Learning how to learn is a meta-skill. It is a critical skill for everyone who needs to pick up and master new concepts frequently.

Understanding what is learning and how our memory works will help you understand why certain techniques work and how to use and adapt the techniques to your advantage.

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Problem Solving

Learning how to learn is critical for everyone. Most of us have to deal with a changing world and to learn how to manage tons of new information.

However, most of our learning methods are outdated and far from optimal. It may even be giving us an illusion of learning, like re-reading and highlighting that don't provide proper feedback to show what you haven't learned.

Focused and Diffuse Mode

Focused and diffuse modes provide two models for how we develop, elaborate, deepen and broaden connections. Both methods are important.

  • The focused mode of learning is about bringing related concepts together into a unit, called a chunk. 
  • The diffuse mode operates through a wider net of connecting general ideas across different fields. We use this diffuse mode while we sleep, exercise or daydream.

Spaced repetition describes the idea of reviewing new concepts at intervals that get spaced further and further apart.

For example, learning a concept in the morning, reviewing it 8 hours later, then recheck the next day. Reviews then get spaced out 3-4 days, then a week, a month, then again a few months later.

Thomas Mann

"Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject."

In order to learn, we need to sleep

Learning is hard and takes effort on a personal level. It requires attention and physical energy.

  • When you start learning, you need to pay careful attention to bring that information into your short-term memory. Lack of sleep can make it difficult to pay attention to. Even memory champions can only hold 5-7 pieces of information at a time.
  • When you sleep, short-term memories are moved to a different region in the brain for long-term storage. Your brain then consolidates the information and select what information to forget.
Top-down and bottom-up learning

Top-down learning is understanding the big picture. It allows you to put the main ideas into a big-picture map to understand how the information fits together.

Bottom-up learning, called "chunking" describes pieces of information that are linked together through meaning or use. Much of learning is developing a sufficient repository of these chunks.

Leveraging diffused and focused learning is key to truly understanding something. You learn chunks through the focused model, and you develop the broader conceptual map using the diffuse way of thinking.

First, learn the basic outline or core structure, then fill in the details. For instance, when reading a book, look at the table of contents (core structure) and scan through the material. Next, use focused reading to fill in the details.

Regression is not uncommon

Regressing or getting blocked when learning is not that uncommon, as your brain remaps a concept.

Skipping ahead may help. Take a break, sleep, and exercise, to give your brain time to put the pieces in order again.

We need to study things that interest us; otherwise, it will be hard to make much progress.

Learning is a highly personal process. You need to know yourself and how you learn best. Use the resources and techniques that you like and enjoy, even if they are not scientifically-speaking the most effective.

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