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Learning how to learn

How about knowing a bit more about how the brain works and retain information? Let's dive in the science of "Learning how to learn".

As part of my development, I consistently look for new things to learn. The brain is a fascinating mechanism and I'm always interested in discovering more about it. So when the opportunity came up to do a free course called "Learning how to learn", I jumped on the occasion!

The 4 weeks online course delivered by Barbara Oakley, professor of Engineering, provides an interesting approach to the science of the brain and its learning process.

1 - The focused & diffuse modes

One of the main concept discussed during the course is the differentiation between the focused and diffused mode. The focused mode, when we intensively learning something for a few ours, relies on a specific neuron-path already existing in the brain, it's our thought process or the strategy we put in place to tackle problems. Although that method is efficient & powerful, the strategy we have is not always the most appropriate and we might end up stuck on an issue - it is time to think outside the box!

This is when the diffuse mode becomes interesting. Have you ever struggle on an issue for a large sum of time, got fed up with it and went for a long walk and found out the right solution as soon as you got back to the problem? That is because you have entered a relaxed state and enabled your brain to enter into diffuse mode. By doing so, you allow your brain to create new pathways in your logic approach and furthermore coming up with fresh ideas. You can easily enter diffuse mode by "entertaining" yourself with anything not related to the task you are trying to find a solution for: take a bath, a nap, go for a run, a bike ride, the gym, play music...

Combine these 2 mode by using the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of laser focus for a few minutes of reward!

2 - Working & long term memories

The next dissociation is about memories. The active and short term one, also called working memory, stocks a limited amount of data and retains it for a short amount of time (a few minutes to a few days). Just like a blackboard, data will get erased over time so the trick is to transfer it to our internal storage house: our long term memory. In order to do that, we need to have small & spaced repetitions.

3 - Chunking

Instead of trying to learn a whole block of data at once, chunk it down into smaller pieces. To reach the top of the summit, you need to climb to the next station first, then the next one and so on until you reach the top. Focusing on the journey to the next station is a chunk. Once you learn multiple chunks, you can combine them together. Think of learning a song on the drums for example - first you learn the verse beat, then the chorus one and finally the bridge. Once you know all of them individually, you can play them in the right order to play the full song.

When you chunk data, never loose sight of the overall picture. Focus on the part that you want to chunk and understand the basic ideas of it.

4 - Recalling

Once you learn something new, look away from it and take a few seconds to check how much you can remember what you just learnt. Reading data over and over again doesn't always mean that you will remember them as you can overflow your brain and create an illusion of competence - you think you know but you don't really. Also when you recall, try to do it over different locations so you can remember data in all environments.

One of the best way to learn that I have practiced over the last few years is to start with a test BEFORE you start learning! Yes, as silly as it might sounds, taking a test first will actually send a signal to your brain to look for answers in whatever you are about to learn. This will engage your brain on another level and you will be laser focus for those missing data that you couldn't answer during the test.

I'm also a big fan of learning by making mistakes. Great way to learn, as long as you can minimize the risks linked to that mistake...

Finally - takes notes like you will teach it to someone else. I love this one as it prompts you to think differently and it's a call to your influencing & inspiring skills - making a difference for others.

5 - Procrastination

The course also tackles procrastination. Out of the different concepts discussed in the course in order to beat procrastination, one appealed to me the most: we procrastinate when we focus too much on the result (what) rather than the process (how). It links back to my idea that the journey is always more valuable than the destination.

6 - Make good use of your visual memory

Finally, it is established that our visual memory is one of the most powerful one we have. Associate an image, an unforgettable & silly one, to whatever you are learning. Write what you would like to remember & imagine the concepts, you are trying to learn, lying around your house.