Schoolwork, online courses, and MOOCs are useless if we can't learn from them. They're an outright waste of time if we commit our time to learning from them only to forget what we've picked up! But what if we could take advantage of some of the most cutting edge research in neuroscience and education and apply them?
Consider these questions:
- What can I do to improve my study skills?
- How can I possibly learn [insanely difficult topic goes here]?
- How can I improve my focus?
- How can I better retain what I've learned?
Have you ever asked them?
Our friends at UC San Diego have. For decades, they've explored how the mind works. Lucky for us, they've also condensed their findings into a four week course aptly named Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.
Mind you, this course isn't just a pile of tips and tricks for memorization. It's a guided tour of your brain and all of the the mechanisms that powers learning. We're not just learning about how to supercharge the way we pull on new concepts and information, we're learning why certain methods of learning work.
There are probably thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of books written on this topic. What's different about this course compared to everything else that came before it is the science. There's factual evidence for everything you get from this course.
And then there's Professor Barbara Oakley, the instructor for this course. She's achieved is nothing short of extraordinary, earning a Bachelor's in Slavic Languages before heading to the army. And when she left the army...
Oakley decided to challenge herself and see if her brain, more used to the study of languages, could be 'retooled' to study mathematical subjects.
How? By scooping up a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, naturally. She even went on to get her Masters and Ph.D. in the fields of computational and systems engineering.
If you're looking for role models for learning, add her to the list. And if you want to know what she knows, take this course!
Making learning more pleasant
You might have heard this fact before about how our brain consumes a disproportionate amount of resources given its mass. You have to eat well to learn well. There's no way around it. But here's something you might not have known.
When we're faced with new and abstract information, we experience anxiety. Most of us might think of it as just discomfort mixed with a lack of willpower. In reality, this anxiety is just enough for our brains to turn us away from learning anything at all. That is, our brains would rather us turn on the television and zombie out to avoid the stress associated with anxiety.
This is why we procrastinate.
What's Prof. Oakley's solution against procrastination? It's actually really simple. Her research shows that this anxiety associated with learning, especially abstract learning, vanishes rapidly after you begin learning. Next time your impulse has you pulling up your Facebook feed, stop yourself. Instead, dive into the thing you're trying to learn.
Even if you fail to grasp what you're looking at in the slightest, just attempting to figure out what's going on in front of you sets off an important outcome. Soon, your anxiety begins to subside and with it, any desire you have of procrastinating further. The folks who jokingly suggest "stop procrastinating" as the antidote to procrastination might be onto something!
Next time you're grappling with something really tough, say, a complex math formula, try tackling it head on and see what happens.
Other learning "tips and tricks" (and there are many more than that) include from this course include:
- Methods for "chunking" or breaking down a problem so they're more easily digested and stored away in your brain
- Forming good habits for learning- when learning's a habit, getting over that dread of having to understand something new becomes much easier
- Memory techniques based on repetition, timing, and visual associations
- Applying what you've learned in the course and putting it into practice (for example, in test taking scenarios)
If you're so inclined, there's also a trove of optional resources you can read to dive deeper into this topic.
In every great course I've ever taken, there's an eye-opening fact or takeaway that fundamentally changes how I think or what I know about something. It's no different in the case of Learning How to Learn.
Here's something that's happened to me more times than I care to remember.
Let's pretend you're learning a new language or you're picking up programming. You've been at it a few months. The syntax and structure are coming together. You're finally putting pen to paper or code to screen.
But very suddenly, you're stuck. It seems that you've forgotten how to write. Worse, you can't read what you've written the day before! It's as if all of your learning became undone.
I've had this happen to me many times before. It's a great source of frustration, especially when you think the progress you've made has—poof—vanished.
What you'll learn from this course is that this is just one of many ways your mind pauses to re-organize all that it's picked up (the other big one is sleep). It's like your brain's decided to unplug all of the wires that you've added into a huge tangle during your study sessions and rewire them, chucking out the redundant ones in the process.
This clean-up, called knowledge collapse, is a hugely important step towards gaining mastery over what you're learning. Hopefully, now that you and I both know about knowledge collapse, we'll have fewer bouts of frustration because of it.
Like most of Coursera's free courses, this one's available year-round. If you missed the enrollment deadline for a session, you'll be able to enroll yourself for the next one in a few weeks.
Because this course is free, you also don't need anything beyond an email address to sign up.
Links to this course are right below. Happy learning (about learning)!
You can enroll in Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects here: