A Simple Trick To Learn Anything Faster

Week 2 of Learning How To Learn is all about Chunking. This is a method of learning, where you break down the huge amounts of information you want to learn, into smaller more manageable pieces, called Chunks. Breaking down your learning into chunks makes learning on the larger scale, much easier. It’s like eating a meal, you don’t swallow the whole thing in one, you take many small bites.

What Is a Chunk?

A single piece of a concept or skill formed from many scattered pieces of information that share a similar use or meaning. If you can perform a skill automatically or you just “get” a concept, it has been chunked.

Chunks are like puzzle pieces. They can be joined together to create a bigger picture. For example when playing a song on the guitar, one Chunk will be strumming the strings in a certain pattern, another Chunk is forming the hand shapes to play the chords, another Chunk is the rhythm and together you can use these Chunks to play a complete song.

Once you know how to play the whole song, that song becomes a Chunk, rather than the individual parts of playing the song. In other words, Chunks can become more complex and larger. This allows you to perform more complicated tasks, solve more complex problems or come up with deeper ideas.

When you are stressed or scared, it can become harder for your brain to access Chunks, this is why some people perform much worse under stress, such as a public performance or an exam. They know the material when they are relaxed, but once their brain starts producing adrenaline, they can no longer retrieve the knowledge they need.

How to Form a Chunk

All disciplines are different, but Chunks are universal in learning. There are 4 steps to forming any Chunk:

Focus on the thing you want to Chunk ONLY

No multitasking allowed. If you want to learn how a new mathematical trick, you focus on just that one trick.

Aim to understand

It becomes much easier to remember something you understand, than something you have just memorised. Make sure you figure it out for yourself to really understand.

Review the Chunk soon

You need to refresh your memory to strengthen the connections in your brain. Remember spaced repetition.

Gain Context

Knowing how to do a skill or understanding a concept is only half of the battle. Knowing when to use a skill is equally important. There is no point in having a particular skill if you never know when to use it and there’s no point knowing when to use a skill you don’t have.

The Value of a Library of Chunks

The more chunks you collect, the more skills and ideas you can use as you learn to piece together different Chunks in different combinations.

There are two types of thinking when it comes to problem-solving: Sequential thinking and Holistic thinking. Neither is better than the other, they just each have separate uses.

Sequential Thinking

This way of thinking, allows you follow a train of thoughts one after the other, like a sequence. Sequential thinking uses the focused mode and is good for following a logical process to it’s conclusion, such as in a maths problem, understanding a series of events or cause and effect.

Holistic Thinking

Holistic Thinking allows you to make intuitive links between multiple disciplines, ideas and concepts. In the diffuse mode, you can join up seemingly unrelated Chunks to come up with more creative solutions to problems. This is great for brainstorming, solving complex problems, where logic isn’t enough and creating something new.

Illusions of Competence

An illusion of competence is when you feel like you understand something, but you actually don’t. You may go to a class and think “that really made sense” then you go to explain it to someone else and you can’t quite explain it right, the words just don’t fit together as well as they did when the teacher said it. Sound familiar?

How Illusions of Competence Form

Illusions of competence form when you don’t use the best methods to learn. Re-reading feels good, because you feel like you are putting in the effort and you are understanding it better, but this is actually an Illusion of Competence. You aren’t trying strengthening the neural pathways in your brain, you are tricking yourself into thinking you are learning better.

Highlighting is even worse. Just don’t do it.

Re-reading can be good, if a significant amount of time has passed since your first reading, so your memories of the material have faded.

What are the Best Ways to Avoid Illusions of Competence?

Trying to recall the material is best.

Try quizzing yourself or having someone else quiz you. This causes your brain to actively retrace the neural pathways of that Chunk and therefore strengthens your abilities to remember and understand said Chunk.

Test yourself.

You need to answer practice questions, solve problems or teach the Chunk to another person, to see if you really understand what you’re trying to learn. If you can’t solve the problem, or explain the concept easily, you don’t understand the material well enough. Simple.

Learning How To Learn: Week 1

I took the course Learning How To Learn on Coursera and would like to share with you what I learn from it, in the next series of posts.

Learning How To Learn is a FREE course, offered by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terence Sejnowski. The former, a professor of engineering, whose research is on neuroscience and social behaviour, the latter researches neural networks and computational neuroscience. They’re combined expertise allows them to have some of the best insights on learning effectively and they offer the course free of charge. The course has had over 2 million students and has a user rating of 4.8/5. I fully recommend everyone does this course, as learning better will make every aspect of your life more successful. You can find the course here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/welcome

The course is broken down into 4 weeks, where each week is like a chapter of what will be learnt that week. There is nothing stopping you going faster than one chapter a week though, they don’t lock the chapters. If you want to take the course slower than one a week that is an option too, but there are optional assignments you can complete and these have a deadline if you would like them marked.

Week 1 is an introduction to learning and what this course is going to teach in more detail in the weeks to come.

Focused Mode Vs Diffuse Mode

There are two distinct modes of thinking we use when learning. Focused mode and Diffuse mode.

Focused Mode is when we are concentrating hard on what we are doing, in this mode we can only think about 4 things at once, as we are using our “short-term memory” or “working memory”. It is commonly believed we can hold 6 or 7 things in our mind, but studies has been found that 4 is more accurate. Focused mode is best for when you need to learn or think about something difficult.

Diffuse Mode is how our brains act when we let our minds wander. In Diffuse Mode we concentrate less, so our brain can move between different thoughts more easily. This is best for making creative connections allowing us to form ideas we wouldn’t normally come up with.

For example I would use diffuse mode and focused mode to write this blog post. The diffuse mode is best for the first draft, I’m not second guessing what I write, the ideas just flow in a stream-of-consciousness style. Then once I have all the rough ideas down, I will switch to focused mode to edit the post. I am looking for mistakes, checking the grammar, making sure I used the best word for a situation and removing unnecessary sentences.

Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of avoiding doing something important, for a more pleasurable, less difficult activity. It turns out that this is not just a problem for lazy people, but many successful people actually suffer from it all the time. The good news is, it can be managed.

Why We Procrastinate

Seeing a task you don’t want to do actually activates a small pain response in your brain, even when you know that completing that task will ultimately be good for you. Your brain then wants to switch to doing something less painful, such as watching TV, chatting to friends or mindlessly browsing the web.

When To Use Willpower Is Crucial

Master procrastinators such as myself tend to believe that people who get stuff done are just more motivated, they have some innate willpower we mere mortals could never achieve. As a student, even when I was at my most motivated to do some work, I would look at my work and quickly see my motivation fade, as I felt the allure of watching some top quality Parks and Recreation ( a fantastic show, I highly recommend watching).

Research has found that people who get stuff done, don’t just have a vast resource of willpower that has been unfairly distributed to them. They have just figured out when to use their willpower. Everyone has a finite amount of willpower, so using it at the right times, allows you to get work done.

The initial painful feeling you get when looking at an unpleasant task I mentioned earlier, actually passes very quickly if you manage to start the task. So the very beginning of any task, called the “cue”, is the time you need to exercise willpower. Once you start a task, you forget how much you did’t want to do it, surprisingly quickly.

Practice

Learning any new skill takes practice, we have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”, but is there any truth to this? The brain is made up of many pathways, each time you perform a certain activity, the same pathway is activated and activating the same pathways over and over again is practice. Think of it like a path through a field, you know the ones that weren’t put there, but people kept walking on the same route over and over, so the path becomes more visible. Eventually there is an actual bit of flattened grass or mud that you can follow easily. This is how practice works. The first time, the path is barely there and will fade if no one else uses it again, but enough repetitive use and the path becomes strongly defined. So rather than practice making perfect, practice makes permanent.

Why Maths Is So Hard

Many people consider maths their worst subject at school or the one they found hardest. Is this because they are stupid? No. Maths is often difficult because we learn best by comparing new knowledge to old knowledge. Maths, is full of abstract concepts, meaning we have nothing to compare it to. The more abstract something is, the harder it is to compare to something else or provide an analogy to explain it. It’s perfectly easy to explain 2 sheep to someone, you just show them two sheep. How do you explain just the number 2? This seems obvious now, as you learnt it so young, but there was a time when people had no concept of numbers just being numbers, it was too abstract.

People do eventually learn maths though, it’s not some big hoax intended to make the uninitiated feel stupid. The best way to learn something new, is to focus on the subject for a set period of time, then take a break and let yourself slip into the diffuse mode, so your brain can create connections between the new ideas you just learnt and your existing knowledge.

Memory

We have 2 types of memory. Short-term (or working) memory and long-term memory. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial in knowing how best to learn.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory can hold 3-4 chunks of information at any one time. Meaning we can think about 3-4 different ideas and use them to solve problems or create new ideas. Short-term memory is like a fuzzy blackboard, where the ideas you have can easily get smudged or rubbed away entirely, so you forget them or get them muddled up.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is where information can be stored for life. Once you have committed a memory to you long-term memory you can likely remember it forever. It’s like a warehouse filled with information, it’s much clearer than short-term memory, but all long-term memories, started out as short-term memories.

Moving Short-Term Memories to Long-Term

There are two factors affecting how memories move from short-term to long-term:

  • The strength of the emotion felt learning the memory
  • Repetition

The first point is why certain things that terrified you once, seem to stay with you forever or why people always say the knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9/11. The emotions were so strong, that the memory was burnt into their memories forever.

The second point is how we can learn things that we don’t feel strong emotions for. By practising multiple times, we can create pathways in our brain strong enough to become permanent long-term memories.

Spaced-Repetition

Repeating the same thing over and over isn’t enough to learn it. The best way to commit something to memory is to use “spaced-repetition”. This is where you increase the amount of time between each practice session. The effort you go to, to remember a skill and do it again is called recall and this is what makes the pathway get strengthened. So re-reading or highlighting texts in a passage tends to do very little for helping you remember or learn as you aren’t reactivating the pathways in your brain, quizzing yourself is much more effective.

To make the quizzing even more effective, it is best to use spaced-repetition. To do this, you might practice a skill on Monday, then one day later on Tuesday, then 2 days later on Thursday and so on, until you no longer struggle to remember how to do it, even weeks later.

Sleep

I personally never feel like I have had enough sleep. I would sleep 10-12 hours a day if that were a realistic option, but sadly my employer want to accommodate this habit. Sleep is actually very good for your brain. During the day, you need to relieve yourself as nature calls, you get rid of waste you produced from your food and drink. Your brain can only relieve itself when you are asleep, so if you don’t sleep your brain becomes clogged up with toxins that make you less able to think and learn more slowly.

During sleep your brain sorts out what it feels are the important memories and removes the less important ones. This is why it can be hard to remember what you had for dinner yesterday, your brain didn’t need the memory and got rid of it. Sadly, you can’t tell your brain to keep the things you studied that day and forget how you embarrassed yourself at the pub the other day. But, you if you focus on what you are learning and tell yourself you want to dream about it before bed, you are more likely to dream about what you learnt and therefore retain more of what you learnt.