How to learn: The right way

26 01 2015

I distinctly remember the feeling of despair that engulfed me when I was 10 and envisioned a weary future with seemingly never ending years of academics interspersed with vacations that always seemed just too short. The end of the tunnel, when I can forget schooling and get on with life carefree, seemed too far to be comforting. I dreaded the journey; the plethora of assignments, and exams.

What I never imagined was that along the journey I would succumb to Stockholm syndrome – come to enjoy it and even fall in love with the process of learning. I now realize that for the initiated, learning would never cease to occur, be in a formal academic setting or otherwise.

Thus I find myself these days pursuing academic programs, and MOOCs to my intense relish. Everyone has their own way of learning, their own bag of tricks when it comes to analyzing and understanding concepts, memorizing facts, or preparing for exams. I like to think that, given my moderate success, I did and do at least a few things right. But as I learnt recently from the Learning How to Learn MOOC from Coursera, I could’ve done/could do way better, with techniques and strategies backed by scientific research.

First things first, there is no free lunch. No pains, no gains. Learning by its own nature requires certain effort. It isn’t automatic. In order to learn something new, we need to undergo the process of first understanding it and then to deliberately practice it for retention. Any number of tips and strategies do not absolve one from the effort required. Instead, they are meant to guide you along the right path, steering you away from ineffective ways of studying and illusions of competence.

One major issue I face, like many, is procrastination. But an interesting thing I noticed is that I don’t do it with every subject or topic. It happens only with those which make me uneasy and uncomfortable. Just the reason why one should spend more time on them in order to master them but alas, that never happens. So, the trick is to focus on the “process”, rather than the “product”. Say, “product” here is an assignment or a paper, which always puts you off. Instead of thinking about finishing it, just focus on the “process” – working on it for some time.

The Pomodoro technique [1] enables you to work on a task with intense focus – without any distractions – for 25 minutes. You should follow up this period of intense focus with a break/reward. Given that 25 minutes is a reasonably comfortable stretch of time that anyone can focus, it is highly effective. Shutting yourself from all kinds of distractions – phone, noise, Internet etc., is the main catalyst. Equally important is taking a mental break at the end of this brief period, where the brain shifts to diffuse mode. It is scientifically proven that one can learn in a sustainable way only by leveraging both modes of thinking – focused and diffuse [2]. While focused mode is where the brain concentrates on something that you are learning, traversing a familiar nicely paved path of neural connections, diffuse mode is where the brain wanders around  looking at big picture perspective trying to make new connections. So, don’t regret those long walks or those little episodes of day dreaming. 😛

Despite their popularity, some study habits are anything but illusions of competence. Any amount of re-reading doesn’t help you much. Only when you apply the concepts to solve different problems, on your own, can you be able to say that you’ve mastered the material. This is what you call “deliberate practice” [3], which doesn’t seem appealing sometimes, and that’s ok. That’s how it should be. But, I’m sorry, that’s the only way to learn stuff. You can’t look at the solutions and decide that you know how to do it. The struggle you go through, the discomfort you feel when you are learning something new is inherent to the learning process.

Highlighting is another such habit that fools you into thinking that the material has sunk into your brain [4]. I highlight, but only for the purpose that when I peruse the material again, my eye is drawn to the most important points right away. I find it helpful to make analytical notes in the margins as I read – making connections to different ideas, providing context, asking questions etc.

Note-taking and concept mapping are two other study habits that aren’t really effective by themselves. I do a lot of note-taking. It helps me in slowing down while I’m absorbing new material.  It helps me to provide a visual imagery when I’m trying to recall certain stuff from my notes. But that’s it. It does not , by itself, result in learning. Note-taking, at best, is an aid. Nothing can replace the actual deliberate practice of working on the application of concepts to different sorts of problems. [5]

Spaced repetition [6], also known as distributed practice, is what enables you to assimilate and retain what you’ve learned in long term. It is necessary that you repeat and practice stuff periodically in order to push it into long-term memory. You can’t study something once and expect to recall it anytime in future. When I think back, I can certainly see this in my experience. Those ideas that I’ve spent time on  repetitively over the years are the ones I don’t have to fumble about anytime. Also, when you have multiple subjects/topics to study, it serves you well to interleave them [7]. Interleaved practice involves working on multiple skills in parallel instead of working on them sequentially. This enables the brain to be more alert and hence helps is better retention. It greatly helps when you try to apply concepts from one area to another. This technique, called “transfer”, enables you to gain mastery.

“You are what you practice”. What we do and think literally shapes our brain. It is called neuroplasticity [8]. By making conscious effort, we can change the way our brains are structured. We can learn new things, no matter whether we are naturally gifted or not. Research shows that being in an enriched environment (with creative people around) and exercising allows the brain to grow new neurons and remain healthy.

Even though the insights I provide here are just the tip of the iceberg, they are valuable nevertheless. I hope they prove to be helpful to you as they do to me.

Happy learning!


[1] Mind Tools, “The Pomodoro Technique® Staying Focused Throughout the Day,”

[2] Immordino-Yang, M. H., J. A. Christodoulou, and V. Singh. “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 4 (2012): 352-64.

[3]Pachman, M., Sweller, J., & Kalyuga, S. (2013). Levels of knowledge and deliberate practice. Journal of experimental psychology, 19(2), 108-119.

[4]Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

[5] Karpicke, J. D., and J. R. Blunt. “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Science 331, no. 6018 (Feb 11 2011): 772-5.

[6]Logan, Jessica M., Alan D. Castel, Sara Haber, and Emily J. Viehman. “Metacognition and the Spacing Effect: The Role of Repetition, Feedback, and Instruction on Judgments of Learning for Massed and Spaced Rehearsal.” Metacognition and Learning 7, no. 3 (2012): 175-95.

[7] Birnbaum, M. S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & cognition, 41(3), 392-402.

[8] DeFelipe, Javier. “Brain Plasticity and Mental Processes: Cajal Again.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, no. 10 (2006): 811-17.




One response

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

[…] provide lot of tips, techniques, 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 […]

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