Learning for Dummies 101

I recently went on a quest for self-improvement. I signed up for five courses on Coursera and resumed my Dutch studies on Duolingo. Expanding and deepening one’s skills can never hurt – and after all, I’m in a position where I have both the time and the energy to study. Along with topics such as gamification and programming, which are directly related to my fields of interest, the first course I took up was Learning How to Learn.

You might think a person in her 30s already knows a thing or two about how to best devour knowledge, and learning isn’t something you even need to learn. You’d be wrong. Quite the contrary, the course proved to be time very well spent and I highly recommend it for absolutely everyone, no matter what your interests or field of study/work might be. The tips and tricks for more efficient learning gained apply to just about anything you can think of.

Here are some of the most valuable pointers I got out of Learning How to Learn:

  1. Take breaks. If you ever get stuck on a problem or don’t seem to grasp a concept you’re trying to learn, the best thing you can do is shift your focus to something else. Work on another project, take a walk or a nap, whatever gets your mind off the knot in your thoughts. When you resume the problem you’re more likely to make progress, as your subconscious brain has had the chance to work on it – something that can’t happen when you’re intently focused. A good technique for studying as well as working is something called a Pomodoro: focus intently for 25 minutes, then allow yourself a 5-minute break of web surfing, social media, stretching or getting a cup of coffee/tea. Splitting your work into Pomodoros will both help you accomplish tasks easier as well as remind you to take those much-needed breaks to give your brain a chance to work more efficiently.
  2. Test yourself. Studies have shown that testing yourself frequently is the most efficient way to learn. Forget about highlighting and re-reading. They’re actually a complete waste of time and only contribute to the illusion of competence, making you believe you know the material better than you actually do. Instead, use flash cards or simply just try remembering as much of the material as possible before looking for the correct solutions and see what you missed. Researchers have several theories why this works but they all agree it’s the single most effective way to study.
  3. Don’t cram. While it sounds like a tempting idea to read the whole material on the last night before a test, spending five hours straight on studying… don’t. You’re better off spending those five hours spread over a longer period of time, even 15-30 minutes at a time. This method, called spaced repetition, reinforces the concept in your brain in a way that results in a more permanent knowledge. You will not only do better in the test but you’ll also remember the material longer. Make sure to sleep properly too: the brain gets filled with toxins during your awake hours, and those get cleaned up only during sleep. In other words, if you stay awake the whole night before a test, your brain is not functioning properly and you have only made it harder for yourself to do well.
  4. Visualize. The human brain hasn’t yet caught up with the modern world, making it hard for us to grasp abstract ideas. An extremely helpful trick to not only understand but memorize concepts is to visualize them. Think of metaphors and analogies to explain what you’re trying to learn, the more visual and bizarre the better.
  5. Mix it up. When you practice don’t simply solve the same type of problems one after another. Researchers have found that when you mix different types of problems in random order, it enhances learning because you not only need to know how to solve those problems, you also need to identify which type of problem you are dealing with. While this may feel more difficult while you’re practicing, don’t fret – it works, and it pays out. This method, called interleaving, is key to efficient learning, along with tests and spaced repetition.

Also, I must say: any course that includes metaphors like the octopus of attention must be doing something right.

I completed the final exam last night, thus finishing the course with 100% grade. It may not be much for the rest of the world, but I am pretty damn proud of myself for actually being able to stick with it and accomplish something on my own, for me. I’m so much of a people-pleaser that most of the time I can’t be bothered to make an effort to myself if I can put that effort into making others happy. I guess this is me learning to be selfish at times.

Another course dealing with similar subjects, Memory and Movies, is also going on right now and it’s a perfect companion course for Learning How to Learn. While obviously more focused on memory, it provides even more background on how the brain works and the lessons in both courses support each other perfectly.


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