Learning challenges

15 01 2015

Learning to Learn on Coursera is an amazing opportunity to enhance one’s skill at this all-encompassing capability, called Learning. In a different course I took several month earlier, I got a glimpse of the most powerful strategies that help us learn effectively. (I blogged about it here.) This course is offered by University of San Diego and co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley (who authored the bestseller – A Mind for Numbers, on which this course content is based on)  and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology). I’m only one week into the course and I already love the animated videos and the enthusiasm of Dr. Oakley. The 10 Rules of Good and Bad Studying provides a small taste (as claimed on Barbara’s website) of what you can find in the book and thereby the course.

The first assignment involves writing a reflective narrative about one’s learning situation/goal and how one plans to address it based on the many insights provided by existing research. Find a version of my submission below:

Current learning situation and goal

I’m a software engineer currently learning skills to be a data analyst/scientist. Mostly, I’m relying on MOOCs for the purpose. I have some relevant background in my under-graduation and graduation and am keen on gaining right aptitude for the role. I realized that I have two major learning challenges in the process. One is getting my head around Statistical Concepts and the other is gaining some ability in storytelling, most essential for creating compelling analytical products. The other technical part, I’m sure I’ll get it eventually.

Learning aim

As I’m not a part of any formal academic program, my goal would be complete the relevant courses online and be able to create a few decent data products on my own. Six months from now, I would like to see myself as fairly confident with regard to Statistics and Storytelling (from analytics perspective).

Biggest mental challenges

While I work on the material, quizzes, and assignments, I don’t persevere when I hit a stumbling block. Also, I don’t really practice on a regular basis. While I don’t have a procrastination problem, I feel that I don’t get the most out of my study efforts. I also realize that I’m not timing my study well. I panic when I do nothing and try to cram as many things as possible into my schedule, leaving me little time for relaxation and/or reflection. I feel stressed out most of the times.

After my first few, not so encouraging, encounters with the topics, I am frustrated that the secrets of Statistics allude me, that I’m not able to master them. My storytelling attempts too were lame, at best. I think I kind of developed a mental block about them and do not approach them without considerable apprehension. I have always thought myself as an analytical person and one good at Math. It puzzles me that I couldn’t get Statistics right, that I’m not able to fathom its depth. I keep waiting for that mesmerizing teacher, who can unravel the complexity of Statistics and give me a key to understanding its essence. But of course, there is little chance for this miracle to happen. And I’m painfully aware that this unrealistic optimism is adversely affecting my learning efforts. I give up too early.   And the opposite applies to ‘Storytelling’. I believe I’m naturally bad at this, and don’t envision a dramatic improvement. So, I don’t try enough. Again I realize though that this notion of mine is self-defeating.

Existing research and learning techniques

Understanding how our brain functions with respect to learning offers insights into how to approach it more effectively. There has been a lot of research on both how learning happens and what techniques are better than others. An extensive study on effective learning techniques by Dunlosky et al. reveals that practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, self-explanation, and elaborative interrogation techniques have moderate to high utility. Surprisingly, as per the research findings, the more popular techniques of re-reading, summarizing, highlighting, and mnemonic usage are actually very ineffective. This blogpost by neurobonkers summarizes the lengthy monograph of the researchers quite well.

Research also points out that in order to assimilate new material we need to alternate between the two modes – Focused and Diffuse. Diffuse mode is when the default area network of the brain kicks in. And as Yang et al. points out, “rest is not idleness”. The importance of sleep in learning cannot be overemphasized. Sleep consolidates the fresh memories into long-term memories (Pierre Maquet).

Work by Carol S. Dweck  is perhaps the single most influential research on Mindset and Learning. By learning about neuroplasticity and believing in the ability of the brain to learn anything, despite the notion of natural talent, boosts “learning”. ( Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement. Prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education math and science grades. )

How will I apply

With the above insights, I would like to tweak my learning approach by indulging in distributed practice, self-explanation, and practice testing. I will practice more. I now realize the need to follow up intense focus periods with relaxation. One important takeaway for me is “leveraging sleep for learning”. I intend to study with focus before sleep and will to dream about it, so that I can assimilate new concepts better. I also commit myself to be more open and persevering towards the whole process.




One response

5 06 2017
My MOOC journey – 3 | Peek Inside My Mind

[…] and insights into the art of learning, thinking about careers. (How to Learn: The right way, Learning Challenges, Learning). She advocates the growth mindset in Mindshift with respect to surmounting our mental […]

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