Learning How to Learn

I recently chaired a talk at Learning Technologies conference with Barbara Oakley on the topic of ‘Learning How to Learn’. Barbara runs one of the most popular MOOCs around on the same topic. Never done a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) before? Then this one is probably the one to get you started.

The first thing that is immediately apparent about this talk was how endearing Barbara is. Her story of her personal journey of learning through both formal means, work means and ultimately in her role as a professor of engineering is insightful and encouraging. Hers is the story that helps us to realise that we can use learning principles to learn anything we set our mind to.

She first of all helped us to understand that when it comes to the process of learning, we have a ‘focused’ mode and a ‘diffuse’ mode. In the focused mode, we try to apply tried and tested methods of application to help us achieve a goal. However, the reality is that our brains tend to operate in a much more erratic fashion when working on a problem or task and it fires in all sorts of directions before settling on an answer. She used the example of a pinball machine to illustrate how the diffuse mode of thinking works.

What this helps us to realise is that our brains don’t operate in the logical and structured fashion we think they work in. Instead, our brains are full of activity, and when given a problem to work on, will expend energy to focus on that task, but is quite likely to draw on lots information to help us reach there. This doesn’t mean we get distracted, it just means that most of our problems and tasks we need to do will require us to draw on previous experience. When we have experienced a situation over and again, that pathway becomes easier to navigate until it is more logical and straightforward than initially encountered.

Barbara usefully shared a technique for time management called the Pomodoro technique. This technique essentially says focus intently for 25 mins, and then allow yourself about 5 mins of ‘play’ time where you purposefully shift your focus away from the task at hand. What this does is to allow the brain to enter both focused and diffuse modes of thinking in a balanced sustainable fashion. It is also supportive of ensuring we don’t cause ourselves burnout and encourages more effective working patterns.

In the delivery of formal learning solutions I think this insight is highly relevant. You can engage a group with high level activity for up to a period of 25 mins, and then need to schedule in some alternative activity which purposefully involves them doing a different task. By doing this we can design sessions to be highly engaging, relevant and content rich, with a healthy mix of activity, ‘play’ and fun.

It was fascinating to learn the way the brain needs sleep in order to grow and learn new things. When we learn something new, our brain starts to create new synapses to do something with the information we’re taking in. When we go to sleep, our brain keeps on doing something with that information, and we know this happens because the next day, after sleep, the neuron has grown. The more we continue to revisit the content we were learning about, and having normal sleep patterns means we have better chance of holding that information in our long term memory and make it more accessible. This accessibility is also linked to the application of that knowledge. By trying to apply the knowledge to a variety of situations, we allow those connections to broaden and branch to other connections making that content stronger and our experience of it stronger too.

Again, when thinking about learning solution design, what this starts to tell us is that a one day / five day training course / e-learning just isn’t enough to impart knowledge. It’s a start, and that’s all it can be. Instead we need to design in to the learning process multiple ways in which the knowledge can not only be accessed but also how it can be applied. Currently, we don’t tend to design learning solutions in such ways – although arguably this is part of the thinking involved with solutions such as social and peer based learning solution design and implementation.

One unexpectedly useful insight was about the use of analogies and storied. When we use a well thought out analogy or story to help illustrate a point, it’s not ‘dumbing down’ the content. In fact, we’re using the same part of the brain to understand the content that the analogy is attempting to explain. The use of the analogy/story is fundamental in demonstrating that we are capable of understanding complex topics with relative ease. I loved this for it’s ease of access to learning solution design.

The last main piece that Barbara covered was about ‘chunking’ of information. We have a pretty sophisticated capability to hold information, and one technique which is supportive of this is to ‘chunk’ information together. It used to be taught that we could hold approximately 7 pieces of information in short term memory with quick recall, but that’s been updated to about 5 pieces. What this means is that when we are trying to learn new information, we need to access it in ways which we can chunk it into meaningful pieces that allow for quick and easy to recall. What we also need to be mindful of is that to transfer this learning to working memory, we need to keep re-visiting it.

In the design of learning solutions, this also presents some great insight for us to act on. Information should be no more than 5 pieces chunked together. That doesn’t mean heavy pieces of text either, as it needs to be accessible to the brain. If it’s a heavy piece, then it needs to be broken down. This isn’t because some adults are less smart than others, this is because it’s a better way to support the natural learning process of the brain.

Barbara ended the session with two key pieces of insight for educators / trainers / L&D:

Your job is NOT to show off how much you know.

It is to make the ideas simple, clear and memorable.

And if all this tickled your fancy, watch Barbara talk about the above in her TedX talk here:


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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