We all want to learn a lot of things. We want to learn a new language or may be we want to learn to play an instrument and the list goes on. Learning never ends. We keep learning somethings at every stage of our lives. Some times we learn things because we want to and some times we learn things because we are forced to. But how well we pick up the new skill depends on our motivation behind wanting to learn that skill. If the skill is hard to master or we have no interest in it, we feel like giving up or we resort last minute cramming just to pass.
All these things I speak out of my own experience in trying to learn new things. I like learning new things but many times after the initial period of interest when the daily routine leaves me tired and with no time, I don’t feel learning the new skill and I give up. And this habit of mine is what made think about how we learn and how is it that I can learn better. And that was when I came across this MOOC on Coursera about learning how to learn. And yes I took it up! I found a lot of helpful insights about learning and how our brains function and so when it came to the final project, I decided to share some of these things on my blog so that many of you might benefited from it.
The most common mistaking that we all do when it comes to doing things is procrastination. We like putting things off for later. And many times that later becomes a time when it too late to make up for the time lost. “Studying for that test that is coming up next week can wait till the next week right? There is a lot of time left! So let us enjoy now.” That is what we often say to ourselves. And whenever we sit down to study, we often find something more enjoyable to do. Facebook for 10 minutes or one episode of your favourite TV show, the list is endless. And we don’t realize when those 10-20 minutes turn into hours!
But then why do we procrastinate? We procrastinate because the thing that we are supposed to do seems to be uninteresting and this gives a signal to our brain which thinks of that thing to do as a pain. And that is why we avoid doing it and keep postponing things. This mainly happens because we concentrate on the end product of the activity rather than the process of doing the activity. The product is the one that causes the pain. But instead if we focus our attention on how things are done and begin enjoying the process, we can start getting things done.
One technique of keeping procrastination at bay is doing the “Pomodoro”. This technique involves 25 minutes of focused attention on the work that you are doing followed by a few minutes of rest. The best way to make this work is keep aside all the possible distractions and giving our full attention to the task at hand. I have started using the technique and I have found it helpful. I started with 15 minutes and now I manage to focus for 30 minutes. Another way of getting do things is by listing them out in the form of a to-do list. Make the list for the next day just before you sleep at night. Putting down things in a list frees up your brain to concentrate on other things. But make sure the list does not contain to many things. Make sure you have a quitting time or a “Stop” time as I would like to call it.
And since we procrastinate, we often end up studying just before the exam. I bet most of us do that. While we may be able to pass our examinations by this last minute cramming, it is of no use in the long run. When we first study new material it is stored in our working memory which is like a blackboard that keeps on erasing itself. But if we have to remember things in the long run, we must transfer this information to our long term memory. This shifting to the long term memory requires recall and repetition. But does that mean repeating the material that you just studied 20 times in one session help? Definitely not! This has to be done step by step- brick by brick this wall has to be built while making sure that it is cemented properly. The repetitions must be spaced and gradually the interval between repetitions must be increased. If you study a new chapter today, make sure you recall the key concepts studied the next day. Then you could do the same after 3 days and then after a week and then a month.This ensures that the content that is studied remains in the long term memory. Using mnemonics and metaphors helps remember things better. And just reading some material and feeling that you know it does not mean that you actually know it. Hence it is better to test ourselves on the material that we have studied.
Another habit that most of us have is staying awake the night before the exams. This mainly happens because we procrastinate or may be we may think of sleep as a waste of time. But then it isn’t. Sleep is one of the most important factors when it comes to learning new things and remembering things. During the day, the many activities that we do such as reading, listening to music, writing lead to the release of toxins in the brain. When we sleep, the brain clears all these toxins to ensure the proper functioning. In sleep our brain works over the material that we have studied before sleeping and ensures that it is fixed in our long term memory. That is why it is a good idea to study something just before sleeping. And yeah it is better to go through the to-do list for the next day just before we sleep, because during sleep the brain tells itself about the list and ensures that our involuntary actions work on completing the tasks at hand. Hence, 7-8 hours of sleep is a must!
These were three concepts that I learned during this course. There are many other great techniques to learn better and many interesting facts about how our brains work. And it is never too late to begin to learn something. There is no better time that now to learn something new though it is no where related to what you are studying or working on right now.
Here are a few articles that I read as a part of the course. Hope you find them to be useful.
1. John Hamilton. (October 17, 2013). “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep.” NPR All Things Considered.
2. Mind Tools, “The Pomodoro Technique®
Staying Focused Throughout the Day,”
3. Robert Wright, (April 21, 2012). “How to Break the Procrastination Habit” The Atlantic.
4. Pam Belluck, (January 20, 2011). “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.” The New York Times.
So put off putting things off. Plan your study schedule in such a way that you have time for repetitions. Take self tests on what you have studied. Have fun learning what you are learning. And most importantly- Sleep well! Let me know what works for you! All the best 🙂
All the points mentioned in this article are from the Coursera’s course on Learning how to learn- Powerful mental tools to help you master difficult subjects.