Learning how we learn
29 Friday Jul 2016
One of the most enjoyable things I’ve been doing work-wise lately is learning more about how people learn. Here are some examples: Last year I got the excellent book Design for How People Learn and in February I picked up the Make it Stick book at the UBC Bookstore (when I realized, oh wow, I’m at a huge university bookstore – I need to check out the Education section because there actually will BE one!) Recently, I took the Neuroscience of Learning course through Lynda.com and then, at the Festival of Learning in Burnaby a few weeks ago I went to sessions which explored metacognition, inquiry-based learning, and critical thinking. Because of that, I learned about and eventually landed in the self-study Learning How to Learn course that I just finished taking through Coursera. All of these are excellent resources that I would highly recommend.
Here are a few key recommendations from these resources about what we can all do to help ourselves learn:
Get in a mindset in which we’re ready to learn. Britt Andreatta in the Lynda.com course brought up Carol Dweck’s research here on fixed vs. growth mindsets. If we can maintain a growth mindset (believing we can learn something), this is much better in helping us learn than if we believe that we can’t.
Give our minds time to rest and work on problems itself. Barbara Oakley from the Coursera course talks about using the Pomodoro Technique to focus for 25 minutes at a time on what we’re doing (“focus mode”), and then using something called the “diffuse” mode to rest our mind and let it work on problems, before going back to focus mode again later on the work. (Hint: That’s why we often have great ideas in the shower, or while driving. We’re in the diffuse mode and our brain is working on problems for us behind the scenes, so to speak.)
Related to this, Andreatta talked about the importance of sleep for our brains. Interestingly, she says our brain often uses the last hour of sleep of sleep to sort out what we learned the day before, attach some things to previously-learned information and forget other things. Turns out that if you wake up with an alarm every day, you may be short-changing the goings-on in your brain which are trying to help you retain learning over the long-term!
Develop effective learning habits: Many of the experts talked about the usefulness of summarizing our learning in our own words soon after we’ve learned something. They say we should do this on paper by hand – not on a computer – which helps our brain retain more of what we’re learning. We should also intentionally use spaced practice (leaving some time in between what we’re learning, and retrieving it over several sessions over time) and interleaving (mixing up learning two or more skills, in turn) to be even more effective when we learn. Oakley also advised using deliberate practice – focusing on the things that we find the hardest (I believe this is drawn from Anders Ericsson’s work) – over time to help us learn.
There are many more things that I have been learning about learning in my recent explorations, but these are some of them. It’s a fascinating topic and one that is continually changing as researchers learn more about the brain and how it works best to help us learn.