Learning How to Learn

July 28, 2018

Although as parents we often feel that learning is the realm of teachers and schools, there is much we can do as parents to pay an important role in the lives of our children in the learning process. Primarily we can be there to encourage and support them, taking and active interest in there learning progress by asking them about their day and what they enjoyed most. It’s important that this should come across as sincere interest, rather than an interrogation from the Spanish inquisition. Ask them open ended questions that encourage a longer, more in depth reply, rather than auxiliary verb (is, are, did, does, etc.) yes/no questions.

Even better would be to share the leaning journey with your children by talking about something you are learning, perhaps a course you are taking or a book you are reading. Our school vision statement is ‘to build a community of passionate, lifelong learners’ and we see parents very much as partners in this journey, both working in close partnership with the teachers, but also playing a key role in the lives of their children as a role model for their children of a lifelong learner themselves.

If you have not yet heard about the online platform Coursera, I would very much encourage you to visit and sign up. You will have access to the largest selection of university courses around the world, many of which are free. There are currently 30 million users with the number increasing daily.

I myself just saw a course titled Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects
by McMaster University & University of California San which recently piqued my interest, so I actually just signed up and will start this weekend. It looks like a course we should all take both as learners ourselves, and as parents. We should never be too old to learn.

Below are a few of the most interesting practical tips relating to learning that are discussed on the MOOC website:

Get sufficient sleep in order to think well – We often hear the advice that a good night’s rest will help us to think more clearly. The material in the MOOC gives us great animations that help us understand why: when we sleep, our brain cells shrink a little bit, and that allows fluids to wash out the toxins that accumulate in the brain. Thus, if you pull an all-nighter before an exam, you are literally “going in to take a test with a poisoned brain”

Use the Pomodoro technique to battle procrastination – When we are faced with something that we do not like (e.g., working on a math problem), pain centers in our brain will initially light up. There are two ways we can react: we can quickly shift our attention to something else in order to avoid the feeling of pain (that is, procrastinate), or we can continue to work through the pain—after 15 to 20 minutes, it will fade away. Thus, we need to trick our brains into not taking the easy way out, and just persevere a little bit. A popular technique for helping with this is the Pomodoro Technique in which you set a timer for 25 minutes, work on the task at hand for that time, then take a 5 minute break, at which point you reward yourself.

Use spaced repetition to help remember key facts – There is a trend to move away from rote memorization to emphasizing engaging learning experiences, like working on real-world problems with your peers, and this is a good trend. However, memorization is still an important part of learning—you need to have a store of relevant information with which to make higher-level connections. Barbara advocates the use of Anki, a free spaced repetition software tool to help reinforce facts periodically before you forget them (and incidentally, so does the irrepressible language hacker, Benny the Irish Polyglot).

To test whether you’ve really learned something, try recalling it – When students read textbooks, for example, many try to reinforce what they’ve learned by extensive highlighting or re-reading the information. Barbara points to a series of studies that show that these techniques are inferior to simply trying to recall the information—you can create flashcards to test yourself, or simply glance away from a page and recalling what you’ve just read.

Try learning in different locations – Research shows that you have the best recall of things you’ve learned when you are in the same settings. Thus, if you are a student, one approach might be to do all of your studying in a classroom, which is where you will take the test. But Barbara has a much better suggestion, and that is to vary where you study so that you don’t become attached to any specific environmental factors, thus making your learning more robust.