Learning How to Learn

Learning-How-to-Learn-Logo-with-textSince embarking on my learning journey, I have come up against apparent limits to my own ability to learn new concepts time and again. This is especially true of some of the more tricky and conceptual aspects of coding in a particular language, and the maths required for some of the AI and Machine learning studies, to the extent that my progress on these subjects completely stalled. I felt I just was not equipped to grapple with these things. maybe it’s just how my brain is wired, or limits in my ability.

Well Barbara Oakley, of University of California San Diego would disagree with these last sentiments. It may simply be that I have not appreciated the ways in which my brain learns best. These ideas hooked me enough that I signed up to complete the Coursera course: Learning How to Learn. Since I’d hit the wall on my Machine Learning study, and August was going to be a write-off for most focussed study time, it was a nice change of gear – a chance to equip myself for a new start of University of Dave in September with some more effective learning techniques. It’s very early days in terms of employing what I learned in a real study situation (other than the course itself), but I very quickly recognised some of my mistakes and misunderstandings. Most significant of these was the “Illusion on Competence” pitfall, where you believe you have grasped something just by reading, watching  or following something and maybe doing a couple of exercise. That “got-it” fades mighty fast, assuming you really did have it in the first place. Leave it a few days or weeks and just see what is still there.

The point of the learning techniques and their application is that you have to build up understanding and long-term recall (of facts and understanding) through many approaches, spaced over time, and allow your brain some rest-time (or at least time away from that subject) to chew on it. I think I have rushed through online courses without regard to whether I truly understood, retained, or embedded the content.

I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and I believe it has broken records on Coursera for overall student levels and the fact that it grew numbers instead of having the usual drop-off that these courses have. I really believe they are onto something, but I am not about to rave about it in the flush of excitement I get from learning all these techniques. What will count is if I can usefully apply the techniques, and learn better. I promise to report back, but in summary, here is my 30 second guide to better learning, (at least the points that stuck with me)

  • Allow your brain to digest new material, away from the subject, even in your sleep
  • Attempt recall soon after learning something, and then at intervals (rather than re-reading)
  • Be conscious of how understanding and knowledge forms chunks that your mind can handle more easily
  • These chunks become really powerful when they are used together, and they take up a reduced mental load to achieve more
  • Make sure you have a goal on why you are learning, and give yourself a positive mindset around your learning
  • Study with others, as this identifies gaps and helps compensate your own weaknesses in understanding
  • Exploit memory tricks to cement large amounts of information

Good luck with your own learning.

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