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.

Julian Treslove

20 02 2012

It’s not easy to be a Libran. In the perpetual process of attaining balance, one oscillates between the positive and negative moods and emotions, it appears, for a considerable period of time, before one can experience a brief moment of perfect balance.  This observation is not something I came up with originally but realized it as a fact when I encountered it in the famous Linda Goodman’s book. A Libran woman is  a lot of other things of course, and I exclaimed in pleasant surprise as she made one accurate description after another. It isn’t going too far if I say that she managed to shape certain perceptions about myself and gave words to describe myself. Without any doubt, not everything would have fit me perfectly and I had only been romanticizing things as a result of my over enthusiasm. 😛

Well, all said and done, I can’t completely rule out the agitating and the inherent unrest in my personality. I constantly move between feeling high and feeling low; elation and depression; at times I feel so sure about myself and my life, while at other times I am drowned in confusion. For every positive feeling, there lurks around a corresponding negative feeling awaiting its chance to engulf me in its embrace. It’s like a never-ending battle to win the elusive peace.

Right now, I’m kind of feeling low, unsure of myself and over whelmed by life in general. As it happens, I’m reading a Booker winner fiction – The Finkler’s Question by Howard Jacobson. I can’t say how it is. It’s not very interesting and at the same time it’s not too dull. It’s protagonist Julian Treslove is a very depressing character. Pretty strange and pitiful too. His greatest ambition/fantasy in his life is to have his wife tragically dying in his arms so that he can mourn her death with utmost devotion. He fantasizes about how his heart would be broken by that incident and how he leads the rest of his life as a living corpse drowned in the loss. He is such a pathetic and self-absorbed person that none around him derives any pleasure from him or his company. Not that he tries for it. He is just too absorbed in his own fantasies and imaginary grief to do or be anything else. I wonder how it would feel like to be Treslove and the idea itself is too depressing to bear.

Well, reading about him evoked two contradictory thoughts in me. While on one side I feel how much better a position I’m in, on the other side, I can’t help relating to certain aspects of him, especially in these “low spirit days” of mine. Do people around me derive any happiness or even just pleasantness from me? As a person with my own share of fantasies and imaginary get-aways , there comes a doubt in my mind as to whether I’m as impractical, self-absorbed, and silly as Treslove. I certainly hope not. The thought itself scares the wits out of me, and with good reason.

It’s quite intriguing to  imagine a  person who forever is eluded by happiness and even worse, is not looking for happiness but rather the opposite; a person caught in the web of his own intricate thoughts and fantasies that life is just slipping by without being actually lived. It’s obvious that Treslove represents a very extreme case. But it seems to me that there is a part of Treslove in at least some of us. After all, obsession is not a stranger to anyone; it’s just the object or idea that varies.

I’m only around 100 pages into the novel and I’m sure there is more of Treslove that I would discover in due course. In a way, I’m apprehensive about what I would find.

The work is unlike anything I read before. It is also difficult to guess the direction that the story tends to take . Being not well acquainted with anything relating to Jews, Israel, Egypt etc, I’m finding it more than difficult to decipher the nuances presented in the narration.

As of now, I have no clue what Treslove would do to me when I finish the book and how much he haunts or influences me in the future. God save me from Julian Treslove. 🙂

Reflections on integrity

24 06 2011

A person whose words and deeds match; who stands by his/her principles at all times; who is true to oneself is my idea of a person with integrity. We all hold many ideals but in the daily life find it difficult to put them all into practice.

Everybody is doing it, so why don’t/can’t I? if it is done by majority, it’s right or at least not wrong. This line of argument goes with various things like lying, corruption, tax evasion, social irresponsibility and many other less grand things.

It takes courage to hold an opinion contrary to that of the majority and then to stand by it. Believing something and actually putting into practice often seem to be two different things.

In the matter of some of my strong beliefs/opinions , I’m not always sure whether I would retain my conviction when it’s the testing time. But I’m glad to note that I didn’t waver to hold on to my principles on a few important issues of late.

While it’s too personal to reveal what those occurrences are, I consider these as encouragement to do the same in future, in view of the contentment they brought to me. Experiences like these would surely  increase my belief in myself.


11 12 2009

As a part of the course I’m attending these days, I’ve been reading lots of stuff – many of the concepts new to me. Today, while I was filling out the evaluation forms for the course, I was posed the question: How much you’ve learned from this course? This got me to think over all the extensive reading and work I’ve done during the course and a fact really surprised me.

I couldn’t recollect all that I’ve read and understood. For example, I’ve read about Sparklines in Data Visualization a few weeks ago, but I was not able to define it or recollect the exact concept today. All that I remember is the long article I’ve read on it (I even remember getting awed by it and nodding in understanding while going through it), bits and pieces of the graphs drawn by the instructor on the whiteboard. That’s all. While I probed my mind further, a few other such topics surfaced. So, I really couldn’t say that I learned all that stuff. All I know at this point is where to find the information whenever I want to refer to it.

Actually, this is not a new thing. Many times before during graduation or post-graduation, I faced the same problem. I read a lot (most of the times just enough for the exams), write the exams, and pass out. If I try to recollect some stuff or answer some random question by someone thereafter, I usually have a hard time doing it.

Of course, this doesn’t happen for everything. There will always be some stuff you never forget. May be that’s what your interest area is. Also, in almost all the cases, that will be the stuff which you’ve gone through multiple times. So, here repetition is the key. Obviously, you read or work on something more and repetitively only if it’s your special interest/focus area. And of course there is concentration, which again depends on your interest in the subject. Sometimes you know about your affinity, sometimes you don’t. Some topics just appeal to you more.

I used to be frustrated when I fail to reckon something I’ve read (and understood) earlier. I used to wonder what’s the use of reading when I can’t remember and apply it at some point later in time. Also I had serious doubts about my method of study and learning.

But only recently have I realized that something really sinks into one’s mind for later retrieval only by repetition – reading more and more about it and most importantly apply it to some interesting problems or relate it some aspect of life and learn from experience. And it goes without saying that given the limited time/life we have we can only master some of the stuff (the degree and the scope vary with the individual capabilities, of course). So, hoping to remember everything you ever read forever makes a unreasonable expectation from oneself. With this insight, I guess I’ll be able to feel less frustrated and less stress and enjoy my learning more in future.


9 12 2009

It’s amazing how our perceptions change with time, sometimes even take a 180 degree turn. I’ll come straight to the point. Until a few years ago, I’ve always thought TV and Movies are integral parts of one’s life. I never doubted their indispensability for one’s healthy personality. I used to wonder at some of the elders’, especially my parents’ total indifference and lack of interest to pursue these must-have interests. I was really perplexed by their attitude.

Only in the recent years I’ve come to realize how insignificant these entertainment sources can be in one’s life. They aren’t after all indispensible. As I’ve crossed my student days and entered married life and then motherhood and job career, I’m overwhelmed by the responsibilities of different roles and never noticed when I lost interest in movies and TV. Also the happy-ending love stories of our movies don’t appeal to me anymore. Given that most of the movies are targeted towards the teenagers and youth, I can’t relate to them now.

I’ve also been thinking about one other aspect of change for quite sometime. It is how our thought and opinions change as our roles change. Most of the times just stepping into one’s shoes doesn’t help much. You need to be in one’s position to understand one’s plight. Our long held views and understanding might change when that happens. A typical scenario is – you understand you parent’s compassion, love, sacrifices, and limitations only when you become a parent and undergo all those things yourself. Howevermuch you’ve tried to really understand them before, it’s never complete.

There have been many other instances in my life lately which made me realize my insensitivity or ignorance in the past. Though I don’t remember those other instances now, I do remember the feeling of revelation and humbleness they resulted in. One thing I’ve learned from these experiences is that “Never judge people”. You might not really understand what one has or is going through and by all possibility there might be a good justification for their actions or reactions (in most cases, that is).


17 11 2009

Just a while ago I was browsing through various blogs and was surprised and delighted to envisage new horizons of blogging. I came across wonderful blogs which reflect the amazing attitude of the writers and memorable, funny, critical, inspiring, contemplative posts that mesmerize readers. When I started blogging or even before, blogging was just a new fad for me, which just happens to give me a canvas to paint my thoughts and feelings. I never really fathomed its depth nor envisioned a grand goal.

But as I keep crossing paths with fellow bloggers, I begin to realize the widening periphery of the blogosphere. There were times when I used to feel that blogging is taking too much of my time. It might be because I never intended to make it a significant part of my life.  Whatever my intentions are or aren’t, it’s clear that blogging infiltrated most of everything I do and I’m enjoying it. Writing down one’s impressions and nuances does make difference to one and I’m no exception.

I bumped into the website, which showcases interviews by successful bloggers and was just glued to it. I have to admit that going through this website and the blogs it featured urged me to think about blogging in a more serious and committed manner. Incidentally, this experience revealed the fun part of blogging too. I don’t know how much I can act upon it, but this new knowledge made me see things in a different light and gave me a new sense of direction too.

A Couple of blogs I’m so impressed with are:

Friends forever

21 09 2009

I remember with a pang of nostalgia, my school and college days – the days which were dominated by friends, adventure and fun. Friends have always been a very important part of my life. When I think about it, I realize that I used to spend most of my time with or for friends.

It’s not surprising or unnatural and I’m sure it was this way for most people. The reason why I think about these things now is the sudden awareness about how different my life has become now  – how insignificant role friends/friendships play these days in my life. May be this is inevitable, with all the new responsibilities of life. But somehow at times I feel the void – the absence of a trusting friend, whom I can reach in happiness and sorrow.

I believe that a friend’s importance doesn’t change with time or phase of life. The only thing that changes is how it infiltrates our daily life. For me friendships formed during early days are the best. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to replicate that passion and bonding with anyone later in life.

Back in old days, often friendships blossomed despite not consciously striving for them, but one can’t say the same thing about the situation now.Even if people don’t promise to remain friends forever, I doubt if any ever allowed themselves to think that their friendship will be just a brief affair.

Howmuchever we are consumed by the various duties and responsibilities and howmuchever we are pressed for time, it’s time to pick up the phone and dial your friend. Excuse me for being so dramatic, but what I want to emphasize is that we have to take make an effort and take that step to reach friends who are important, who can make a diference to us.

But of course, it takes two hands to clap.