Back in 2015, I took an online course on Coursera called “Learning How to Learn” but didn’t get a chance to blog about it. It’s a wonderful course; it taught me lot about how the brain works when you’re learning something. In light of my current pursuits in neuroscience, learning is one of the many topics I am interested in (along with neurodegenerative diseases, mood disorders, and motor neuron diseases).
The course is free, and you can check it out anytime! I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to improve their ability to learn new things.
I made PowerPoint slides for each of the four weeks in the course to help me take notes on the course material. Instead of sharing these slides here, I decided to put together a short list of the most helpful bits of advice.
Here we go!
Tip #1: Procrastination is a habit that is has a deep neurological basis. When you look at something you don’t want to do, you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. Your brain looks for a way to stop that negative stimulation by switching your attention to something else. How do you get around this?
A good way to start is to reframe your attitude about getting to work on a task. If you think you’ll never be able to stop procrastinating, then you won’t be able to, simply because this belief is reinforcing your habit. It’s normal to start with a few negative feelings before a study session, but how you deal with these feelings is what makes a difference. Try to focus on the process – the amount of time you spend working – instead of on the product, or the outcome of the task (e.g. finishing a homework assignment). Focusing on the product is what triggers the pain response in your brain, which causes you to procrastinate. The whole point of this is to help you calmly put forth your best effort for short chunks of time with breaks in between. Leisure time is just as important as working time! To make sure that you have this leisure time, try setting a goal finish time for each day (e.g. 5:00 pm).
Tip #2: Concepts in math and science require practice. The reason for this may be related – at least in part – to the abstract nature of ideas. Because we can’t feel these ideas in order to understand them, it’s important to practice science and math concepts to help enhance and strengthen the neural connections being made during the learning process. Neurons become more physically linked together through repeated use. At first, when you first begin to understand something, the neural pattern is there – but it’s very weak. The more you practice working with the concept you’re trying to learn, the deeper the neural pattern gets in your mind. Once you have the idea down pat and you’ve practiced it with other related concepts, the neural pattern gets even deeper.
Tip #3: Get a sense of the “big picture” first. Learn the major concepts or points first, and then fill in the details. Skim through the textbook material or chapter you are trying to learn. Look at the headings, subheadings, and pictures. This will help you get a sense of where to put the chunks you’re building and how they relate to one another.
Tip #4: Making concept maps is useful, but not as a first step when you’re trying to learn something new. You can’t build connections between bits of information before the basic concepts are embedded in the brain.
Tip #5: Simply re-reading material from a textbook chapter is not effective. Instead, try recall. After you’ve read the material, look away from it and see how much information you remember from what you just read.
Tip #6: Highlighting and underlining must be done carefully, or else it will be ineffective and lead you to believe that you know the information. Instead, look for main ideas to highlight or underline before making any marks in your book, and try to keep it to a minimum (1 sentence or less per paragraph). Also try taking margin notes that synthesize key concepts!
Tip #7: Don’t just practice what you learn in the same study session. Be wary of repetitive learning during a single study session. This can be a waste of valuable learning time and reinforces easy material, giving you an illusion of competence. Practice after the study session, more than once; this is called overlearning.
Tip #8: Balance your studies. Don’t spend time hammering away at the easy material you already know. Instead, focus on the more difficult material – this is called deliberate practice.
Tip #9: Mix up your learning by practicing interleaving. Going back and forth between different problems and strategies is called interleaving. Once you have the basic idea down, start doing problems of different types or different approaches, concepts, etc. Interleaving helps you develop creativity and flexibility within a discipline and even between disciplines.
Tip #10: Use images to remember concepts. Memorability and “repeatability” are very important. The funnier and more evocative the image is, the better! The image must be repeated in your mind sporadically over a period of several days to solidify it into long-term memory. It takes time and practice to build a solid mental image – but keep going! This becomes an exercise in creativity – because you’re building wild, unexpected possibilities for future concepts.
…And last but not least, good learning is a bit-by-bit activity! You need to avoid cramming – this doesn’t build solid neural structures. Spacing out your learning by starting earlier means you’ll learn better.
(If you want to have these tips summarized more visually, check out this infographic that I made!)
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more cool things! :)