How to learn effectively

Have you knocked your head on the wall hoping that could cram something into your head? We are asked to learn about everything under the sun but no one taught us how to learn something. This blog is about how to learn something effectively.

These are the compilation of the notes and some of the resources provided by a course in Coursera called “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects”. We will go through the major lessons that I learned from the course.

Table of Content

Understanding how the brain functions

Let’s start from square one, shall we?

It’s important to make sense of how the brain functions before we jump into how to learn something effectively.

We are starting with different modes of thinking we have in our brains.

If you look upon this topic, you can find different answers to this.

In this blog, we are just settling with two modes of thinking.

They are:

  • Focused mode of thinking (also known as convergent or critical or analytical or linear thinking).
  • Diffused mode of thinking (also known as divergent or creative thinking)

You might wonder what these modes of thinking are?

So let’s answer that first.

We are all familiar with the first one, the focused mode of thinking.

1. Focused mode of thinking

In this mode of thinking, you will laser focus all of your precious attention on whatever you are trying to learn. This is the mode of thinking which we normally use in educational institutions while tackling intellectually challenging topics.

The next one is the diffused mode of thinking.

2. Diffused mode of thinking

Instead of laser focusing all your attention, diffused mode of thinking will diffuse all of your attention. This is a relaxed mode of thinking. You will let your mind wander off freely. This is the thinking you do when you are taking a walk or having a shower. Diffused mode of thinking helps in forming out of the box or creative solutions to problems.

Why I brought this up is because we only know about using the focused mode of thinking and there is another mode of thinking which we are all familiar with but never really fully used it.

I will give you an analogy hoping to make things a bit more clear.

A focused mode of thinking is like finding your way out of a jungle by use of a compass and maps. This requires your analytical skills and using this we all can arrive at a similar way out.

In the diffused mode of thinking you are finding your way out of a jungle just by wandering freely. This way you will arrive at a novel way out every time you do it and will be different for each of us. This is more creative and intuition-oriented thinking.

The bottom line is that any good learning technique should capitalize on both these modes of thinking if it should be truly effective.

At least now you know why we are told to take minor breaks in between. Minor breaks are not just a leisure activity but also a learning activity.

Effective techniques used for learning

Now that we have got an idea about the different modes of thinking, let’s look at the various techniques that you can use to effectively learn something new.

1. Active recall

This is the simplest technique that you can use to improve your learning.

This simply means that you trying to recollect all the information that you have previously learned. This is a far better technique to follow than simply re-reading all the materials.

After finished learning something, after some time, try to recall what you have learned. This will strengthen your neural connections, which helps you remember them better.

2. Flashcards

This is a technique that uses an active recall and spaced repetition to your advantage.

Flashcards used to be physical cards but nowadays digital flashcards are available. These are cards with a cue or small information on the front. On seeing this, you need to recollect whatever you can about it. If you can’t recollect anything, you will flip to see that backside which will have all the important information about it you need to remember.

You will need to go periodically through these flashcards to reinforce the information.

3. Word Mnemonics

I can simply put this as making a memorable sentence. This is useful if you want to remember a list of items. For example, if you want to remember colors in the rainbow, make it into a sentence like “Richard of York gave battle in vain”.

4. Memory palace technique

A combination of visualization and image mnemonics.

This is a technique where you will visualize a very familiar place, like your home, and place pieces of information in a pictorial form in different parts of your home so that you can come and recollect this information later in that order.

5. Interleaving

This is a technique that I regret not using the most.

There are two ways to learn something:

  • Blocked practice
  • Interleaving.

Blocked practice is learning a single item or subject at a time. You will finish it and then proceed with the next one.

Interleaving is a technique where rather than finishing the whole topic or subject, you study a portion of it then move on to the next one then come back to finish the first one.

So in interleaving rather than studying a subject fully, you will learn different portions from different subjects. You will mix and learn different topics.

Interleaving is tougher than blocked practice as you need to retrieve everything every time you continue a topic.

But interleaving provides greater information differentiation and discrimination. So use interleaving unlike me who went for the easier one.

6. Pomodoro

Pomodoro is an effective learning session that makes the best use of the focused mode of thinking and diffused mode of thinking.

Pomodoro is a time-management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in 1980. Pomodoro in Italian means tomato, because this technique uses a kitchen timer which used to be a tomato-shaped one. In this technique, you will break down your work into 25 minutes of a highly focused session followed by a 5-minute break.

See Pomodoro Technique® for more details.

7. Spaced repetition

If you want to understand what spaced repetition means, then you have to understand what is a forgetting curve.

Forgetting curve is simply a curve representing the amount of information that you can retain with time. For example, if you learn something today you will only be able to retain 38% tomorrow and 28% the day after tomorrow.

Don’t let those numbers frighten you, there is a way to overcome this hurdle.

You need to recall periodically.

Let’s look at the graph. Let me remind you that the data is just for understanding purposes and not scientifically accurate.

Memory retention graph

So if you learn something today (blue line), by tomorrow you will only remember 85% of it. So on day 2, you revise it again (yellow) now you can recall 100 percent of it.

On day 3, now you can remember nearly 90% of it (see the improvement already), then you revise again (grey line). Now you retain 100% of it.

So on day 4, you will retain 95% percent of it.

The more you review and space it properly, you can restart your forgetting curve but the biggest benefit is that you can retain the information longer than before.

In a nutshell, what you need to do is that whenever you learn something new, instead of cramming it multiple times a day, repeat it over several days.

What you need to watch out for while studying

Like there are excellent techniques that you need to follow for effective learning, there are certain conditions that you need to stay clear of if you want to make the most out of it.

1. Einstellung effect

Einstellung effect means that when dealing with a problem, you will opt to choose an already known solution from any similar problem than trying to find the most optimal answer to the current problem.

One real-life example I could come up with is whenever your computer fails or doesn’t seem to work properly. Your solution would be to restart your computer. That might work, but there would be a better solution than that which we didn’t explore.

Einstellung effect traps us into repeating known solutions till it fails without us trying to find the most optimal solution for each problem

2. Illusions of competence

When you have the material right in front of your eyes, you could easily recall it after a glance and feel you have it all under your belt and don’t need to spend more time on this. We call this illusion of competence.

You might think that you have learned something without actually testing it out or spending enough to learn it properly.

This is a manifestation of the Dunning Kruger effect which states that people who know nothing about something believe that they know everything

3. Imposter syndrome

This is a persistent insecure feeling that makes us feel that we are inadequate despite having the evidence of competence, along with a fear of being exposed of their true incompetence and being framed as an imposter.

How to beat procrastination

These are some tips that the course offered on how to beat procrastination.

  • Keeping a daily journal
    • Keep a daily planner so you can easily track when you reach your goals and observe what does and doesn’t work.
    • Commit yourself to certain routines and tasks each day.
    • Write your planned tasks on the night before so your brain has time to dwell on your goals and help ensure success.
  • Arrange your work into a series of small challenges.
  • Reward yourself at the end of tasks
    • Take a few minutes to savor the feelings of happiness and triumph, which also gives your brain a chance to temporarily change modes.
    • Deliberately delay rewards until you’ve finished a task.
  • Watch for procrastination cues. Try putting yourself in new surroundings with few procrastination cues, such as the quiet section of a library.
  • Gain trust in your new system. You want to work hard during times of focused concentration and also to trust your system enough so that when it comes time to relax, you relax without feelings of guilt or worry.
  • Have backup plans for when you still procrastinate. No one’s perfect after all.
  • Start your day with the toughest task

10 Rules of Studying

These rules form a synthesis of some of the main ideas of the course–they are excerpted from the book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014.

10 Rules of Good Studying

  1. Use recall. After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. An ability to recall—to generate the ideas from inside yourself—is one of the key indicators of good learning.
  2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.
  3. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Pretend it’s a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind, so the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.
  4. Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete. Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your practice. Never practice too long at any one session using only one problem-solving technique—after a while, you are just mimicking what you did on the previous problem. Mix it up and work on different types of problems. This teaches you both how and when to use a technique. (Books generally are not set up this way, so you’ll need to do this on your own.) After every assignment and test, go over your errors, make sure you understand why you made them, and then rework your solutions. To study most effectively, handwrite (don’t type) a problem on one side of a flash card and the solution on the other. (Handwriting builds stronger neural structures in memory than typing.) You might also photograph the card if you want to load it into a study app on your smartphone. Quiz yourself randomly on different types of problems. Another way to do this is to randomly flip through your book, pick out a problem, and see whether you can solve it cold.
  6. Take breaks. It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts in math or science the first time you encounter them. This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying all at once. When you get frustrated with a math or science problem, take a break so that another part of your mind can take over and work in the background.
  7. Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, think to yourself, How can I explain this so that a ten-year-old could understand it? Using an analogy really helps, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water. Don’t just think your explanation—say it out loud or put it in writing. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are learning.
  8. Focus. Turn off all interrupting beeps and alarms on your phone and computer, and then turn on a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus intently for those twenty-five minutes and try to work as diligently as you can. After the timer goes off, give yourself a small, fun reward. A few of these sessions in a day can really move your studies forward. Try to set up times and places where studying—not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you naturally do.
  9. Eat your frogs first. Do the hardest thing earliest in the day, when you are fresh.
  10. Make a mental contrast. Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies will take you. Post a picture or words in your workspace to remind you of your dream. Look at that when you find your motivation lagging. This work will pay off both for you and those you love!

10 Rules of Bad Studying

Excerpted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014

Avoid these techniques—they can waste your time even while they fool you into thinking you’re learning!

  1. Passive rereading—sitting passively and running your eyes back over a page. Unless you can prove that the material is moving into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, rereading is a waste of time.
  2. Letting highlights overwhelm you. Highlighting your text can fool your mind into thinking you are putting something in your brain, when all you’re really doing is moving your hand. A little highlighting here and there is okay—sometimes it can be helpful in flagging important points. But if you are using highlighting as a memory tool, make sure that what you mark is also going into your brain.
  3. Merely glancing at a problem’s solution and thinking you know how to do it. This is one of the worst errors students make while studying. You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step, without looking at the solution.
  4. Waiting until the last minute to study. Would you cram at the last minute if you were practicing for a track meet? Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  5. Repeatedly solving problems of the same type that you already know how to solve. If you just sit around solving similar problems during your practice, you’re not actually preparing for a test—it’s like preparing for a big basketball game by just practicing your dribbling.
  6. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions. Checking your problem solving with friends, and quizzing one another on what you know, can make learning more enjoyable, expose flaws in your thinking, and deepen your learning. But if your joint study sessions turn to fun before the work is done, you’re wasting your time and should find another study group.
  7. Neglecting to read the textbook before you start working problems. Would you dive into a pool before you knew how to swim? The textbook is your swimming instructor—it guides you toward the answers. You will flounder and waste your time if you don’t bother to read it. Before you begin to read, however, take a quick glance over the chapter or section to get a sense of what it’s about.
  8. Not checking with your instructors or classmates to clear up points of confusion. Professors are used to lost students coming in for guidance—it’s our job to help you. The students we worry about are the ones who don’t come in. Don’t be one of those students.
  9. Thinking you can learn deeply when you are being constantly distracted. Every tiny pull toward an instant message or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to learning. Every tug of interrupted attention pulls out tiny neural roots before they can grow.
  10. Not getting enough sleep. Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep, and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in mind before you go to sleep. Prolonged fatigue allows toxins to build up in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and well. If you don’t get a good sleep before a test, NOTHING ELSE YOU HAVE DONE WILL MATTER.

Wrap up

Through this blog post, we have understood the various modes of thinking in our brain, some effective learning techniques such as Pomodoro, flashcards, active recall, spaced repetition, etc. We also saw what to stay away from while learning. There were also 10 rules of good and bad studying. Hope you find at least some of these techniques useful.

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *