Learning how to learn


One of the online courses I took recently was about learning how to learn, hosted by Dr. Barbara Oakley. Theoretically, if a person knows how they learn best, they will be able to maximize their learning. I was right to finish this course first before the tougher ones! My only regret is that I hadn’t come across it before high school, I would’ve done a lot better with my studies way into college. But I’m glad that I’ll be able to apply what I learned into my preparations for my SOA exams in the future.

Here are my main takeaways:
  • There are 2 modes of thinking. The focused mode is responsible for concentrated (as the name suggests) and sequential approach to thinking, while the diffuse mode is for holistic and creative thinking. When a person is focusing on something, the focused mode is activated. And during relaxation when one’s thoughts drift and the mind wander, the diffuse mode is at play. From my understanding of the Myers-Briggs type theory, people are predisposed to have one of these modes as their default approach to thinking and problem solving (Judging = focused, Perceiving = diffuse). To learn something effectively, the mind must switch back and forth between the two modes of thinking.
  • The working memory is limited, and it can only hold 3-4 items at a time. Chunking is tying up multiple ideas/information using a common use or meaning into a compact “chunk” that can be recalled more easily. A chunk is formed little by little, and can get bigger with practice (as the neural connections get stronger). To form a chunk, one must focus intensely on the information, understand the basic idea and gain context, then repeatedly practice using it. One can also compare chunks across different topics to find a common ground and use it to build analogies and metaphors.
  • To master a material, one must make it persist in memory. Testing and retrieval practice produces deeper learning. Re-reading from a material should be utilized during practice, not during the information absorption stage itself, as it might lead to an illusion of competence (thinking that one has a solid grasp of the material/solution just by looking at it).
  • Sleep and exercise is important. It is in sleep that the brain flushes out toxins, information are consolidated into the long term memory, and when ideas are rehearsed/played around with subconsciously to better prepare a person to respond to it in the conscious state. Exercise improves blood circulation of the body (and consequently, to the brain), promotes neurogenesis (birth of new neurons), and allows the diffuse mode to take over (which makes it a good brainstorming activity).
  • Einstellung (mindset in german) is the concept in which a perceived mastery over something becomes a roadblock to the formation of better ideas. One must avoid a confirmation bias and always be open to new ideas (under scrutiny, of course).
  • To learn better, it is recommended to practice interleaving (mixing up different ways of learning) to build flexibility and creativity. My mentor is a fan of this and makes it a point to apply it to the courses he teaches for the benefit of his students.
  • No matter how introverted you are (I’m talking to myself, haha), you’ll learn better with a study group. You’ll benefit from sharing academic resources with others, and more importantly, you have people to brainstorm with to overcome blindspots in your thinking. From experience, simply having a study buddy (hi Ron!) gave me the motivation to stick to a study plan and work on problem sets regularly.



2 responses to “Learning how to learn”

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