You know that old saying that if you give a person a fish, they'll eat for a day, and if you teach them to fish, they'll eat for a lifetime? It's the perfect summary of just how important learning can be. But what's the best way to make sure you learn and don't forget? After all, you can fish all day, but you won't eat if your fish all jump out and wriggle back out of the boat.
Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has ransacked available scientific studies to narrow it down. In partnership with the University of California and neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski, Oakley's compiled the best of the best scientifically supported learning strategies into "Learning How to Learn," the most popular class ever on Coursera. These are some of her top tips.
1. Embrace the "focused" and "diffused" modes of your brain.
Great learning requires going back and forth between intense concentration (focused mode, using lots of familiar information or paths) and working in a subconscious or resting state (diffuse mode, using fewer, less familiar paths). One way to apply this is with the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work with as much concentration as you can for that 25 minutes. Worry about the attention you're dishing out, not on whether you finish everything or find the solution. At the end of the 25 minutes, take five minutes to have fun!
2. Repeat often, but don't cram.
In your brain, nerve cells have small gaps (synapses) between them. Electrical impulses travel across these gaps, much like cars going over bridges. Repeating and practicing what you want to learn essentially builds a stronger bridge, so that it's easier for the electrical impulses to move from cell to cell. Spaced repetition is the most efficient way to build the synaptic connections and learn fast. Bump this into overdrive by repeating your information or activity in different settings over time. This technique ensures that you don't come to rely on external cues to recall or perform.
3. Just start already!
Procrastination is an avoidance technique whereby you try to get away from something you don't like, or that causes you some kind of distress. But researchers have found that, if you just start what's uncomfortable, your anxiety will fade over a few minutes. So if you're overwhelmed by what's in front of you, don't avoid it. Just start with a small piece, let yourself calm down with that piece, and then keep going. The Pomodoro technique can be helpful here, because the act of starting the timer becomes routine and habitual, making it easier to get past your initial stress.
4. Chunk it out.
Chunking refers to creating a small neural pattern you can reactivate when needed. Over time, you add more and more chunks to create a neural network. In practical terms, this means taking in just a little bit of information at once and, over time, learning to string those bits into sequences or webs that are longer or more complicated. Make your first chunk the "big picture" or summary. For example, instead of just reading this article from top to bottom, scan it out for the title, headers, pictures, etc. to get the gist or summary first. Then go after another chunk and dig for a little more detail. How far you need to chunk and drill down will depend on what you're trying to learn and how complex it is, but the general process is always the same.
5. Ignore your initial intuition.
Intuition can be good in decision making, but learning and applying information in creative ways often requires you to dismantle the old mindsets intuition is built on. Take a second to move past your first reaction and explore alternate perspectives.
6. Read, recall, read again.
Most people who want to learn from a text just reread it over and over without taking time to test what they remember. If you pause and see how much you can recall after reading something, however, you give yourself a chance to build some associations between the content and what you already know. Additionally, during the reading process, you naturally turn what you read into a sort of mental movie, visualizing what's on the page. Taking a break lets you replay and enhance this visualization. Rereading thus isn't just about learning through sheer repetition. It's about drilling down for more details that make the memory even more intense.
7. Know who you are.
Some people, Oakley says, are like race cars. Their brains speed along, taking in and processing information fast. Others are like hikers. They struggle to finish quickly, but because they take their time assimilating information, they grab more details, don't jump to conclusions, and often have a much deeper learning experience. If you know what kind of learner you are, you can pick learning strategies that feel natural to you and you don't have to feel embarrassed or incompetent next to anyone else.
How people learn best might be somewhat predictable, but what you learn compared to someone else is not. Use these tips to unravel and express your best self. It is in this revelation and application of individuality that learning becomes truly priceless.