Learning How to Learn: How to Supercharge your Learning Capabilities

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Learning How to Learn: How to Supercharge your Learning Capabilities

Faisal Albasu's photo
Faisal Albasu
·May 12, 2022·

15 min read

Table of contents

School has taught us to a lot of stuff, but one of the most important things it's supposed to teach us that it didn't is how to learn efficiently and effectively. The common conventional learning method is to go to class for 8-10 hours, exhaust ourselves with all these different subjects, come back home and cram everything we learned a day before a test or exam in hopes of regurgitating that into tomorrow's answer sheet. But as many of us know, that doesn't last and eventually, we get burnt out and not able to sustain that for long.

priorities.png Image from xkcd

I'm gonna admit, I have never known to how study until about a year ago when I started digging into study guides on the internet, and one of those guides is a course on Coursera called Learning how to learn. It goes through the cognitive and behavioral details of how we can supercharge our learning by utilizing daily habits and routines that at first might seem trivial but are very powerful factors that can improve how we learn.

In this article, we’ll be going through some of the most important concepts you should know that when applied the right way can help you learn faster and better while studying less.

The Thinking Process

Before we begin, we need to understand how our brains work and how that affects the quality of our learning. The human brain is one of the most fascinating things in the universe, and one of the fascinating things about it is it never stops working. As human beings, our thinking process is divided into two modes: The focused mode and the diffused mode.

The Focused Mode:

This is the mode our brain is in when we’re trying to concentrate on a task. We’re not thinking of any other thing, all our attention is directed to the task at hand or the problem we’re trying to solve. When in focused mode, our brain is restricted mostly to one thinking pattern, eventually familiar patterns begin to pop up and connections are made between those patterns. This is why sometimes when you’re focused on something like fixing a bug, you start getting ideas from bugs you’ve fixed in the past and start thinking “What if I apply this method or solution I applied for this other problem?”. This is because these 2 patterns look similar in your brain and when they start to pop up connections are made between the patterns. However, the focused mode is limited, when in focused mode, the brain is restricted to a particular thinking pattern which might not be the way to solve the problem at hand. This is where the diffused mode of thinking comes in.

The Diffused Mode

This mode is activated when our brain is in a relaxed state, we’re not trying to concentrate or focus our attention on one thing, rather our mind is just wandering around all over the place. A commonplace or situation this mode is triggered(at least for me) is in the shower. This is because we’re not doing anything that needs much thought in the shower, so our mind wanders across several different topics, events, and things that we’ve come across or thought about prior. As mentioned earlier, when in focused mode our brain is restricted to a particular thinking pattern, but in the diffused mode the brain is not restricted to anything so it’s free to make connections that might sometimes even seem logically impossible but eventually lead to a solution that we’ve never thought. This is why sometimes, you’d hammer away at a problem for hours to the point of frustration and leave, just to come back a while later and realize that the solution was right in front of your eyes. This is because while your brain was in the focus mode, it couldn’t make the necessary connections needed to realize the solution but when you went away, your brain switched into the diffused mode and it was able to freely connect dissimilar patterns and come up with the solution.

To learn effectively, we need to let our brain switch between the focused and diffused modes of thinking. This would help the brain make new connections across different thinking patterns and solidify those connections.

Now that we know how the brain works in terms of thinking, let’s how we can supercharge our learning according to that.

Chunking

I can’t remember where I heard or read this quote but it goes like this: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite a time.”. Another one is “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”. Both of these quotes symbolize one thing, and that thing is chunking. You don’t eat an elephant by gobbling everything up at once or reach from mile 1 to mile 1000 by taking one giant leap(you certainly can’t), you start with a bite or a step and then two bites or two steps, that turns into several bites or steps and eventually over the course of several days, weeks or even months you finish a whole elephant or reach your destination of a 1000 miles. The same is true for learning by chunking.

Chunking is when small bits and pieces of information are combined to form a larger piece of information by connecting those smaller pieces. When learning to code, for example, you first learn about the language, what type of language it is and how it can be used. Then you start learning the basic syntax of the language like declaring variables, and types. From there you get introduced to other aspects such as strings, conditionals, loops, and functions. All these are chunks of information that when presented individually might not make much sense to you, but when connected can be used to create a computer program. Of course, you don’t learn all these at once, going back to the elephant analogy, you can’t finish a whole elephant at once or even in a day, it takes time, the same is true for learning, you learn small chunks or little bits of information little by little and eventually, those little chunks connect and form a larger chunk. So you could learn how to declare a variable today, how to assign a value to a variable tomorrow, how to print a value to a string the next day and you can later put all those together to write a simple program that prints out the value of a given variable.

Chunks are formed when the brain is in focused mode, this is when you learn and understand the basic idea of an underlying concept, you might not grasp the entire concept but you get a basic understanding of it, and when you later practice that concept, you get a deeper understanding of it. Another way to solidify a chunk is active recall, this is when you try to recall information about a concept without looking at a page or the screen. There’s a lot of information on the internet about the active recall but one of my favorites is this one by Ali Abdaal.

Understand the illusion of competence

In the programming world, this is often known as “The tutorial hell”. This is when you feel like you’re learning something but you’re not learning it, and the moment you close the book you’re reading or stop watching the tutorial and try to do something yourself, you realize you can’t do it. To avoid falling into this trap, here are a couple of things you should add to your learning:

  • Test yourself: Add mini-tests to your learning process, maybe after every chapter or every couple of minutes, test yourself on what you learned to see if you understand the concept of the topic you’re studying. This is called deliberate practice.
  • Avoid too much highlighting: Highlighting might give you the illusion that you understand the concept of a topic when you didn’t. Instead of highlighting, try writing down as much you can recall in your own words after every chapter or module of a topic, this is a way better approach since it involves the use of active recall.
  • Practice the hard stuff more and the easy stuff less: Doing this would push your brain further to gain mastery of the topic at hand and help those chunks in your neural circuits to connect and solidify. The more you practice the better you get at the craft.
  • Avoid Overlearning: This is when you tend to go over a material again and again even when you’ve understood the concept and are ready to move on or test yourself. This could be watching the same coding tutorial over and over again or watching several other similar tutorials without actually getting your hands into the grind and doing something yourself.

Unlearning previously learned concepts

There are times when you try everything you know but you still can’t find a solution to a problem. This might be because a certain neural pattern is blocking a new pattern from forming. This is a phenomenon called the Einstellung Effect. Think of it as sort of a cognitive box that restricts your brain, and to get the solution you need, you need to think outside of that box. So to get that solution you need to unlearn what you previously know about that problem and think differently(break the box).

Practice Interleaving

The idea of interleaving is to jump back and forth between different problem sets that require different solving techniques once you understand the basic concept of the material. For example, solving a couple of Leetcode challenges after learning a new data structure or algorithm using a couple of different techniques. This at first might seem a bit difficult because you might not have a solid understanding of the topic but it deepens your learning and helps understand the topic better when you come back to study it more after solving the problem sets. Interleaving combined with deliberate practice and active recall can help improve your learning a dozen times more.

Utilizing Short and Long term Memory

We have two types of memory, the Short term or working memory and the Long term Memory. Think of the short-term memory as writing on sand, it can easily be erased even by the wind, and the long-term memory as carving out writing on stone, it will stay there for eternity. When you first come across an idea or a concept, it’s held in the working memory, what you want is to move that idea or concept from the working memory to the long-term memory so that you can retrieve it back to the working memory when need. This process is called Reconsolidation. This can be done in a couple of ways:

  • The Memory Palace Technique: This could be by associating it with something you can remember, this could be an object, a word, an abbreviation, or even a symbol. Whenever you’re trying to remember that particular concept, you just need to remember the thing you associated it with and you remember it.
  • Spaced repetition: Similar to the concept of interleaving, in spaced repetition you’re leaving what you learned but unlike interleaving, you’re coming back a while later to repeat the same concept. This is done to keep what you’ve learned in the long-term memory and prevent it from fading away. Here’s a great video on spaced repetition by Ali Abdaal.
  • Take handwritten notes and diagrams. This helps in better encoding what you’re trying to learn into memory.

Take a break

This is not something you hear very often but one of the most effective ways is through sleep and relaxation. Because your brain never rests even while sleeping and relaxing, it shifts into diffused mode and keeps working out problems that you've focused on a while ago to find a solution to those problems, so the next time you're bashing your head on the keyboard due to a bug, take some time to relax or even sleep, you might find out that the solution is easier or more obvious than you think. If you can't sleep, take a walk, stare at the clouds/sky, or just try to do something relaxing that'll take your mind off the problem for the time being.

Dealing with Procrastination

I have a problem of chronic procrastination that I'm currently actively trying to cure. I've procrastinated on finishing this course for almost a year(literally), telling myself that I'm busy with my thesis or I'm busy with schoolwork, etc. I've also been procrastinating on making videos on my YouTube channel. Everyone deals with some form of procrastination or the other. So how do you deal with yours? To understand how to deal with procrastination, let's first understand why it occurs in the first place. Our brain doesn't like doing hard stuff, yes it works 24/7 but if you'll ask it, it prefers just getting a dopamine hit 24/7 by doing easy, irrelevant tasks that'll give it that dose of dopamine every second. That's the reason we reach out to our phones when we're bored or stuck on something that requires significant cognitive thinking. Another reason is, as human beings, we fear change and uncertainty, and anything that'll push us towards that is nerve-racking, especially when we fixate too much on the outcome. Our anxiety builds up as we think about it.

Just like with chunking, to tackle procrastination we need to put in small chunks of habits in our lives to form a routine that gets us to the outcome we want and focus on those small chunks of habits. As Barbara Oakley calls it the "Process" and the "Product". The Process is the small chunks of habits we'll do daily or weekly that little by little will move us closer to the Product which is the outcome we want. So instead of cranking out a whole blog post in one sitting, just write every morning for 30 minutes, it doesn't matter what you write, just build up that muscle of writing for 30 minutes, and eventually, you'll have something to post by the end of the week.

When we focus on the product, it causes anxiety which the brain sees as physical pain and tries to avoid, but if we know that we're just writing something that maybe might not even see the light of the day, we tend to not worry about it(I certainly don’t). This is something that I'm trying to incorporate into my YouTube creation since at the moment I seem to be too fixated on the end product which is the video.

Sometimes what we might need is a change of state, which could mean a change of location, use of focus music, or accountability. I find that sometimes I need to go to the school library or a coffee shop to get in the zone of study or work. Other times I just need to put on focus music or ambiance noise that replicates these locations and that'll help me get in the zone. One of the tools I use for this is a discord server called Study Together. You can find MOOC mates, accountability partners, and so on. Here are some ways you can use to deal with procrastination.

The Pomodoro Technique

The classic old Pomodoro technique, and yes, it still works. Set a timer for a certain amount of time you'd like to focus on and take a short break when the timer goes off, repeat that a couple of times until you achieve the goal for the task you're doing. You can also add a long break in between to help you recharge a bit more. The normal setting most people use is 25 minutes of focused work and 5 mins short break. Repeat for 4 sessions and then a 15-20 minutes long break. I use a minimum of 50 mins to as long as 2hours of focus time, this is because even getting in the zone of focus takes me 25 mins, so by the time I start focusing, the time's already up. Sometimes I use the Pomodoro technique to trick my brain just to get in the zone, with this I usually disable the alarm for the break so I won't know even if it goes off.

Schedule for shut down

This is something that one of my favorite authors and podcasters, Cal Newport lives by, he advocates for having time for stopping work and even has a shutdown routine that he does to shift his mind from work mode to a resting state. He talks about how he does it and how to implement it in his book Deep Work. This is something that I've started implementing recently. When you know there's a certain time you'll be stopping work, it creates this sense of urgency to utilize the time you have now for work, reducing the urge to procrastinate.

Stop Multitasking

I'm sure this is the 648th time you've heard the phrase "Multitasking is a myth". Well, it really is. When you multitask, you're switching your focus from one thing to another, which leaves a cognitive residue of the former task in your brain eventually reducing your cognitive capacity(I know, big words... right?... smh...). Research shows that when you switch your focus from one task to another or are distracted, it takes up to 20 minutes to get back into the focus zone you were in before. If you're working on something like debugging, that might be time you could've used to find the bug. So focus on one task, maybe even incorporate the Pomodoro technique, if you get side-tracked, restart the timer from the beginning.

Eat the frog first

This is just a fancy phrase for "Do your most important work first thing in the morning(or afternoon or evening)". When you achieve the most important task first thing in your day, you unload it from your head and get a huge sense of accomplishment which could be a motivating factor for finishing your other tasks.

Reward yourself

As I mentioned earlier, the brain doesn't like doing uncomfortable stuff, it prefers doing easy stuff that'll give it several shots of dopamine spikes. What if you could trick the brain into doing hard stuff by rewarding it after accomplishing that hard task. It could be something as simple as scrolling social media for some time after getting through a certain task or getting your favorite snack. This would motivate you to focus on finishing the task since you know there's something positive waiting for you at the end of the process.

Conclusion

Learning is a lifelong journey and as long we’d continue to pursue we’ll keep uncovering ways to improve it. Hope these few tips help you improve your learning.

References:

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

Additional Resources:

Learning how to learn | Barbara Oakley | TEDxOaklandUniversity

 
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