Learning Strategies, I Wish I Knew in High School

As I progress through the process finding a new path it seems that there are a lot of things to learn, more then I had originally thought. I am actually a patient person but in this case, there is this constant desire to get things moving along. So, in an effort to increase overall effectiveness I have looked into some more effective ways to learn[1] and thought I would share them here in the hopes that it might help someone else achieve their goals that much quicker.

Diffuse and Focus Modes
The first thing I learned was that we have two modes of thinking focused and diffused thinking[2] . Up until this month I had thought that diffused thinking was not a real thing and that focus mode was the only way to learn. By not using diffuse mode we are missing out on so many other opportunities to learn. In focus mode our brain works well when it is repeating patterns or something it has done before, but when it is a new problem that needs to be solved in focused mode the brain does not easily find the answers. In this case you need to switch to diffuse mode thinking. Diffuse mode is when your brain goes into a relaxed state and is not focusing on the actual problem but can look at other things in your memory to try and find a solution by doing this your diffuse mode is making connections between what you are trying to learn and what you have learned in the past. The trick here is not to keep looking at the problem in focused mode but to step away and go do something else preferably some sort of physical activity, as physical activity, like a nice hike, has been shown to aid in the transition to diffuse mode. Once you are done exercising come back to your problem and you will likely have a new perspective or some insight into the problem that was not there before. A good analogy for comparing focus mode and diffuse mode are maps. Where focus mode is the street view in a neighborhood it’s great for getting you short distances but it won’t get you to the next town our county, to travel outside the neighborhood you need a map that is less focused like diffuse mode the wider area map allows you to make connections between the neighborhood maps allowing you to connect the neighborhood maps.

The next big idea I learned was chunking[3] . Chunking is where your Focus mode and Diffuse mode work together to create “chunks”. Chunks are pieces of information that are bound or connected through meaning or use. When you first learn a new concept through focus mode the ideas a vague and mixed up. But when you step away from what you are learning and comeback you will usually have a better understanding of the concept because your diffuse mode was strengthening those connections. Each time you study the concept the stronger those connections become. This is called spaced repetition and is very effective at helping to create larger and larger chunks that can be used by one of the four slots in our working memory. A chunk is liking getting dressed in the morning, we just think get dressed and do it, we don’t have to think of each single step, another example is driving the first time you got in a car and tried to reverse out of the driveway it was very likely difficult but after a few tries it became easier and eventually it was just something you do, it became a chunk. Building chunks saves space in working memory to allow your brain to do and learn other things. For example, while cooking once you know how to make a sauce you can be making the sauce and frying a steak, but if you have never made a sauce before it will take all your working memory and you will likely neglect the streak. If we build many chunks and use our diffuse mode to allow them to interconnect, we can learn to do complex tasks with much less energy. My favorite master of chunking is Marcelo Garcia a world champion jiu-jitsu competitor, what he does is break the simplest movement into the smallest possible chunks so small that they are almost not perceptible to the eye, he then combines these chunks and makes the movement look seamless, to the point where anyone else watching just observes the gross movement.

Procrastination and Pomodoro
The biggest impediment to learning for me anyway is getting down to the actual doing. Procrastination is the biggest killer of good intentions and grand dreams. However, with a few small change’s procrastination is manageable and can be overcome. By far my favorite is the Pomodoro technique[4] which is where you set a timer for 25 minutes and do focused work for 25 minutes followed by a break and a reward. The Pomodoro technique allows you to focus on the process not the outcome. When you focus on the outcome you can become overwhelmed it can even register as pain in our brains. Since we are programmed to avoid pain or what we do not like we procrastinate. With the Pomodoro technique we only need worry about the next 25 minutes. The reward is also very important because our brains are programmed to like rewards so even a simple reward like nice stretch or a quick look at social media does the trick, but only for five minutes and onto your next session. The Pomodoro is great, but you also need to look out for cues to procrastination or triggers. What sets you off on the path of procrastination, using will power consumes energy and we cannot use it all the time so identifying the cues that trigger procrastination are important so that you know when to use your will power in a quick and focused manner. Triggers can be caused by the time, people, how you feel and reactions to outside events. The best thing to do when it comes to triggers is to avoid them in the first place, go to a quite place and turn off all alerts on your electronic devices, then as a last resort use will power.

What I have learned is that even though most us were able to make it through school we were not taught very effective learning methods, except study harder, which may not be very effective all by itself. In summary to study effectively you should use the Pomodoro technique to learn new material in focused mode then leave the material and work on something else so that diffuse mode can strengthen the connections in your brain to create chunks that can be linked together to create larger chunks until you learn what you are trying to learn. Hope this helps someone learn a little easier and happy learning.

[1]Learning How to Learn “https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn”

[2] John Dunlosky, “Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning,” American Educator, Fall, 2013. This excellent, comprehensive article is written by one of the top researchers in learning.

[3] Guida, A., Gobet, F., Tardieu, H., & Nicolas, S. (2012). How chunks, long-term working memory and templates offer a cognitive explanation for neuroimaging data on expertise acquisition: A two-stage framework. Brain and Cognition, 79(3), 221-244. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.01.010

[4] Mind Tools, “The Pomodoro Technique® Staying Focused Throughout the Day.”

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