Learning How To Learn: The Science Behind Efficient Learning
Updated: Oct 8
What's the common denominator between Barack Obama, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey (Aside from fame and Dollah Dollah Bills Y'all)? All of them never stopped learning; and neither should you.
Learning a new skill or a new concept can be time-consuming especially if you're an adult juggling various responsibilities.
What if I told you there is a science behind efficient learning, learning that would take you less time than you initially thought would take you? You're intrigued, aren't you?
Cool, let me teach you how to learn then!
The Fundamentals: Diffused/Focused Mode and Chunking
Since I couldn't find one satisfying dad joke to start with, let's get straight to it:
Focused Mode: It's activated when you're intently focused on doing something. Shocking, right? It involves familiar neural patterns deliberately firing in cohesion. Think of a social media manager creating weekly captions for their Instagram account. In other words, it's used when we're engaging in things we're used to doing and that are relatively easy to accomplish.
Diffused Mode: It's a more relaxed way of thinking. It helps us see the bigger picture when we're trying to solve a problem. We usually access it when we're doing mindless things like taking a walk, listening to music, or fantasizing about world domination and submitting humanity to a tyrannical rule. The fun stuff.
Chunking: The best way to define it is to describe it in chunks (see what I did there?). A chunk is small. A chunk is simple. A chunk is practical. A chunk is reusable. A group of chunks connected together helps us understand and grasp complex topics. Think of a fun subject: math (don't hate me). What was the first thing we learned in first grade? Numbers and simple mathematical equations like addition and subtraction. Can you imagine if we started off with calculus? Apologies for the nightmare.
How to form a chunk you ask? All you have to do is repeat teach me, Master 3 times in front of a mirror.
Jokes aside here's a three-item checklist:
Total focus: total means no phone, no notifications, and no I'm just gonna check my email/DM
Practice: Self-explanatory but in bold
Here's how you can exploit this in a real-life scenario:
Technical skill: Learning the guitar
You dedicate an hour where you start with the very basics. You open a YouTube video tutorial where the teacher explains the basics and why you're starting with them instead of something else. You understand the basics. Then you practice them for the rest of the hour and in a few other sessions. Voilà!
Soft skill: problem-solving
You take an online class that explains what problem solving is from A to Z. Then, you can Google theoretical problems that you will try to solve. Rinse and repeat.
The Importance Of Sleep in Memory Retention
Has anyone ever told you how important sleep is? No? Strange. Scientists found a correlation between memory consolidation and sleep.
First of all, let's address memory, which is divided into two types:
Long-term memory: The memories you cemented in your brain through practice and repetition. Think of it as a storage warehouse.
Working memory: The one you use when you try to understand/grasp new concepts. Think of it as a blackboard.
What's this got to do with sleep?
During our waking hours, our brains accumulate toxic metabolites. These products are responsible for the nasty side effects related to sleep deprivation (brain fog, irritation, headaches, etc.).
During sleep, the brain cells shrink allowing the drainage of the toxins. Not only that but sleep helps retain information through the formation/strengthening of neural connections and patterns.
Have you ever studied right before taking a nap only to wake up remembering the information surprisingly well? That's memory consolidation.
Here's an even advanced trick: if you go to sleep and consciously dream about the new information you're trying to learn, it'll help you retain it faster.
Proven Ways For Skill Mastery
We've established the basics. Now, it's time to explain how to immobilize this knowledge into more advanced learning skills.
But first, let's talk about some of the traps we, more often than not, fall into while learning. They're called the Illusions Of Competence.
The first illusion we face is when we glance at the solution of a textbook problem and get that AHA moment thinking we now know the solution.
No, we don't.
The lack of effort in generating a solution of our own denies us the building of neural connections and chunks in our memory.
The second illusion is when we have the material accessible in front of us thinking Oh, reading this over and over will definitely glue the information indefinitely in my head!
No, it doesn't and it won't.
Another illusion is the overuse (emphasis on overuse) of a highlighter. Med students know exactly what I'm talking about. Their textbooks look like kids' coloring books.
So what are we to do then? Exactly, the following:
Recall: How well can you recall information you just learned? Put the material away or cover it up and recall everything you can remember. This method will indicate which parts you need to focus on more in order to achieve mastery.
Interleaving: It's the interchangeable use of different techniques and strategies on different problems and concepts. Sounds vague? Here's an example: One way to use Interleaving is by systematically studying related subjects; e.g. math, biology, and physics. How can they be related? Well, ever heard of Osmosis?
Spacing: Instead of suffering through an intense study session, chop up the material into small bits and scatter your study sessions evenly throughout the week. 5 hours scattered over 5 days will definitely help you better than a 5-hour session in one day.
Deliberate practice: Sometimes we focus on the easy things we have already learned and mastered to offer ourselves a sense of achievement. It does us no good. Deliberately starting our learning sessions with the toughest parts of a topic is better for gaining expertise. It's a practice called eating your frog first thing in the morning; a reference to something Mark Twain once said.
Obviously, I haven't even scratched the surface. Fortunately, this should be enough as a starter pack to help you easily master tough subjects and learn new skills.