Master the Art of Learning - The Most Powerful Tool You Can Ever Grasp


Master the Art of Learning - The Most Powerful Tool You Can Ever Grasp

We spend years and years attending schools and universities, but we never learn some of the most essential skills because they are not included in the curriculum. One of them is learning how to learn. 

Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering, reveals and shares some invaluable learning techniques used by experts in different fields, which can help build mastery over anything you put your hand to.

Focused vs. Defused Mode

Our whole lives, we've been taught that the only 'real' learning is pulling an all-nighter and focusing attention only on what we're currently reading or listening to. 

In other words, teachers and parents would always recommend studying for as long as possible, referring to the so-called focused way of thinking and learning. However, research has shown that during this process, you mainly use the frontal lobe of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which is in charge of problem-solving. However, the brain doesn't operate only in this mode and can't maintain it for extended periods of time. Sooner or later, the concentration decreases, as well as the ability to learn in a focused mode. The so-called diffused mode then takes the wheel, and it refers to resting states.

In a nutshell, focused thinking or mode involves solving a particular task. For instance, while reading this post, you need concentration to figure out what these words mean. Defused thinking happens when you’re having a walk or simply relaxing and doing nothing. This is the period when you’re not focused on anything and let your thoughts defuse.

Dr. Barbara Oakley, the author of the book Learning how to Learn, suggests that when you're learning, you're moving between these two modes - a period of intense focus is followed by a period of break. 

You've probably experienced being stuck on a problem and come to an answer during showering. This is a perfect example of these two modes working together. As you focus on something trying to learn new concepts or solve a problem and get stuck, you should turn your attention away from it and allow the defused modes to do their work in the background.

What is Chunking?

In cognitive psychology, 'chunking' refers to breaking down what you want to learn into smaller pieces or concepts. When explaining this method, Oakley uses the image of a 'chain.'

Learning is all about developing strong chains. For example, when you first learn how to drive a car, you need to consciously think about every step or link in the chain, from how to turn the steering wheel to how to use the rear-view mirrors. But, when that process is practiced, it becomes easy and automatic. Likewise, when certain equations are solved in mathematics, students can apply them to more complex problems.

Dr. Oakley suggests a 4-step learning process. When learning a new concept, the first step is survey and priming. It involves scanning the material and getting the bigger picture or the general idea. Secondly, you need to observe an example, followed by doing it yourself. And finally, you need to repeat doing it in different contexts.

Obstacles in Learning and How to Overcome Them?

An obstacle in learning is anything that keeps you from fully engaging in learning new concepts. You might lose interest and motivation because you're procrastinating or because you're simply convinced that you have a poor memory or think slowly. Dr. Oakley is breaking down these stereotypes and teaches us that even what we consider to be our worst traits are actually our hidden advantages.

Procrastination: Oakley says procrastination is the No.1 challenge most students face. If you get stuck or there's something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you will want to postpone it and do something more enjoyable instead. But, this is a bad habit that only gives you short-term satisfaction, and can be damaging in the long run. In the end, you'll end up where you were, trying to solve the same problem, and you'll be even more upset.

To break this habit and overcome it, Oakley suggests using the Pomodoro technique. It's quite simple. All you need is a timer. Set it for 25 minutes and make sure that everything else is turned off, like message notifications. You try to work with focused attention for 25 minutes. When the time's up, stop and do something fun and relaxing for 5 to 10 minutes. This way, you're practicing your ability to have focused attention as well as the ability to relax. 

Slow thinking: Students constantly compare themselves to others and conclude that they are not as fast or smart. However, Barbara Oakley claims that being a slow learner is not a disadvantage. She uses a race car driver vs. a hiker analogy to describe these two styles of learning. Both will reach the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car driver will get there much faster, but his experience will be cloudy. The hiker will need time, but he'll smell the pine air, hear birds singing, sea rabbit tracks, he can reach out and touch the leaves. It is a very different experience and, in a way, much richer and deeper. You don't have to be a super-fast learner. In fact, you'll get solid mastering and a profound understanding of what you're studying if you go slow.

Poor memory: Another trait students consider to be disadvantageous is poor memory. Dr. Oakley turns this idea on its head. You might have a poor working memory and can't seem to hold things in mind very well, but, surprisingly, this means that you are more creative. Since you can't hold certain ideas in your mind so tightly, there's room for other ideas and thoughts to creep in. Besides, your poor working memory turns out to be an effective tool in figuring out simpler ways to complete certain tasks. Similarly to the hiker, it might take you a while, but once you figure something out, you'll be able to see brilliant and simplified solutions and shortcuts.

Illusions of competence: The one thing you need to be aware of is the illusion of competence in learning. It refers to our belief or idea that we know more than we actually do. For example, you might think that highlighting text helps you store that information in your brain. However, this is misleading. Oakley suggests using notes that synthesize these concepts instead or reproducing the content in your own words to make sure you understood it.

How to Learn More Effectively?

Researchers have found some powerful insights into how we can learn most effectively. Dr. Oakley shares some ideas and techniques that can enhance the learning ability:

Recall: Taking a couple of minutes to recall or summarize the material you’re trying to learn can be of immense help. By attempting to reproduce what you can recall, you develop neural hooks for knowledge. Remembering materials outside the usual study environment can help you better grasp new concepts.

Testing: To avoid illusions of competence in learning, you should test yourself as you're learning new materials. The recall is one example of these mini-tests. You could also use flashcards, mix them up, and study them in different places. 

Over-learning: You shouldn’t spend too much time going over and over again and endlessly repeating the same material. Instead, spread it out over multiple sessions and use different modes of learning.

Interleaving: This technique can help you master and better understand new concepts. Practicing and jumping between different problems and trying to solve them using different techniques will help you solidify and better understand when and how to apply specific concepts.

Metaphors and analogies: When you're trying to learn something new, the best way to understand it is to connect it to something you already know. Well-known metaphors and analogies allow the student to rely on a concept they have already mastered and apply it to a new situation.

Teamwork or study groups: Teamwork helps students hold each other accountable and maintain continued progress. You're not learning alone, which can be quite motivating. Besides, the discussions you have with other people help you remember easier what you've learned.

However, understanding alone is not enough to gain mastery over what you’re learning. Although truly important, only understanding combined with regular repetition and practice in various contexts and circumstances can help you truly grasp new concepts.

Learning how to learn is the most powerful tool you can ever grasp. Don't just follow your passions; broaden your passions, and your life will be enriched beyond measure.

- Barbara Oakley  


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