Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Education: Learning how to learn.

A couple of months ago I joined my husband in his start-up business and took over the office management and marketing side of things. Office management was no problem as I have many years of experience as a secretary, executive secretary and such.
However, marketing was a bit different as I only had a little bit of experience in that from a couple of temporary jobs that I recently had. None of it was very extensive.
So, I decided I should do some courses on marketing and learn more about it. This way I would be better capable of doing the job. I looked online and found some marketing courses on Coursera. After reading through them, I decided I'd like to see whether I would get on with the platform and such first, before actually taking the plunge into the real stuff. Therefore, I did a few courses on nutrition as that is something I'm familiar with and didn't have to put a lot of effort in. I enjoyed the two courses very much. I didn't really learn much from them, so doing the quizzes was easy and I had the maximum score each time.

After having decided that this platform was going to work well for me I signed up for the marketing course I had chosen. But then I noticed that as the material was quite new to me, it was actually a lot harder than the nutrition courses. And in all honesty, I hadn't really done any formal learning in new areas for about 30 years. I had kept up with my interests, but I had done nothing really new and this marketing stuff was quite new to me.
As I struggled a bit, I realised that the way I had been taught to learn in school wasn't really working well for this. and I got very frustrated.
Then I got an email from Coursera and there I read about the course "Learning how to learn" [1]. That sparked my interest as I figured that in the last 30 years the ideas on learning may have totally changed from what I was taught in school and how I was taught the material. I expected that I would get some good ideas from it and expected it would teach me better ways of learning than what I had been doing my whole life.
Well.... this proved to be fully true. I learned so much! I cannot recommend this course enough. The teacher Barbara Oakley is awesome. She speaks clear, calm and is overall very motivating.

There are 4 weeks lessons and there are quizzes at the end of each the lesson. In between the videos there are also practise quizzes. The videos are very clear and the practise quizzes really help to get to know the material well. 

Barbara Oakley also wrote a book, called "A mind for numbers". This book is the companion to this course and goes into the various bits in a bit more depth. It is absolutely fascinating [2]

Lessons 1 and 3 have an honours assignment, which is optional. The honours assignment of lesson 1 I enjoyed and therefore I did that one.
The honours assignment of lesson 3 was quite a different thing for me. but as I want to get the most out of this course, I feel that have to do the honours assignment for lesson 3 as well, however daunting.
Unfortunately it is something totally new to me, so I ended up getting very stressed about it. But because of all the things taught in the course I actually managed to write this blog post, as this is what I am doing for the honours project of lesson 3.
This post was written in half an hour chunks as I thought I couldn't do it, it was too much, it was, daunting and scary, it was more than I could ever do. But broken down in chunks of half an hour it did slowly start to take shape. For me this time, at least twice a day, worked out fine. I will keep using that strategy for anything difficult in the future as it helps me to calm down and do little bits that I can oversee. [3]
I have been using the learned techniques to get past my fear and getting through the writing of this post. I used techniques such as chunking, interleaving, using the focused and diffuse mode of thinking amongst others.

I would like to explain to you a few things of what I have learned in this course, so that you get a bit of an impression what this course is all about and what you could get out of it.

During my learning process I have started using this system called chunking. It had never occured to me, but this is a totally natural way of learning. Babies and children learn everything this way. When they start learning to speak they initially learn to say a word, but don't really know all the connections or the meaning, they just copy and paste it into their brain and they will repeat it days on end, just to get a proper grip on it. And after a while it is totally natural to them, they know what it means, the connections and all there is to know about the word.
I'll try to explain what it is, as it is quite nifty. I actually had no idea that the brain worked in that way.
A chunk you can compare to a puzzle piece. So basically you learn the stuff that you need to learn in bits and pieces, like puzzle pieces. Initially that may not all make a load of sense, as it may take a bit for your brain to sort through all those pieces to connect them. But when you keep learning the bits in chunks, and of course you will have to repeat the important parts several times and over several days, as you need to strengthen your brain muscles. Just reading something once isn't going to make you retain it. So you divide what you need to learn over the time that you have to learn it in, and take regular breaks. The breaks are also really important. For my learning I use a system called pomodoro. This gives me 25 minutes of concentrated work time and a 5 minute break. Most of the time this works really well for. After a four of pomodoro sessions there is a longer break, which is 15 minutes. Of course you can change this, in case it works better for you to take a longer break after 2 sessions. This is just the way Francesco Cirillo came up with it in the late 1980s and it works for me [4]. Some people take different times, which is in most apps easy to change.

This is how the technique works.
  • Decide on what you need to do. 
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes (or whatever else you feel is right for you) 
  • Work until the timer goes. In case something pops up in your head, write it down quickly and continue concentrating on the task at hand.
  • When the timer goes, mark where you were and take a short break, usually 5 minutes. After 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break, usually 15 mnutes.
  • Repeat this process.
I don't always end up making 4 pomodoros due to time constraints, but even when I just do 2 per day, it changes things for the better for me. I get to concentrate on my work, using my focused mode of thinking and during the breaks I just let go, letting my diffuse mode of thinking take over. Sometimes after those breaks I actually start seeing things in a better way, or connect things, which wouldn't have happened had I kept on focussing. I just love doing this. 

This is jumping back to revisit and deepen my understanding of a topic that I have already covered. A palaeolithic flint-napper didn't learn how to do it in 1 go. He/she would sit and train for years and years to perfect his/her skill. Present day flint-nappers haven't been able to get to that level of skill yet. The smooth repetition creates muscle memory, so the body knows what to do from a single thought. These days we do the same with driving a car or riding a bicycle. This happens as we recall one chunk, which ties all the other chunks of the complex steps involved together to perform the job at hand, be it flint-napping, driving or riding a bicycle.

With procrastination you want to make sure that you do not have to use all your willpower to conquer it. That would take a lot from a person. It is better to just use a little willpower to get over it. This you can achieve by first dividing the job at hand in little jobs that you can oversee, that won't get you too stressed and worried. You wouldn't climb the mount everest in one blow either. 
Then you make sure that after every bit that you do, you reward yourself for a job well done. It doesn't have to be much, a bit of gaming, a cookie or whatever you like really. What can be another good idea is to make appointments with yourself to do the job at hand once or twice a day in, say, half an hour sessions, or 25 minute pomodoro sessions. You can time that for yourself and then reward yourself afterwards. When you plan to do it that way it will all get done bit by bit and it will not be so exhausting and stressful. Writing this post I have done that way, as it seemed like a huge mountain to me. I was convinced I couldn't do it. And yet here we are.

During sleep the cells in your brain shrink a little so that all the toxins built up during the day can pass through easily and be disposed of. This is very beneficial to learning and test taking. A clean brain does its work so much the better than a brain which hasn't been able to do this. That is why sleep is very important to learning and to test taking. So from now on get enough sleep before you do a heavy bit of learning or you need to take a test. Staying up late and trying to cram it all in isn't going to do you any favours.

Imposter syndrome
The most important thing I got out of this course is that anyone can learn anything and at high levels. I have always suffered from the Imposter syndrome, where I think that I am not in the right place and am really not cut out for what I am learning. But in this course I learned that many people feel that way, even many real academics. Many people think that they did well for this test, or during this class, but next time it will all go wrong and then everyone will know that they are an imposter. It was fascinating hearing very skilled academics talk about this in the optional video interviews. 
One of the academics interviewed was talking about how he addresses it in a lecture at some point and then while doing his talk he sees people's faces change in recognition and then start looking around and then most people in the room have the same change in their faces that they recognise this feeling. 

[1] All of the above information comes from the Coursera Learning how to learn course
[2] A mind for numbers - Barbara Oakley
[3] Interview with Dr. Richard Felder & Dr. Rebecca Brent video 3 of lesson 4 & effective teaching
[4] Pomodoro - wikipedia