I just finished a Coursera course on Learning. Why? well, I wanted to give my college attending sons credible information on how to optimize their learning. They aren’t listening, so I thought better to sum-up in a blog. Realize this is a quick recall of the major points. If interested in the intricacies, I recommend the 6-hour course.
To start, learning involves two types of thinking: focused and diffuse. To me, this is like going to the gym. You must “focus” hard on the exercise, then you need to give the muscles time to “consolidate” the change and recover. Learning is similar. You focus on what you are learning knowing you can only hold between four and nine items in your “working” memory, then you take a break or exercise (builds neurons in hippocampus) or sleep, or do something else, and your brain starts to connect and assimilate the information. This methodology highlights that for long term learning, cramming and over-studying doesn’t create efficient long-term memory.
The next step is to chunk. A chunk is created by focus, understanding, and practice. Practice make permanent. I see this as attaching threads to an idea that links it to other ideas that you already know. This allows that item in your working memory to chunk itself to items in your warehouse size long-term memory. Chunks can connect to chunks and you can learn an amazing amount of information quickly. In the book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer uses chunking to quickly make association with skills like imaging (the queen of hearts killing 10 baby cubs with a diamond tipped ace) to remember card order or memory palaces to place images of information in a familiar place. Chunking is like putting puzzle pieces together that go from one piece to 10 to 100 and weaves them together. The class also bunked ideas like highlighting and continuous reciting of information as “illusions of competence” versus interleaving (learning in different locations), pomodora (25 minute sessions with reward), and recall (use of index cards) as much more effective tools. To sum, moving working memory into long term memory is best done through creating associations (emotions, feelings, visualizations, etc.)
The third part of the program discussed habits like procrastination. The course deviated into strategies to better understand how habits work, and recognizing cues, reactions, rewards, and beliefs that influence them. Most importantly, the course emphasized that procrastination is ultimately about avoiding something we feel as unpleasant. However, scientifically proven, once the activity is started, the pain of it is replaced by pleasure of accomplishment. So often procrastination can be overcome by leaning into the fear.
The final section of the class was about recalling memory, specifically toward test taking. Actually, tests and practice tests are very effective ways of learning. They recommended scanning a test quickly and then starting on the hardest problems. If you get stuck, move to another problem. Then restart with the easy problems. This methodology allows the diffuse part of the brain to work in the background on difficult issues, while the pre-frontal cortex works on the immediate ones. When returning to the hard problems, often the diffuse mode has had time to make connections or pathways to solution or the other questions may have provided information that helps. Other considerations is to turn negative beliefs about testing or anxiety into positive ones, like “I hate tests” changed to “tests challenge me.” Finally, after completing a test, review answers backwards. Try to come at the questions from a different angle or bigger picture. Does this answer seem reasonable to the question asked?
In summary, most of these ideas I had learned through trial and error. And, learning is a skill that, when optimized, can save us a lot of time and pain. As a suggestion, I created note cards for this class using Quizlet; and practiced for the test with it. Worked well. Quizlet is cool, and note cards for just about everything has already been made.
When flying the F-15, I had made note cards for all the aircraft systems, procedures, emergencies, and tactics. Prior to testing, I’d pull them out and often surprised how just the tactile feel of the note cards in my hands brought back associations and most of the answers.
Finally, for me, learning is an important part of growth. Hope this information is useful enough to improve your learning as well.
Cheers – Pierre
PS – love to get your feedback, feel free to subscribe or comment!