I am taking a course at Coursera.com on Learning How To Learn and wanted to share a few things with the interwebs on some of the latest research in learning and how it effects my learning in particular. The three main ideas of this blog will be on how the mind has two modes, Focus and Diffuse. The second idea is about how to crush procrastination and finally the third idea will be about how Recall and Testing (not to be confused with actual Unit Tests or Integration Tests for my programming comrades) have helped me solidify programming concepts.
So lets start off with how your brain works in focus mode. When in focused mode your brain is using your prefrontal cortex a lot more and according to the latest research when your trying to focus your brain can only really hold about four things in your working memory. So getting rid of interruptions has a huge effect on how well your brain can really learn new material. I have been putting on my noise cancelling headphones with really low background music called “Music for Airports”, yes, you read that right…Music for airports. I find that this is a low key album and doesn’t cause my brain to get distracted, yet gets rid of the background noise of my office. Another key habit has been to put away my iPhone, iPad and closing down all websites that are not of specific use to the task at hand. Distractions cause one or more of those four important slotsin your focused brain to be used up and your not making the key connections you should be.
The other half of focus mode is diffuse mode. If you were to think of focus mode as an Octopus of Attention where the tentacles are connecting thoughts within the four slots of working memory, then diffuse mode is a bunch of tentacles touching all different parts of your brain. Diffuse mode doesn’t require in depth focus mode; you can think of it as rest state, but the brain is still working. For example at 2:00 pm or 3:00 pm everyday I get some form of exercise in. I am an avid Crossfitter and I find that by the above mentioned times in the day my brain starts to get tired and I can’t focus. I tend to make stupid errors in my coding or logic. Taking one hour to get a hard workout seems to refresh my thoughts and when I come back to problems I was having the answers come much clearer. While working out, my brain is in diffuse mode, it’s connecting the dots for me without me thinking about it. Research is showing that taking breaks and getting plenty of sleep also allow this diffuse mode to kick in. During sleep your brain is truly rewiring itself and it is true to say that when you wake up the next day you really are no longer the same person you were when you went to bed.
Recall and Testing using index cards have really increased my uptake of what I read from books, blogs and technical spec documents. Learning new technical skills is paramount in my current career as a software engineer.
Recall is simply reading a page or a concept and trying to recall to yourself what exactly were the details of what you read and try to form an understanding of the concept. I found out that I was a very passive reader often getting an illusion of competency. Recall has made me realize that sometimes my brain tends to start thinking about something different verse what is really on the page and when I try to talk to myself about what I read I got’s nothing.
Recall is also a much better study aid then say, highlighting or underlining what is on a page. You’re a much more active learning simply by thinking to yourself. This parallels so much with writing a blog about ideas that you learn. If your trying to teach someone else or explain a concept to someone else, you find out what you know or don’t know about the topic very quickly.
Testing with note cards with spaced repetition has also been a huge help. Currently after reading something like the concept of a closure. I will recall what I just read and try to put that information on a note card. Simply writing it also seems to cement the idea into my brain a tad more. Since I am a software engineer, in the end, you have to be able to program a problem with these concepts. It’s the quintessential testing mechanism; if you can’t program it you really don’t understand it, so after reading, recalling and writing it on a notecard I will write a mini-task to leverage what I just learned, it’s a form of deliberate practice. The next day I might pull that note card out of my deck and retest myself on the concept making myself remember what I did to actually program something with it. This process really puts a solid chunk into my long-term memory.
Admittedly in high school and in college I was the guy who waited to the lf starting to just push off learning a library like Angular.js. Instead I don’t look at learning angular.js, I focus on just getting two Pomodoros in on Angular .js in for a day. This trick is focusing on the process and not the product. This seems to help your brain get past the procrastination because the product is what really causes your pain centers to light not, not the process.
I have also started to change some of my procrastination habits. Habits have 4 things, the cue, the routine, the reward and the belief. I realized that every morning I make my coffee, come back to my desk and the next thing I know I’ve wasted 40 minutes reading unnecessary email, cruising Slashdot.com, or looking at Facebook. I noticed that getting the coffee, coming back to my desk and taking a sip is my cue. The trick to changing your habit is not changing your cue, but changing your routine. Changing the routine takes far less willpower and people only have a finite amount of will power. So after I get my coffee, take my sip, I immediately start a Pomodoro with the hardest task I wanted to complete for the day. This seems to set me off on the right track each morning.
I have also started to make a weekly and daily task list thru leankit.com. Every night I move cards into my Todo swim lane for the next day. This sets me on a path that night for what I am going to work on tomorrow. This simple task has also improved the quality of my sleep; I am no longer tossing and turning thinking about what I need to accomplish the next day. In essence it’s a personal Kanban board.
If your interested in learning more I would recommend taking the course. There is also some good information at www.brainfacts.org. Happy Learning!