How to Learn Effectively:
Tips & Tricks

Inspired by Coursera ‘Learning How to Learn Course’ by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski (University of California, San Diego)

We learn something new every day dealing with a new task at work, taking courses, or developing new skills. Learning helps us do various tasks better.

However sometimes we learn ineffectively. At school some teachers made me memorize maths’ problem solving, trigonometry, or physics equations by heart. I was great at tests, but after 15 years I can hardly remember any of the equations or the context where they could be used.

In the ‘Learning How to Learn’ course Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski talk about our brain processes and the most useful ways to learn new things. The final assignment requires the students to demonstrate to both themselves and others how much they have learned. For this purpose I prepared this outline of basic tips for enhancing learning.

Watch Your Health

In order to be better learners we should sleep well. It’s essential as far as the brain cleans itself while sleeping and builds new synapses, connections between neurons.

Then we should exercise regularly. Physical activity helps to enlarge the number of neurons in our brain, thus it works better at acquiring and understanding new material. The more neurons and synapses in the brain, the better for us.

Dealing with Procrastination

Procrastination is a habit that is evoked as a response to a new task. The feelings we have in such situations are similar to those that we feel when experiencing pain. It prevents us from learning new things, making big projects, and living a more pleasing life.

As a habit procrastination has four parts. To overcome this state we should change any of its parts:

  1. The cue — the trigger that launches procrastination mode.
    How to change: Identify location, time, reactions or feelings that initiate procrastination and try to avoid them.
    e.g. When I need to focus on a task I turn on my iPhone’s airplane mode and work in a quiet place. Thus I can think over the solution and accomplish it right away.
  2. The routine — a response to the cue. It is when you watch cat videos or check your classmates’ new pics instead of learning.
    How to change: Prepare a plan. It helps to divide a seemingly-enormous task into smaller, doable mini-tasks.
    e.g. When I have to read a 200-page white paper, I break it into parts: “Read 10 pages of the first paragraph” looks less frightening than “Find five hours to study the document”.
  3. The reward — the immediate little feeling of relief and pleasure. In procrastination the reward is the pleasant feeling from watching funny pet videos instead of racking your brain.
    How to change: Discover something that motivates you or promise yourself little rewards for accomplishing the different steps of a task. Buy something or do something that makes you happy.
    e.g. I look for interesting parts in the problem-solving process, like “Now I know this” or “Well, I can do that.” If the problem is momentarily untenable, I reward myself with a walk, some chocolate, or a short nap.
  4. The belief — faith that supports your reaction. It’s like telling yourself all the time “it is too difficult for me, I will never succeed.”
    How to change: Support your new belief and substitute an old one with it.
    e.g. In some situations the pleasant feeling of completing the tasks and working on more interesting things supports the formation of new habits.

The other way to combat procrastination is to focus on process not product.

I should write that very-very-huge article with all that interactive-.html-something-that-I-must-figure-out. I just draft the plan for this page text for 30 mins and see what happens next.

Free Your Working Memory

Describing it in simplistic terms, we have working memory and long-term memory, a mental blackboard and a warehouse storage, respectively. Working memory cannot process more than four pieces of information at once. In order to use it effectively, consider the following recommendations:

  1. Focus on a single problem at a time, and avoid distractions.
  2. If unrelated thoughts come to mind, write them down and get back to them later.

Interleave Learning Time and Periods of Rest

Put it simply, there are two modes of thinking. Focused mode involves a direct approach to problem-solving using rational, sequential, and analytical skills. Diffused mode is what happens when you relax your attention and let you mind wander.

When you learn something new your brain should go back and forth between these modes. So learning is like bodybuilding — it takes time and impossible to accomplish over night. That’s why it is a good idea to alternate between leisure- and working-time hours.

  1. Use spaced repetition: space your learning and practice out over time. This approach helps your brain to build and strengthen new connections.
  2. Practice Pomodoro Technique: after 30 minutes of intense, focused work-interval have a short rest for 10 minutes. Repeat until you accomplish a task.
  3. Set goal finish time. It will benefit your work-life balance, so you’ll have dedicated, non-learning time, giving your brain the chance to relax and process new material.

Practice Chunking

CChunks are mental leaps that unite unknown information together via meaning. It is like our brain slices new information into edible pieces.

To build a chunk we need:

  1. Focus undivided attention on information we want to chunk.
  2. Understand the basic idea we are trying to chunk.
  3. Gain context, so we understand how and when we can use the chunk.

Chunks form bigger chunks that build chunk libraries. The bigger our chunk library, the easily and creatively we are learning new things and solving problems.

Worked-out examples help to form chunks. But we shouldn’t just look at examples, it creates the illusions of competence. It is obligatory to practice ourselves.

Learn by Doing

The most essential skills in our lives we have mastered by practice: how to walk, to write, to speak, and to think. Practicing is the way to learn how to do just about anything important. So we should consider the following ideas:

  1. Test yourself every time you learn something new.
  2. Make mistakes because they are very valuable — bit by bit mistakes can correct your thinking.
  3. Focus on more difficult material while learning and training. This approach is called deliberate practice.
  4. Quiz yourself after you’ve read the material to strengthen your knowledge.
  5. Interleave your practice with different types of tasks, case studies, approaches, concepts, or procedures.

Denis Frolov on July, 16, 2017. Updated in October, 2017.