Learning how to learn

Learning how to learn

I’m an eternal learner.

There are so many interesting things that time is precious, so when I came accross this MOOC I couldn’t but enroll and check it out.  Anything that helps learning stuff while reducing the needed studying time really appeals to me!

I’m talking about the online course from Coursera called Learning how to learn, by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, created by the University of California.  I cannot but recommend it to everyone, there are plenty of good tips to make the process of learning easier. Here are my take-aways:

  • Create the habit of doing timeboxing work, using for example the “pomodoro technique”(*) where you set intervals of 25 minutes of working time, following by 5 minutes’ break (or by a longer break after 4 consecutives working slots).  Concentrating in the process (it’s time for my 25 minutes of work)  will make it easier to avoid procrastination.
    And don’t forget to gratify yourself after a focussed  interval of time spent working (a coffee, a piece of chocolate, or wandering on your garden to enjoy a sunny day as today 😉
  • Program the toughest things first, we have more energy to tackle our resistance during the morning.
  • Add time of relaxation and physical exercise to let the studied material ‘sink in’ and get connected in your brain, it’s part of the learning process!
  • The best way to fix the studied material is not to read it over and over, but to recall the information, and space the recalling over time. My son’s favorite method is using flash cards.
  • Test yourself, do exercises in different contexts, so that you make more connections to retrieve the chunks of material.
  • Prepare today your TO DO list for tomorrow, it will have time to be absorbed and tomorrow it will not occupy one slot of your working memory.

I’m sure there are many other tips I didn’t mention that may appeal to you, if you decide to follow the course drop me a line to let me know your peaks 🙂

*: The pomodoro technique has 5 fundamental stages : planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing. In the planning phase, tasks are prioritized by recording them in a “To Do Today” list. This enables us to estimate the effort that is required for the tasks. As pomodoros are completed, they are recorded, adding a sense of accomplishment and providing raw data for subsequent self-observation and improvements. At the end of the day, you get a concrete feedback on your estimates, if there are still tasks on the list… you are like me, too optimistic! 😉

The value of Reflection in Learning

introspection

I just read Stephen M. Fleming‘s article “The Power of Reflection” in the Scientific American Mind.  It talks about  the importance of metacognition, that is the ability of knowing our own thoughts and capacities.

This skill that allows us to evaluate our level of competence on a particular domain is totally independent of our effective competence in that specific domain. We can be bad at evaluating one particular skill,and still be good at it.  We can also know we don’t know anything about a specific subject but that doesn’t make us know more about it.  Though, knowing our lack of knowledge is very important! It allow us to evaluate correctly the situation and act properly accordingly. In this last mentioned case the proper action would be to look for help in that domain 🙂  A very typical action we take based on our knowledge of ourselves is writing lists when we tend to forget things, I fully recognize myself here, do you?

Having a good insight on our internal thoughts and processes is very important, it can even be more important than the knowledge itself because it drives our actions. Not being aware of the reality, as they point out in the article, can be very damaging not only for us but for our social relationships and family. Not knowing that we have a particular medical condition, thus not taking the medication, can make it impossible to live unattended, even if the condition itself is not so impairing.

It plays  particular role in learning, and the article mentions a study where they tried to boost this ability among students:

[…] Thomas O. Nelson and his student John Dunlosky, then at the University of Washington, reported an intriguing effect. When volunteers were asked to reflect on how well they had learned a list of word pairs after a short delay, they were more self-aware than if asked immediately.  Many studies have since replicated this finding.  Encouraging a student to take a break before deciding how well he or she has studied for an upcoming test could aid learning in a simple but effective way.

Learners could also trigger better insight by coming up with their own subject keywords. Educational psychologist Keith Thiede of Boise State University and his colleagues found that asking students to generate a few words summarizing a particular topic led to greater metacognitive accuracy.  The students then allocated their study time better by focusing on material that was less well understood.

This method of studying should be taught at school thus teaching this meta-skill to learn more effectively.