隨筆

Learning how to learn 筆記

最近看了一些有關學習的暢銷書,主要內容圍繞著只要使用配合人類大腦構造的方法去學習,就可以令學習事半功倍。而Coursera 這個Learning how to learn課程是一個很好的大綱,給大家去了解學習這個一生都需要的技能是什麼一回事。由於撰寫這篇筆記時,我是以課堂重點為骨幹,再整合其他有關學習的書藉作補充。

所以如果只想了解這個課程的內容,或其他學習的書藉,建議可以去以下網站購買有關書藉或報讀Coursera 這個免費課程。

另外時間所限,我在大部份筆記是用英語記錄,而某些重點則以中文記錄。希望將來有時間可以整理成全中文或英文吧…

影片中的TedTalk講者,是其中一位Learning how to learn 的instructor  Dr. Barbara Oakley from University of California, San Diego.

Week 1: What is Learning?

 Brain Facts

  • Cells of the nervous system are called neurons. Information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse. Human brain has a million billion synapses.
  • Your brain creates synapses whenever you learn something new. Sleeping helps “update” your brain cells. Literally.

Learning hard and abstract things

The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice to create and strengthen neural connections to bring the abstract ideas to reality for you.

Ex: You should practice a lot with the math vocabulary to understand it and recall it easier. \(∫∞ex dx, k!(n−k)!\)

2 thinking modes, 2 types of memory

There are two modes of thinking

Photo credit: Learning How to Learn
  • Focused mode(專注模式): Concentrating on things that are usually familiar.。拿pinball機打個比方,如上圖左方,fouced mode是針板密集的時候,球在局部急促地彈來彈去。
  • Diffused mode(發散模式): A relaxed mode of thinking “your thoughts are free to wander”. So take breaks, meditate, think about other things, and give yourself plenty of time in both modes. 拿pinball機打個比方,如上圖右方,Diffuse mode是針板稀疏的時候,球在整個桌面遊走。
Photo credit: Learning How to Learn

具體解釋,Focused mode就是注意力集中的時候,只有局部的神經連結處於激活狀態,有利於你解決實際問題。比方說你熟悉四則運算,那麼解決算數題的時候就主要靠那部分神經出力。diffuse mode就是人腦放鬆的時候,神經信號可以在腦內大面積移動,有利於發揮創造性,比方說你洗澡的時候突然想到一個久攻不破的問題的解決方案。在學習新知識的時候,往往處於diffuse mode,以便結合已有的知識來更好的理解新知識,但也經常要在兩種mode之間切換。可以在緊張的學習新知識的時候通過洗澡散步等讓自己放鬆的事情主動進入diffuse mode來幫助加深理解。

There are two types of memory

Photo credit: Learning How to Learn
  • Working memory(位於前額葉皮層,上圖左邊)用來解決當前遇到的問題,比如記個電話號碼。之前人們普遍認為可以一次記7組左右的信息,新的研究表明人只能記住4組信息(chunks)。它的特點是容易使用但是也容易忘,需要頻繁刷新記憶。
  • Long term memory就像大貨倉,記憶被分門別類的存放在大腦各處(如上圖右邊)。它的特點是記憶你確實有,但是有的被埋的很深,不容易回想。記憶由短期轉變成長期的方法就是隨着時間不斷重複。但是不要在一天之內不停重複,就像不要在一天之內不停舉重健身一樣,肌肉不是那麼長的。學習新知識也一樣,要給予一定的時間來沉澱,否則知識構建成豆腐渣工程是沒用的。

瞭解了兩種思考模式和兩種記憶模式之後,要緊記的是:

  • 長時間集中注意力學習知識或者解決眼前問題只是思考模式的一種,可以(也應該)主動用diffuse mode來加強學習和解題效果。
  • 學習和記憶需要時間沉澱,突擊學習不科學。

Tips of this chapter:

  1. When you learn something new, make sure to take time to rest then come back to it and recall what you learnt.
    1. This is very important. Don’t cram information in one day. This leads to inefficient learning. It’s like building a wall without letting it dry.
    2. Revisiting and practising what you learn is important. Research shows that spaced repetition (repeating things after a few days) is the best way to build and strengthen the synaptic connections.
  2. Sleep is very important. It clears the metabolic toxins from the brain after a day of “brain use”. Experts suggest that it is best to sleep directly after learning new things.
  3. It was shown that exercising and/or being in a rich social environment helps your brain produce new neurons. Don’t lock yourself in your room. Stay active and spare time for exercise (including general physical activities) and friends daily.

Week 2: Chunking

ref: https://primarytimery.com/2017/09/16/memory-not-memories-teaching-for-long-term-learning/

Chunks

Pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, bond together through use and meaning. The goal is to learn each concept in a way that they each become like a well-known puzzle piece. In order to master a concept, you not only need to know it but also to know how it fits into the bigger picture.

  • Chunking is the act of moving chunks of information from short-term memory (working memory) to long term memory so that our mind can easier to access.
  • Example: If you understand and practice a math formula. You no longer will need to focus much to solve it like you did the first time. That’s because your “formula chunk” got so abstracted into your brain that it can only take one slot of your working memory to solve it.

There are 3 steps (Focus, understand, practice) in order to create chunks.

Step 1 – Focus

Photo credit: Learning How to Learn

形成chunk的首要條件就是集中注意力。學習過程中的分心會導致chunk無法形成,理由就如上圖所示。在形成chunk的時候,你的working memory像一隻四腳章魚一樣,在努力建立新的神經結構,分心會佔用章魚有限的四隻腳使得原本的chunk很難形成。

Step 2 -Understand

  • This step is for building up a context or big picture of an idea, concept or anything you want to learn.
  • Top down learning describes understanding the big picture. If you are reading a book, you may first read the table of content, then different topics or chart to get the main points or concept of the book.
  • In contrast, bottom-up learning, which is also called “chunking” in the course, describes when you learn a more specific or focused concept.
  • Master the major idea and then start getting deeper. However, make sure not to get stuck in some details before having a general idea. Practice helping yourself gain mastery and sense of the big picture or context. Try taking a “picture walk” before you dig through the material.
  • You have to solve the problem yourself. Just because you see it, or even understand it, doesn’t mean that you will be able to solve it (Illusion of competence). It is always easier to look at the material, even if you think it’s easy, then doing it yourself.

Step 3 -Practice

  • Recall mentally without looking at the material. This is proven more effective than to simply rereading. Reread only after you try to recall and write down what was in the material.
  • Test yourself to make sure you are actually learning and not fooling yourself into learning. Mistakes are a good thing. They allow you to catch illusions of competence.
  • Don’t always trust your initial intuition. Einstellung (a German word for Mindset) problem (思想定型). An idea or a neural pattern you developed might prevent a new better idea from being found. Sometimes your initial intuition on what you need to be doing is misleading. You’ve to unlearn old ideas and approaches as you are learning new ones. The best way to solve the Einstellung problem is Diffuse Mode!
  • Mix up the problems (Interleaving-交替學習) from different chapters. This is helpful to create connections between your chunks. It can make your learning a bit more difficult, but it helps you learn more deeply. Interleaving is very important. It is where you leave the world of practice and repetition, and begin thinking more independently.

Don’t do this when practice:

  • Highlighting too much and creating maps are often ineffective without recalling.
  • Repeating something you already learnt or know very well is easy. It can bring the illusion of competence; that you’ve mastered the full material when you actually just know the easy stuff. Balance your studies and focus on the more difficult (deliberate practice). This sets the difference between a good student and a great student.
  • Instead of repeating, recalling can arrange more memories. Even more, if you can recall in different environments, like a coffee shop, library or park can make you to be independent of where you are learning.
  • A big mistake is to blindly start working on an exercise without reading the textbook or attending the class. This is a recipe of sinking. It’s like randomly allowing a thought to pop off in the focus mode without paying attention to where the solution truly lies.

Beware of Illusions of Competence

There are many ways in which we can make ourselves feel like we have “learned” a concept.

  1. Looking at a solution and thinking that you know how to arrive at that solution is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning.
  2. Highlighting or underlining are also techniques that often lead to this illusion of learning.

On the other hand, brief notes that summarize keys concepts are much more effective.

Recall

Dr. Oakley points to Dr. Jeff Karpicke’s research about retrieval practice to provide scientific support behind taking a couple minutes to summarize or recall material you are trying to learn. It goes a long way to taking something from short-term memory to long-term learning. Even recalling material in different physical environments can help you grasp the material independent of any physical cues that your brain may have.


Week 3: Procrastination and Memory

關於拖延,大部分人都不陌生。比如你做數學作業遇到了一些困難,大腦分泌的化學物質刺激你大腦痛覺系統,導致你不開心,接著,你會將注意力轉移到一些簡單輕鬆使高興的事情上,比如拿起手機上上網看看FB,從而獲得短暫的快感。拖延一次兩次,看起來沒什麼大不了,可是一段時間下來,你發現每次做數學作業都拖延,每次都在趕最後期限。終有一天,你在疲憊中大叫「沒救了」。

Why do we procrastinate (scientifically)

Learning a new thing or doing something you would rather not do can be stressing. This can cause anxiety at first. This activates the area associated with pain in the brain. Your brain looks for a way to stop that negative feeling by switching your attention to something else more pleasant.

  • The routine, habitual responses your brain falls into when you try to do something hard or unpleasant. Unlike procrastination which is easy to fall into, Willpower is hard to come by. It uses a lot of neural resources and you shouldn’t waste it on fending off procrastination except when really necessary. Focusing only on making the present moment feels better.
  • The long-term effect of Procrastination can be dangerous. Putting your studies off leads to studying becoming even more painful. Procrastination is a habit that affects many areas of your life, if you improve in this area, many positive changes will unfold.
  • Procrastination shares features with addiction. At first, it leads you to think that if you study too early you’ll forget the material. Then, when the class is ahead of you, it leads you to think that you are inadequate or that the subject is too hard.

Try Pomodoro

The trick is to just start. Researchers discovered after people start actually working out what they didn’t like, that neuro-discomfort disappeared and, in the long term, this will lead to satisfaction.

Pomodoro technique

Consider using the Pomodoro Technique. This is where you program for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5 minutes. The work and break time lengths can vary based on what works best for you. The important part is that you have a regular break.

Habits

  • Neuro-scientifically speaking, chunking is related to habit.
  • Habit is an energy saver. You don’t need to focus when performing different habitual tasks.
  • Habits can be good or bad, brief or long.

3 steps loop of habits

The belief: To change your habits, you need to change your underlying belief. (You may find more details in the book called “The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg“)

  1. Ex: You might feel like you’ll never be able to change the habit of studying late. This is not true. You can actually rewire your brain
  2. Joining a student community helps, either online or in real life.
  3. Trust your system. You have to feel happy and worry-free when you are resting.
  1. The cue: The trigger that launches you into zombie mode (habitual routine).
    1. Recognize what launches you in zombie procrastination mode:
      1. Location. Time. Feelings. Reaction to people or events…
    2. Consider shutting your phone/internet for brief periods of time to prevent most cues.
  2. The routine: Routine you do in reaction to the cue.
    1. You only need to use your willpower to change your reaction to the cues.
    2. Actively focus on rewiring your old habits.
      1. You need a plan. You need some willpower.
  3. The reward: Habits exist because they reward us.
    1. Give yourself bigger rewards for bigger achievements. But after you finish them.
      1. Ex: If I study for 4 hours today, I’ll watch a movie, guilt free, at night.
    2. Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.
    3. Only once your brain starts expecting a reward will the important rewiring takes place that will allow you to create new habits.

4 tips to avoid procrastination

1. First time learning something

  • The first time you do something the deluge of information coming at you would make the job seem almost impossibly difficult. But, once you’ve chunked it, it will be simple.
  • At first, it’s really hard, later it’s easy. It becomes like a habit. Ex: Driving for the first time.

2. Weekly/Daily list

Researchers showed that writing your daily list the evening before helps you accomplish them the next day. If you don’t write them down, they will take the valuable slots of memory.

  • Plan your finishing time, this is as important as planning your working time.
  • Work in the most important and most disliked task first, even if it’s only one pomodoro.
  • Take notes about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Have a backup plan for when you will still procrastinate.

3. Focus on Process

You should realize that it’s perfectly normal to start a learning session with a negative feeling even if you like the subject. It’s how you handle those feelings that matters.

Solution: Focus on the process, not the product/result. The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate. Instead of saying “I will solve this task today”, put your best effort for a period of time continuously over the days.

4. Memory

  • Use your visual memory to remember things.
    • Ex: Link a memorable picture to a formula.
  • Images help you encapsulate a very hard to remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities.
  • The more neural hooks you can build by evoking the senses the easier it will be for you to recall the concept.
  • Keep repeating what you want to learn so that the metabolic toxins won’t suck away the neural patterns related to that memory. Spaced repetition (repeating things after few days) is the key. 
  • Flashcards help. Consider using Anki.
  • Handwriting helps you deeply convert what you are trying to learn into neural memory structures.

Memory Techniques

  • Create meaningful groups and abbreviations.
  • To remember numbers, associate them to memorable events.
  • Create mnemonic phrases from first letters of the words you want to remember.
  • Memory Palace Technique: Use a familiar place (like the blueprint of your house) and associate visual images of things you want to remember with physical places.
    • This is not easy. You’ll be very slow at first. But with practice, you’ll get better.
    • The more you practice your “memory muscle” the easier you’ll remember.

Week 4: Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

  • Exercising is by far more effective than any drug to help you learn better. It helps new neurons survive.
  • Learning doesn’t always progress linearly and logically. Inevitably your brain will hit a knowledge-collapse sometimes. This usually means your brain is restructuring its understanding, building a more solid foundation.
  • You learn complex concepts by trying to make sense out of the information you perceive. Not by having someone else telling it to you.

Metaphors

  • Metaphors and analogies are very helpful, not only to memorize, but to also understand different concepts.
  • It is often helpful to pretend that you are the concept you’re trying to understand.

Intelligence

  • Intelligence does matter. Being smart usually equate to having a large working memory (more than just four slots). However, a super working memory (short-term memory) can hold its thoughts so tightly that new thoughts won’t easily find a way into the brain. Such a tightly controlled attention could use an occasional breath of ADHD. Your attention shifts even if you don’t want it to shift.
  • Deliberate practice is what helps the average brain lift into the realm of those naturally gifted. Practising certain mental patterns deepens your mind.
  • Brilliant scientist like Ramón y Cajal, the father of neuroscience, or Charles Darwin, were not exceptionally gifted. The key to their success was perseverance, taking responsibility for their learning and changing their thoughts.
  • Take pride in the qualities you excel at. Tune people out if they try to demean your efforts.

Best practices

  1. Left hemisphere: Interprets the world for us but with a tendency for rigidity, dogmatism and egocentricity. May lead to overconfidence. Ex: believing dismissively that your answers are correct.
  2. Right hemisphere: Helps us put our work into the big picture perspective and does reality checks. When you go through homework or test questions and don’t go back to check your work, you’re acting like a person who’s refusing to use parts of his brain.
  • Always step back and recheck to takes advantages of abilities of both-hemispheres interactions.
  • Brainstorm and find focused people to analyze your work with.
    • Your errors are sometimes easier to be found by others.
    • Explaining yourself to others helps you understand more.
    • Studying in a team helps you catch what you missed, or what you can’t see.
  • Don’t fool yourself. Don’t blindly believe in your intellectual abilities. Having a team can bring those projections down.

Taking Test Tips

  • Being Stressed before a test is normal. The body puts ups out chemicals when it’s under stress. How you interpret the body reaction to those chemicals makes all the difference.
    • Shift your thinking from “I am afraid of this test” to “I am excited to do my best”.
  • If you are stressed during a test, turn your attention to breathing. Relax, put your hand on your stomach and slowly draw some deep breaths. This will calm you down.
  • Relax your brain on the last day before a test. Have a quick final look at the materials. Feeling guilty the last day is a natural reaction even if you prepared well. So relax.
  • Good worry motivates you. Bad worry wastes your energy.
  • Double check your answers. Look away, shift your attention, and then recheck.

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