we do so with a different brain than when we went to sleep.
Procrastination is your brain’s way of avoiding the discomfort of challenging tasks by redirecting attention towards more pleasant activities. In the immediate term, this tendency is relatively harmless, but over time the habitual behaviour patterns prevent new learning.
It is important to keep in mind that these pain signals fade shortly after beginning a learning bout or engaging in an initially uncomfortable task. If you encounter resistance, just focus on getting past the first few minutes.
Our habits work much like a mindless zombie, and operate in four stages: cue, routine, reward, and belief.
The cue is a signal in your environmental or internal state that initiates a behaviour. A routine is the behaviour itself, while the reward comes after the behaviour has been completed. The belief is what you think is true about the habit: “I always procrastinate” or “I’m not good at getting motivated” are automatic beliefs.
Take a habit like checking Twitter while working. The cue could be a thought about what people think of your latest tweet, or whether a particular person has responded to it. The routine would be checking Twitter, and the reward would be seeing that there are new notifications.
If there is no reward, this may actually fuel the habit cycle even more, as intermittent rewards are more powerful in influencing behaviour than consistent ones.
After repeating this cycle several times, the belief may arise that you are not very good at focusing, when in fact you are just not implementing systems that could prevent distraction in the first place.
Sleep is essential for learning. It clears out metabolic toxins that accumulate during wakeful periods, and strengthens new connections made during learning. It is also when our brains rehearse what we have been learning, and makes more loose associations about any problems we may be working on.
Chunking is the processing of different bits of information into a more unified whole through meaning.
Instead of focusing on the independent pieces, we are able to store and encode information together. In infancy, the letters d, a, and d are chunked together as dad, instead of having to remember the letters themselves each time.
Chunks are more salient, and can be connected to other chunks more easily, which helps when constructing a scaffold of neural networks for learning. Once a chunk is formed, you don’t necessarily need to recall details about the solitary bits of information.
“Focusing your attention to connect parts of the brain to tie together ideas is an important part of the focused mode of learning.”
Learning a song requires a fairly large neural representation. Breaking the song into chunks and mastering those can help you move towards playing the song as a whole.
Soon, the chunks that felt cumbersome and effortful to form initially become second nature, and you can combine chunks in novel, creative ways.
Language is a great example. Just pronouncing words correctly and forming simple connections between words is a challenge at first. As you progress, you become more capable of manipulating those chunks.
Chunking requires cultivating focus, developing understanding, practicing the skill or concept you want to learn, and paying attention to the larger context that the chunk fits into.
Expertise is the gradual accumulation of mental chunks. These mental chunks can be applied across disciplines in a phenomenon called transfer.
For example, problem-solving in physics can be put to use for business strategy. The diffuse mode is also helpful for connecting chunks in creative ways, but they should be rigorously examined during the focused mode.
Recall is when you look (or even walk) away from the material you are studying, and see what you can remember. Retrieving information is an active process that facilitates deep learning and helps form long-lasting chunks. It is great way to combat illusions of competence .
Three neurotransmitters affect learning: dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. Dopamine increases in response to rewards and the anticipation of reward. Serotonin is linked to social status, mood and risk-taking, while acetylcholine is involved in focus and concentration.
Overlearning is the process of spending more time than necessary when learning something, such as a new word, movement, or scientific concept.It can result in a familiarity and automaticity that is helpful for making a particular chunk more available to you, but it can also lead to forming neural ruts that make alternative chunks less accessible, and can be a waste of learning time.
Use it selectively when you need quick, reflexive access to a new chunk. Because it’s easy, people often gravitate towards practicing things they already know and overlearning them, when deliberate practice would help them improve faster.
Einstellung is the equivalent of installing roadblocks in your mind through the development of expertise. By developing set mental patterns for a particular discipline, you strengthen neural pathways that prevent alternative chunks from forming. It’s related to the curse of knowledge; new patterns of thinking can get blocked by existing structures.
Interleaving is when you switch between multiple problems that require different skills, which results in several related chunks being formed. It is useful for avoiding the illusion of competence; by testing yourself in different areas, you improve at them and can (sometimes) transfer them to new problems.
Scott Young, who is interviewed by Barbara Oakley in week 2 of the course, recommends active bouts of learning, using test-yourself methods and avoiding low intensity, low efficacy study strategies.
MIT Opencourseware is also a useful resource for more advanced self-directed learning.
Process over Product
This mental model is useful for avoiding procrastination and developing better systems. If you focus on the product, your brain will perceive the start up process as painful and try to avoid it.
By focusing on the process, you take control over your actions and reward forward progress instead of completion. Non-procrastinators use phrases like “once I get going, I will feel better about it” or “procrastinating won’t help me move toward my goals.”
Changing your reaction to the cue of a habit can allow you to override behaviours that don’t help you. You can also modify the other 3 stages of "zombie" habits to design routines that work for you.
Over time, you can adjust to new routines, like studying in a particular place and using the pomodoro technique. Introduce new rewards for sticking to processes and finishing products. Gradually shift your beliefs to support your learning. “I am a capable learner” and “I am the kind of person who sticks with hard things” are examples of phrases you can use.
Planning is a crucial part of learning. Keeping a weekly list of learning tasks in a planning journal and writing in the evenings about plans for the next day’s learning processes can go a long way.
Schedules which include downtime, and with learning bouts that end at a certain time each day, will prevent burnout and help sustain progress over the long term.
Memory is essential to learning and storing mental chunks. Our brains have very powerful visuo-spatial memory abilities, which allow us to remember visual objects and locations with remarkable agility.
We can tap into this evolutionary adaptation, and use it to anchor more abstract ideas.
For example, you can place an object that represents an idea, like scissors for the concept of leverage, in the hands of an Eleanor of Aquitaine, who used leverage to gain political power in 12th century France, and then place them both inside the fridge of your childhood home.
The more silly, bizarre, or striking the visual image you create and situate somewhere, the more likely you are to remember it.
You can use index cards or the Anki app to test your memory. On one side of the card, there is a prompt, while the other side has the explanation. The more you are able to recall a particular idea, process, word, etc. the less frequently you need to test yourself.
Reconsolidation is the phenomenon whereby memories change when they are remembered. By conjuring up a memory, we alter it, and can even plant false memories in the process.
You can remember important information by constructing meaningful pairs. The words momentum, inertia, and thermodynamics could be consolidated as MIT, so you could picture a catchers mitt, a winter mitten, or the prestigious school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A memory palace is also a powerful mnemonic tool that can help you remember extensive lists by placing objects representing each idea in a familiar place, like your house.
There are two essential facets of memory: working memory and long term memory. While researchers originally thought we could hold 7 items in working memory, the number is more likely closer to 4, although we chunk items to conserve energy and short term cognitive space.
Long-term memory is nearly limitless; we can hold billions of pieces of information and representations there.
Transferring things from working memory to long-term memory requires time and practice. Spaced repetition allows you to strengthen connections in long-term memory by resting and returning to practice sessions repeatedly over long stretches of time.
Metaphor and Analogy
These are useful tools for solidifying understanding of a topic, and overcoming Einstellung. They allow you to compare complex, abstract concepts to familiar, concrete ideas.
It can be helpful to associate concepts with phonologically related objects, like anions with onions or lumbar with lumber. You can also imagine yourself as the concept you are trying to understand, whether it is an equation, a physics theory or a new move in martial arts.
I often compare my experiences of making errors with a child touching a hot stove. I am trying not to get burned, I swear!
Having a larger working memory can mean you are better at focusing on tasks and have a higher intelligence, but it can also mean that you more readily succumb to Einstellung.
Having a working memory that can only hold four bits of information, and only under ideal conditions of silence and trained focus, means that you may have more creative, wandering thoughts. You might be better at putting together disparate ideas, and making connections that people with more elaborate working memories can’t.
The key to success if you are not naturally gifted is perseverance, flexible thinking, and the ability to admit errors and learn from them.
Often no matter how good your teacher and textbook are, it's only when you sneak off and look at other books or videos that you begin to see what you learn through a single teacher, or book, is a partial version of the full three dimensional reality of the subject, which has links to still other fascinating topics that are of your choosing. Taking responsibility for your own learning is one of the most important things you can do.”
The right hemisphere is responsible for big picture aha moments, while your left hemisphere is largely more focus-oriented, but also rigid and dogmatic.
Breezing through a problem or learning session with the feeling that you’ve accomplished a lot may be the result of your left brain convinced that you have done great work. However, your right brain may be withholding big picture understandings that actually reveal learning blind spots.
Other people in a study group can act as an embodied diffuse mode, questioning your assumptions and ideas to better refine your understanding.
Checklists can help you learn and prepare for tests. Did you make a serious effort to understand the text? Did you check the solutions with others? Did you outline every problem and solution? Did you discuss, ask questions and contribute ideas?
A checklist can be a powerful way to ensure that you have gone through the processes necessary for understanding a new concept. They are highly useful when preparing for tests or completing parts of a research project.
Hard Start - Jump to Easy Mode
When starting a test, it can help to begin with the most challenging problems, and then switch to the easier problems after only a minute or two. This way, your brain's diffuse mode can begin untangling the complex questions, while you steadily pick away at the simpler ones.
“Don’t fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool.”