Random notions and thoughts after Learning how to Learn
I have been suggested to watch the learning how to learn coursera course for quite a while and finally had the time to watch it and digest it over 2 weekends. The course is being taught extraordinarily well by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. Below are some quick notes I took while watching the lectures and in italics some personal thoughts that have arisen in that moment.
First week: What is learning?
- There are two fundamentally different modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. The focused mode is when you are literally focused on something you are familiar with; the diffusion mode is when new connections between neurons happen more easily because, using the metaphor of a pinball, the bumpers are further apart and the ball can navigate easily all around the space allowing easier connections and new ideas the same as with connecting neurons. Creative thinkers switch between the different modes to acquire new ideas. Salvador Dali was said to relax and let himself fall asleep holding a key with his hand. Upon his dozing off to sleep he would drop the key that would startle him awake. This is an example of Dali bouncing between thought modes: He would clear his head and relax his mind until sleep came, entering the diffuse mode, then he would wake up and drag all those wonderful diffuse mode ideas back in the focused mode and the results were brilliant works.
Many times I experienced closing my eyes for a few minutes while working and letting my brain relax: the majority of the times my brain would go on his own path towards random exploration of possible solutions and I was quite fascinated with discovering that Salvador Dali, Einstein and many others used techniques to switch on purpose between the two thinking modes.
There are two types of memory: working memory and long-term memory. If the latter is like a storage warehouse, working memory is like a not very good blackboard with 4 slots. To be able to memorize something, you have to practice and repeat a lot but it’s better to access it occasionally like 3-4 times a week rather than 20 times in one single evening.
Sleep is very important: it allows toxins to be washed away and important concepts to be fixed in neurons. Taking an exam without enough sleep is like thinking with your brain poisoned.
Personally, I have always appreciated more a good sleep night rather than an all-nighter and in conversations with various friends I always tell them that sleep is much more important than last-minute studying. Discovering that there are proofs and scientific reasons behind this makes my reasoning even stronger in future discussions. Also, there have been times in which I was stuck on some problems for hours at night but early morning was able to solve it with ease.
- Running and sports in general allow to generate new neurons and improve both memory and the ability to learn since it usually allows to enter in the diffusion mode.
I didn’t know new neurons could be generated but even without knowing it, I have always felt that after sports my brain was able to understand concepts faster and better. For this same reason, I have always loved and tried to spread the utilization of the bicycle as a mean of transportation. Moreover, as if improving learning wasn’t a good enough reason, it has always stuck in me the statistic that Steve Jobs used when making the analogy between bicycles and computers.
Second week: Chunking
- Chunks are super helpful in memorizing bits of information together through meaning. Simple pieces of informations are created everyday but linking and unifying them into a large picture allows to create a single unit of information that gets stored and retrieved more easily.
What I learned during my bachelor and master’s years is that if I really want to master a concept I have to perform two steps: dig deeply in order to comprehend every single bit behind it and then look it from the outside in order to see where and how it fits in the bigger picture. I know some people can master concepts per-se without knowing where they fit but that never worked for me.
- Learning takes place in two ways:
- top down learning: you want to understand with which other informations the material you are working on now can connect; a good way to do this is quickly reading through the titles of the different chapters, understanding the bigger picture and then diving into the details of each argument.
- bottom up learning: practice and repetition build and strengthen each chunk.
Unfortunately I realised this only after many inefficient ways of preparing finals. I realised that for me this is what works well: start planning out well ahead when studying (even months before), reading the syllabus of the material and trying to understand how the main concepts connect with each other and why we study them and only then diving into every argument. What I try to do is also be ready for the exam at least a few days before the actual final in order to have time to relax and repeat. After perfectioning this technique, not only my grades improved but also my stress and anxiety pre, during and post exams dropped to zero.
Recall has been scientifically proven to be the best way to learn; that is, reading the material, trying to recall as much information as possible, reading again the text to try to understand what was missing and the recalling again. Reading and rereading is not proven to be an effective way of study.
Recalling material in different spaces and rooms removes the dependance of the information from the place in which you first studied and helps avoiding the problem of the test room being different.
Overlearning: practicing over and over again one concept in one single session not only is not useful, but it actually makes worse the learning. If you strengthen something you already know you can be biased in thinking of using the same approach everywhere and this may prevent you to find a better idea or a solution for a problem.
Is this overfitting? Seriously, this reminded me a lot of the concept of overfitting in machine learning when an algorithm fails to generalise because it has learned so well the training data.
- Also, if you continue to repeat a concept you already know you can face the illusion of competence (thinking you are learning when you are actually not), mastering the easy stuff and skipping the more difficult one. Use deliberate practice to practice what is more difficult.
I didn’t know this was a thing but I can clearly see myself and other friends prefering to study and work on the easy tasks rather than facing the difficult (and probably important) ones.
- Interleaving: best way of learning, by practicing jumping back and forth between different situations that require different techniques or strategies. It helps building flexibility and creativity in the process.
Third week: Procrastination and memory
procrastination, why should we handle it?
Good learning is a bit by bit activity, you can’t learn by tackling problem at the last minute.
Procrastination is easy to fall into and you shouldn’t use willpower to handle it because willpower uses a lot of neural resources.
You procrastinate because you feel uncomfortable about something and so shifting focus makes you feel better but long term effects make it even more painful (uncomfortable) to do that thing.
Habits are “energy savers” since they turn the brain into a semi aware already-knowing-what-to-do mode. for example the first time you ride a bike it’s difficult because you know nothing and you remain hyper alerted about everything but as you get used, you build a habit, and so you are only semi aware of a few key factors and it becomes much easier.
A habit consists in four parts:
- the cue: triggering to enter this energy saver mode
- the routine: it’s the energy saver mode itself, the action in response to the cue.
- the reward: every habit develops and continues because it rewards us
- the belief: your underlying belief in the habit, that gives the habit power.
Procrastination is an easy habit because the reward is quick and easy (moving to something more pleasant). finding ways to reward good study habits is important for escaping procrastination
It is normal to have negative feelings when you begin a study session, the part that matters is how you handle those feelings. One helpful way is to re-frame things: FOCUSING ON THE PROCESS NOT THE PRODUCT. The part that produces negative feelings is the product; when you tell yourself “I’m gonna do the homework”, the completion of the homework, the product, is the one that triggers negative feelings that cause to procrastinate, so focusing on the process and telling yourself things like “I’m gonna work 20 minutes on the homework” will not produce the negative feelings. An easy way to focus on the process is to use the Pomodoro technique.
The trick to changing habits is to change the reaction to the cue, with which you need willpower.
I was fascinated with this few lectures on procrastination and I think these are the real takeaway for me; most of the stuff of the first two weeks of the course I was already putting it into action even without knowing the reasoning behind it. I managed to re-frame many tasks into “focus on the process not the product” mindset and been more happy than ever. One example is keeping my blog updated. I don’t think I would have been able to finish this course and this blog post without this process. Also, many times I was postponing reading book chapters before going to bed because I was telling myself “it’s too long, I will never finish it now”. I started reading much more now that I tell myself “who cares if I finish the chapter or not, I will just read for thirty minutes”.
Visual and spatial memory systems help us
Try use visual images representing key items you want to remember (the funnier and more evocative, the better)
Also, creating meaningful groups: memorable sentences, placing memories in familiar scenes are helpful way to internalise material better.
Fourth week: Renaissance learning and unlocking Your potential
Metaphors and analogies: use them to understand concepts and link between disciplines.
Teamwork is really important
“You have not truly learned something unless you can teach it to others. Teach those ideas to others and you will find that they will continue to resonate and deepen in your own mind. “
I can’t stress enough how much better it is to study and work in a group rather than studying alone. Just a few reasons: if they are better than you, you will learn so many tips and tricks that will help you with the material and you will see how others understand the same concepts (having many different views has always opened my eyes on details that I have never stopped thinking about it); if they are worse than you, you will be forced to slow down the pace to explain the material and doing this not only you will understand better the concepts but you will probably realise that you didn’t know it perfectly at first; finally, studying with others will force you to work (the probability of both you and all of your friends of being lazy and in the mood of not studying is very low. If it’s high, change study group).
Overall it has been a great and relaxing course. A lot of the stuff is overall known or already put into action even though we don’t really think about it but this course makes you think on how you actally approach the learning of new concepts.