Learning how to learn

I’ve just finished this “Learning how to learn” (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/welcome) course on Coursera which is full of interesting, easy to use and practical ideas for improving your memory and ability to learn new things. Definitely a course that I highly recommend.

Here are some concepts I connected instantly with, not because they were necessarily new for me but mostly because I have first discovered them myself and used them a lot without knowing that these were, in fact, well known learning techniques.

Use metaphors and analogy to help simplify matters
Using metaphors or analogy to simplify a hard / complex topic is a really powerful way of learning, of remembering easily that complex topic later on.

My favorite example here is bloom filters. These are basic algorithms that allow someone to get an answer to a question like “Giving a set of numbers, is the number X part of this set?” and you get the answer to this question very very fast. The problem with this algorithm is that if the answer is NO than it’s 100% accurate while if the answer is YES the accuracy is not 100%.

How can you remember this with a simple metaphor? Have you ever seen those cartoons where Bugs Bunny is being chased by Daffy Duck who is being chased by Yosemite Sam who is being chased by a dog and so on? And at some point they where all going through a mountain of snow, each of them leaving their shape in that snow-wall. A bloom filter is exactly that: once Bugs Bunny went through that snow-wall once, if it will try to go again, the hole that was already done in the snow-wall will fit it (Bugs already went through it once). If a huge elephant will try to go through the snow-wall hole, it will not be able to do it, thus we can conclude that the elephant was not in the original set that created the show-wall hole. HOWEVER, is a small mouse will try to go through, it will be able, because it’s smaller than all the ones that have modeled the snow-wall hole. That’s why the YES answer is not 100% reliable. Got it?

Another example is the excellent picture that explains the difference between precision and recall: a couple of topics I’ve had some difficulties to remember until this picture came in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_and_recall

Difference between focused and diffuse thinking
There are two modes of thinking we should be aware of:
– focused: keeps your thoughts concentrated on solving problems you are somewhat familiar with like, for example, solving an arithmetical problem or finding a rime for a word. You access this mode simply by clearing all distractions around you and focusing on the problem you need to solve.
– diffuse: allow for more broad ranging way of thinking that will help you understand a new / hard topic you want to learn. You access this mode simply by doing those natural things that let you brain slowly drift away from the focus mode: get a walk or drift off to sleep.

Knowing when to use the diffuse mode and not rely solely (and for an extended amount of time) on the focused mode is really important for learning new / hard things. Start by focusing directly on the topic you want to learn and then look for ways to get into diffuse mode – you will find that once your brain will start drifting away from the focused mode it will start automatically work in the background to make connections between the new things we are trying to learn and the concepts we’ve already mastered: these are the new neural structures that allow us to learn something new.

Example: I remember in high school that I was required to learn a new poem or parts of novels every week. A technique I’ve learned during those days was to force myself to learn the poem in the evening just before going to sleep. The goal was to be able to recite it by heart at least once, even if I was doing a lot of mistakes (now I know that this was going to focused mode). Then, I went to sleep. Everytime (really) next morning I found out that I was able to recite the poem much much better, with less mistakes (this was the diffuse mode in action).

Tackling procrastination
Focus on the process rather than the product (or the end goal). The reason is simple: if you focus on the end-goal and that goal is so far away or seems so impossible to reach, then, naturally, procrastination will kick in and you will be so tempted to give up. Examples like loosing weight or learning for that big exam may be so familiar to you.

However, if you focus on implementing a process that will get you to the desired goal, you will instantly see results. What does it mean?
Instead of aiming to lose 10 kg in the next 2 months (focus on product), aim to go to the gym 30 min every day and eat healthier (focus on process). Focus on this and weight yourself in 2 months – you’ll be pleasantly surprised (even if you’ll find out that you’ve only lost 7 kg).
Instead of aiming to learn for that incredibly difficult and horrifying exam (focus on product), aim to study 2 hours each day (focus on process). You will be really surprised how much of the exam material will be processed in only 2 weeks, for example.

Also make sure that you “eat your frogs first” – start with tacking the most difficult topics first. Completing them will give you the energy to overcome whatever comes next.

Oh… I almost forgot! A very important technique that will help avoiding procrastination is making sure you reward yourself upon completing those small time-boxes of learning efforts. But, and this is important, make sure hat you delay your reward until after the time-box for learning has expired!!!

My favorite saying that perfectly describes this technique is: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Learning and “spaced-out” repetition
The goal of this technique is to get things out from the working memory (a limited space that can hold very little information for a small amount of time) into the long term memory (this is where the information is being safely stored for a long time).
To achieve this, learning new stuff, understanding it and the moving to the next interesting thing will often not do. Instead, any new topic we’ve just learned needs to be repeated for several times before moving on. But repeating it for a few times within the same hour is not efficient either. A much more efficient technique is when the repetition interval is gradually “spaced-out”: first repetition happens after 1 day, the next one after another 2 days, third one after a week.
Testing yourself whenever you have a chance to check that the new information was indeed safely stored into the long-term memory is an efficient learning technique too.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: Sleep and exercise
Sleep helps washing away toxins that develop during our day’s activities. Thus make sure you always get enough sleep and, more important, do not plan to sacrifice the night before an important exam by replacing the sleep with “working” – this will rarely give you any results.
Exercise (cardio for example) is so important for improving both our memory and ability to learn as exercise helps increasing the numbers of new neurons that are being born and survive in the hippocampus (an important part of your brain for memory and learning functions).

Besides the advantages mentioned above, both sleep and exercise are also opportunities for you to use to kick the diffuse way of thinking whenever you feel you need it.

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