David Strittmatter

Learning How to Learn

The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go – Dr. Seuss

Dear friend,

I just finished Barbara Oakley’s course on “Learning How to Learn”. This massive open online course on Coursera has been on my to-do list for many months. It’s well known because it’s based on the most recent research and generally applicable – not only to studying in school and academia but also to professional learning.

Learning and development are key to success in any area of life. Hence, the more efficient we are able to learn, the easier we will obtain success. 3 examples to illustrate this claim:

  1. If you want to be promoted to a team leader in your organization, you have to learn what it takes to be one. For instance, asking mentors for their learnings, elaborating an action plan, and executing it will help you to more easily achieve this promotion.
  2. If you want to raise a child, you will have to learn a lot about parenting. The more you learn, e.g., by reading books on child psychology and applying the concepts, the easier parenting will become, e.g., you will be able to better deal with your child wanting candy at the cashier’s queue.
  3. If you want to achieve better grades or achieve your current grades more easily, you have to learn how to better study for exams. For example, taking Barbara Oakley’s course or reading a book on the best techniques for studying and practicing as suggested by the theory will make you achieve better grades.

What I learned in the course on Learning How to Learn is that learning is basically the process of building new neural chunks and making use of them. Chunks are pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, bound together through meaning or use. The concept of neural chunks applies to anything that we can get good at – whether studying, working, art, sports, music, dance, etc.

Chunks are best built with (A) focused attention, (B) understanding of the basic idea, and (C) practice to help you gain mastery and a sense of the big-picture context.

(A) No matter what we want to improve (i.e. try to learn), focused attention makes the process significantly more successful. Removing distractions, such as social media notifications, and avoiding multi-tasking is key to learning. Don’t try to work through this Coursera course while browsing on your smartphone, or don’t practice a presentation while being distracted every 3 minutes by your e-mail inbox.

(B) To form a chunk and learn something new, it’s best to first get a basic understanding of it. Students do that naturally well. It’s about connecting new information to existing knowledge. For instance, you should think about in which situations and context you would use a new vocabulary, a new martial arts technique, or a new variant of a leadership style.

(C) Practice is paramount. Yes, practicing new information looks different depending on the area in which you’re trying to learn something new. No matter the area, though, you most efficiently practice when you simulate the situation you’re trying to improve. 3 examples to illustrate this concept:

  1. Re-reading a text to study for an exam is inefficient. It’s far away from what you will do in the actual exam. Active recalling, e.g., by solving practice exams or learning with flash cards, is the most efficient study technique as it simulates the exam.
  2. Highlighting and summarizing a personal development book is better than just reading it. Yet, compared to applying the concepts of the book in your life, it’s totally inefficient. That’s why I write down and capitalize on at least 3 to-dos after reading and summarizing a book.
  3. Attending a professional training session is a good idea. However, if you don’t take part in individual and/ or group exercises and don’t take them seriously, you won’t improve efficiently.

Practical advice:

  • Remove distractions and avoid multi-tasking as much as possible when you’re trying to improve something
  • Whatever you’re trying to learn, first get a basic understanding of it by connecting it to your existing knowledge
  • Practice is paramount. Try to simulate the situation you’re trying to improve as closest as possible

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