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Best Learning Practices

Hi Learners! Ever struggled with your memory recalling the concepts you just learned or you think you just grasped? Ever thought that you understood a lesson only to find yourself blanking out when required to recall the contents? Have test anxiety? Or are you simply seeking best practices that will make you better at.. well.. learning in general? 

Here are some highlights I found useful from the MOOC Learning How To Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to help you Master Tough Subjects, that might be of some help to you too. 

Enroll in the course here:  https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/ 


However, if you’d like, here’s a helpful summary: 


Our brain has two fundamentally different modes of thinking/learning; focused and diffused.  

Focused mode is something we are relatively familiar with. It is intently focusing on one particular topic or task at hand, narrowing down our focus to it, and actively making the effort of learning it so that it can be stored well in our working (short-term) memory and through rigorous repetition, into long-term memory. This is when you are trying to insert a thread in a needle, are spending hours trying to cram your textbooks for your upcoming exam, or when you are reading new information (for example, this article). 

Diffused mode, on the other hand, is a more relaxed thinking style and is related to a set of neural resting states. This is when you are not working actively on the problem, but your brain is still ‘working away’ from the problem. It is forming synaptic connections between neurons, associating the new information with the ones your brain already knows. This is the mode that helps you come up with novel ideas. Diffused mode is not a passive mode running in the background- it takes the steering wheel when you are relaxed and not thinking about the problem consciously. For example, when you are on a walk, in the shower, taking a break after a reading session (not the mindless scrolling, MIND YOU- it still takes a lot of your mental energy), or even while sleeping! Now you know why some of your most creative ideas come to you in the shower or the commode. 

Neither mode is better than the other. Both focused and diffuse modes of thinking have their significance and play equally important roles in the learning and retaining process. 


We are all familiar with procrastination. But why does our brain procrastinate? And if it is such a common issue to mankind, why haven’t we developed ways to overcome it? We shall briefly look into the answers to these questions. Whenever our brain comes across something uncomfortable, it activates the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain. In other words, the neural discomfort feels like pain to our brain and it tries to get rid of the pain. How you ask? By switching the attention to something comforting, succumbing to a distraction that gives pleasure- temporarily. However, the more we succumb to procrastinating, it becomes the more ingrained habit and affects many aspects of our lives. 

Worry not, there are ways to overcome what seems like an unbeatable challenge. However, the changes do not happen overnight. Just like the way your brain learns to procrastinate by repeating it over and over again on different occasions, you need to unlearn it. One thing you can do is focus on the process of the task, not the outcome/product of it. This way you do not overwhelm or unease your brain to think about having to achieve something already. You can try the Pomodoro technique- which is dividing your learning or working sessions into 25 minutes of undistracted, undivided attention (bursts of focused energy) followed by a rewarding 5-minute break, and repeat this again and again. Not only this allows you to switch effortlessly between focused and diffuse modes of thinking, but it also emphasizes the process (the effort you put in those 25 minutes), not on the product. 


The importance of sleep and breaks in learning and well-being cannot be emphasized enough. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we glorify 12-hour shifts, 24-hour shifts, losing sleep is equated with strength, and taking breaks or sleeping 8 hours or more is looked down upon. 

But the truth is, that sleep and breaks are just as important in learning as the focused sessions themselves. Proper and enough sleep is important; not just before studying but after studying too. Being well-rested before learning ensures you are ready and fresh to soak up new information. Equally important, sleep is necessary after learning as it gives time for your brain to make connections and strengthen those connections formed between neurons as a result of learning. Sleep also clears away neurotoxins which can affect your performance drastically. Not only that, sleep can help you make wild, creative connections between what you already know and what you just learned- often leading you to novel solutions and ideas to problems and topics you’re dealing with. Sleep is one of the best rewards you can give your body and your brain. The next time you feel tired- get that 8 hours of healthy beauty sleep rather than pulling out an all-nighter - without any guilt. 

(Learn more about sleep and its effects on health here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MuIMqhT8DM )


There’s a lot more I haven’t covered in this article- chunking, how it helps in learning, the illusions of competence, Einstellung, overlearning, and memory; all of which you can find in the MOOC. There’s always more to learn, more to explore. 

(PS. Let me know if you’re interested in any of the topics and I shall be happy to collate resources and write about them :)

Learning is a process- savor it. We are a work in progress, stay kind and humble. Have a growth mindset (learn more about Growth Mindset here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X0mgOOSpLU )

Our brain is one of the most complex machines, yet it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Find what works for your brain and what does not. Learning is limitless, but a learner can only do so much. Cultivate the joy of missing out (JOMO), filter what you need to know from all that is out there. 

In a nutshell, here are a few of the below strategies you can try: 

  1. If you’re stuck on a problem, take a break rather than bashing your head against it for hours. 
  2. Prevent procrastinating by forcing yourself into the task; you dissolve the discomfort by getting used to it. Use the Pomodoro technique if it helps. 
  3. Be well rested before study sessions and/or tests. It is perfectly fine and in fact helpful to take a nap after studying.
  4. Test yourself as often as possible. Sometimes your brain can trick itself into thinking that it has completely grasped the subject matter. Only when you recall the content, you can find the gaps in your learning. You can try the Feynman technique for this.
  5. While studying, try practicing different skills and techniques of problem-solving- even within the same subject, topic, or exercise. This is called interleaving. Although it might seem counterintuitive and counterproductive that it is an enemy of focus, it trains your brain to best know which technique to use to optimally solve any given problem. It improves your mastery of different skills simultaneously.
  6. Practice deliberately. Try spending some time tackling things you find comparatively difficult than sticking with the easier topics. The more you engage with difficult things, the more you learn and improve. It is like ‘exercising your neurons’ by straining them just a little, and over time they grow stronger and form stronger connections.
  7. Space your studying sessions. Spaced repetitions are much more efficient than cramming a ton of information in a long session. So it can be more helpful if you study a topic in 10-minute sessions spaced over 12 sessions spanning a few weeks or months than trying to memorize it in a 2-hour session. Flashcards serve a similar purpose, make use of them.
  8. Don’t hold yourself back from learning new things even if you might not see the immediate benefits or outcomes of it. Learning one thing can give you an upper hand in learning different things with surprising commonalities. Learning can’t hurt your brain- if done properly. 
  9. Experiment with different techniques. Find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Adapt your learning accordingly.

Learning should not feel like a burden or a battle. Experiment and explore what works for you. Find YOUR combination of strategies, rediscover the joy of learning and growing. 

Let me know your thoughts! 


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