Learning How to Learn

I recently took a course called Learning How to Learn taught by  Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowsky. It provided lots of helpful strategies to assist me in my quest to learn math. Here’s how I plan on applying what I learned in the course.

I will use the Pomodoro technique where I will sit down for 25 minutes, in focused mode, and work on math-related concepts, exercises, and problems. This means I will need to focus my undivided attention on math and remove any distractions. I will need to put my phone in a different room so I am not tempted to go on it.

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I will do this intentionally every day and focus on the process rather than product, so that I don’t procrastinate by thinking too much about the product. If I do get negative feelings from a cue, I will use my willpower to overcome that feeling. Once I begin the process, those feelings will start to subside. I frequently have to apply willpower when I force myself to get out of bed in the morning and force myself to go to the gym. The hardest part always seems to be getting up and showing up.

After my 25 minutes is up I will do something to give my mind a break, and give myself a reward, like play with my dog or go for a run (since exercise is very good for the brain). This will allow diffuse mode to kick in which will help me connect the two hemispheres of my brain so I can start to form chunks of knowledge.

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During my focused mode, I will use deliberate practice and work on problems or concepts that are difficult, not just mindless repetition. If, after struggling at it for a while, a problem or concept becomes too difficult, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break so I can let my diffuse mode kick in. Often focusing the mind on something else is exactly what the mind needs to be able to solve a problem. Continuing to try and rack your brain with focused attention usually doesn’t lead to a solved problem, especially if you keep coming up with the same wrong answers. In fact, this kind of thinking can lead to Einstellung, which prevents you from being able to see a different solution to the problem as you continue to retrace your same steps, without any new insight.

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It’s kind of like when you lose something, like your car keys, and continue looking in all the same spots over and over again, even though you know it’s not in those spots because you already checked.

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Speaking of car keys, I will try to use analogies, metaphors, stories, and visual mnemonic devices such as the memory palace technique where I will picture giant, colorful numbers arranging themselves in my living room, with waves crashing (the weirder the more likely you will remember) so that the image sticks in my spatial/visual memory and will move from working memory to long-term memory.

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Another technique I plan on using is interleaving. This is where I will mix up the kinds of problems I do and I concepts I study, rather than trying to overlearn a concept and just focus on one thing at a time until I “master” it. I will space out the topics with repetition and return back to them later after some time has passed, maybe a day or two at first, then a week, then a few weeks, then a month, and so on. This will help with memory retention. I will also test myself frequently to make sure I give myself the opportunity to practice what I learn to see if I really do understand it enough to solve on my own. Failure is oftentimes the best teacher.

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I will likely work on this during the evenings before bed so that I will hopefully dream about what I am learning, for even deeper learning to occur. Before bed, I will write out my To-Do list for the next day so that it doesn’t take up space in my working memory. Then I will be sure to get plenty of sleep so that I don’t have nasty toxins floating around in my brain, preventing me from learning.

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I will continue to follow this routine of setting aside 25 minutes of focused learning every day. Sooner or later it will become a habit, even a zombie-mode habit, where I don’t have to even think about it because it’s already part of my routine. And then, after many hours of effort, I will finally reach my goal of getting more proficient at math.






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