Learning about Learning

“Learning about Learning” is a class available on Coursera. It is created and taught by two neuroscientists, and made available by the University of California, San Diego. It covers how the brain stores information, techniques on how to learn better, and bad habits to avoid. It is completely free to the public, but if you want to support the program you can pay $50; doing so will also make a certificate available after completion of the course.

I learned about this course about two weeks ago and immediately joined. Learning how to learn more efficiently is something that I have been interested in for a long time. One of the things that I have learned as an adult is that being smart doesn’t really matter; what is important is persevering and working efficiently. With my MBA program coming up, this was the perfect time to brush up my knowledge on how to learn!

I finished the class and got a 97%. I enjoyed the class so much that I actually paid $50 to support the program, and got a digital certificate. What did I learn? Well, all of that is below. I went back and cleaned up all of my notes for easy review.

Learning Modes

  • There are two modes of learning, focused and diffused. 
  • Focused mode: This is the learning mode for when you are focused intently and trying to learn something. This is the default state of learning for when you are having a study session.
  • Diffused mode: This is your brain’s passive learning mode. Your brain actively processes information in the background, and this is that mode. This is the mode where your brain is the most creative, and has the best ability to look at things in a big picture.

 

Bad habits

  • What is a habit
    • Cue – this is what triggers the habit to happen
    • Routine – this is the automated process your body starts to do
    • Reward – the pleasure of doing the habit and the goal of the habit.
    • Belief – the concept that your habit is something that will benefit you.
  • Procrastination
    • You procrastinate when you are about to do something you don’t want to do.
    • This aversion can actually be tied to biological processes. When people procrastinate, parts of the brain that are associated with pain are activated.
  • Fighting procrastination
    • Pomodro technique
      • Focus intensely for 25 minutes.
      • Afterwards, stop.
      • This will help against procrastination. Your brain knows that there is an end time for you to focus, so it is more accepting to being able to focus for 25 minutes.
    • Process vs product
      • You want to avoid focusing on the product when procrastinating. When focusing on the product, it will be harder to accept the task at hand. Thinking solely about the process triggers the part of your brain associated with pain.
      • You want to focus on the process, or the doing of tasks at hand, when you need to do something. Set a timer for how much of a task you will do, and the results will follow.
      • This is one of the reasons why pomodo is effective.
    • Cue avoidance. Avoid the cue that triggers procrastination if possible. Turn off the internet or stay away from your phone.
    • Set a hard deadline. Make sure you know when to end working at the task at hand. This can be 25 minutes, 30 minutes. This allows your brain to be able to focus at the task at hand.
    • Give yourself a reward to look forward to. This can be a coffee or a personal bet that you have with yourself.
    • Believe that changing your procrastination habit is something you can do.
  • Overlearning
    • Can be helpful at times, when you are trying to go beyond mastery and be automatic
    • However, overlearning can be a waste of time because you are learning what you already learned
    • Can also be an illusion of competence because it can make you tend to focus on things you already know
  • Einstellung
    • When you have a strong neural pattern that causes you to be focused on one thing and be stuck in a mindset
    • A mental roadblock
    • Sometimes you have to unlearn what you already know to learn new things
      • Memory
        • There are two types of memory
          • Short term memory or working memory
          • Long term memory
        • Working memory
          • can hold around four items
          • Kind of like a blackboard, but not a good one
          • Repetition is needed so that your metabolic processes don’t wipe them away
        • Moving memory from working to long term
          • One technique is spaced repetition. This is when you repeat what you are trying to retain, but over a long period of time. Doing it over a short period of time is not a good method
          • Even if you have a lot of working memory available, there are cons. People with less working memory are able to be more creative because they don’t hold onto memories so tightly.
          • It takes practice to learn things. The more you learn, the more you will be able to learn.
          • Don’t lose self-confidence. Imposter Syndrome is when you feel like you are inadequate and that people will see your weakness, even if you are well prepared.
          • Learning each day isn’t always linear in progress
          • Things that made sense in one day may be confusing a different day. This is because the mind is restructuring its understanding to build a more solid foundation. This can especially be seen with language learners
        • Memory storage cycle:
          • Memories are not fixed but a living part of your brain that changes all the time.
          • When you recall a memory, it changes through a process called reconsolidation.
          • Consolidation is when memories from the active memory are taken and stored in long term memory, specifically the dendrites of neurons.
          • Long term memories can be dormant for a long time until it is retrieved via reactivation
          • When the memory is put back into long term memory again, it is called reconsolidation, and will be stored with new context and information. In essence it is a brand new memory.

 

Sleep

  • Metabolic toxins
    • Being awake for too long allows metabolic toxins to grow in the brain
    • When you go to sleep, the cells of your brain shrink. This allows your metabolic toxins to flush out of your body
    • If you stay awake for too long your brain will not work as efficiently
  • Learning
    • While you sleep, your brain rehearses some of the tougher parts of what you are trying to learn
    • Sleeping allows your brain to process what you are trying to learn

 

Chunking

  • What is a chunk
    • Chunks are piecing of information that are bound together for meaning or use
    • In other words, chunks are a network of neurons that are used to firing together so that you can finish an action smoothly and effectively
    • Chunks make it possible for you to do actions you are familiar with in an almost automatic fashion
    • When you have a chunk of information you’ll be able to hold that entire block of knowledge in one of your four slots of active memory
  • How to form a chunk?
    • Remember that in working memory you have four slots to hold things
    • From those four slots, the brain tries to pull from things that you have in long term memory
    • Practice, pretty much
  • Chunk forming strategies
    • Utilizing diffuse mode
      • Look at the big picture first. This will help your brain accept and absorb a concept
      • All the details are already in front of you, the job of your brain is to put things together in a way that is usable, and figure out why steps are taken the way they are.
    • Using focused mode
      • Put your undivided attention on the knowledge you are trying to chunk.
      • In order to form a chunk you need to be able to figure out how to do or retrieve what you are trying to learn by yourself
    • Understanding
      • Understanding is the superglue that helps hold the underlying memory together
      • Being given an answer and understanding it doesn’t mean that you have learned it. You will have to do it yourself
      • The final thing needed to maintain a chunk is to be able to have context about the knowledge. Being able to repeat the same information in different situation.
    • Know the methods of learning
      • Learning happens in basically two different ways:
        • Practice and repetition
        • Seeing things from the top, big picture, and seeing how things can be done in different ways
      • Both of these methods combined create a small chunk
    • Seeing the big picture
      • Learn the major concepts or points first, and then fill in the details later
      • Do a quick glimpse of everything you are trying to read or look through before doing it in a more focused and thorough way
    • Interleaving
      • This is when you jump around back and forth when you are trying to learn something
      • Take your time and review older material while you are reviewing newer material to strengthen your chunks
      • This is the equivalent of shuffling a deck of cards and then trying to understand the big picture. If you’re able to do it, it will help you develop strong neural chunks
    • Task list.
      • It’s good to keep a list of tasks to do.
      • If you don’t keep a list, then your mind tries to keep a memory slot open for the task to do.
      • If you have a list to refer to, then a memory slot can be freed up, and you can check your task list later. This saves up on brain energy and helps keep you on track
      • Writing the next day’s task list before you sleep will help your brain accept and absorb those tasks for the next day
    • Plan a quitting time.
      • Planning your quitting time will help your brain accept the tasks at hand
      • Breaks are important. Some PhD candidates stop working and learning at 5pm
    • Using physical senses
      • This is utilizing your muscle memory.
      • Writing concepts down physically has been shown to improve retaining it as a memory.
      • Say the concept out loud
      • Use a visual image as a reference
    • Use an acronym, metaphor, or analogy.
      • Ignore other people when they say this is not real “learning”
      • Studies have shown that these gimmicky tricks are valid stepping stones to real learning
      • Great for helping people to get out of Einstellung
      • Help you retain what you are trying to learn. “Glue” an idea into your mind by making a connection to neural structures that are already there
      • In your mind, this method is similar to tracing a pattern with tracing paper
    • Spaced repetition.
      • Rather than re-reading or repeating something quickly over a short period of time, the brain is shown to be better recall if the concept is repeat sporadically over a few days
      • Use flash cards to facilitate this
    • Memory palace technique
      • Think of a familiar place, like your home. This will become your memory palace.
      • Try to imagine placing the things you are trying to remember in your memory palace.
      • It is hard to use memory palace technique at first, because it takes practice.
      • Imagine walking around your house finding the items when you are trying to remember it.
    • Teamwork
      • There is evidence that your brain tries to reinforce some facts even if they are blatantly wrong. The more left centered focus mode has been associated with a desire to cling to what you have “accomplished”
      • Being very left centered means you are good at analytical approaches, but there’s also a higher potential for being stubborn
      • You should not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool
      • The best way to catch your “blind spots” is to work with others.
      • Friends and study buddies can act as a larger diffuse mode that can catch what you missed
    • Testing checklist
      • Did you make a serious effort to understand the text? (Just hunting for relevant worked out examples doesn’t count.)
      • Did you work with classmates on homework problems, or at least check your solutions with others?
      • Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution before working with classmates?
      • Did you participate actively in homework group discussions (contributing ideas, asking questions)?
      • Did you consult with the instructor or teaching assistants when you were having trouble with something?
      • Did you understand ALL of your homework problem solutions when they were handed in?
      • Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren’t clear to you?
      • If you had a study guide, did you carefully go through it before the test and convince yourself that you could do everything on
      • it?
      • Did you attempt to outline lots of problem solutions quickly, without spending time on the algebra and calculations?
      • Did you go over the study guide and problems with classmates and quiz one another?
      • If there was a review session before the test, did you attend it and ask questions about anything you weren’t sure about?
      • Did you get a reasonable night’s sleep before the test? (If your answer is no, your answers to 1–11 may not matter.)
    • Focus on the hard topics first
      • When you get a test, briefly read every question to get your diffuse brain processes running.
      • Start with the hardest problems first. If you can’t solve them, move on to the easy ones. While you are working on easy problems, your brain will work on the hard ones in diffuse mode.
      • This strategy helps prevent you being stuck for too long, and to avoid Einstellung.
      • This strategy only works if you studied for the test. It also doesn’t work for everybody.
  • Library of chunks
    • Chunks can help you with new concepts. What you learn in one field can be adapted to be used in a different field
    • Information that is stored in a chunk takes up less space. An entire chunk of knowledge will take up one block of your working memory
    • When you are trying to figure something out, your diffuse mode will look through all the chunks you have to help you figure out what you’re trying to learn
    • There are two ways to figure something out for the first time:
      • Holistic intuition : this happens when you understand something so well that your diffuse mode is able to figure things out for you
      • Sequential step by step : by going through every single step sequentially in focused mode, you will be able to start building a chunk
    • Building a chunk may be difficult at first. The brain will take time to absorb the process the information. But the longer you try and the more you practice the stronger the knowledge
  • Illusions of competence
    • A lot of people think they have learned something when they haven’t. this is illusions of competence
    • Being able to recall is important
    • Recall is a better form of learning than re-reading
    • Testing yourself is a form of recall
    • Illusions of competence
    • Highlighting things doesn’t mean you’ve learned it
    • Understanding a solution doesn’t mean you’ve learned it

 

Brain biology

  • Neurons
    • We used to think that new brain cells never get created. Actually, new neurons are born every day.
    • Neurons that aren’t used, die.
    • New experiences develop and rescue neurons.
    • Neurons in your cortex carry information about what is happening around you and what you’re doing.
    • Exercise is one of the best things to do in order to help new neurons survive
  • Neuromodulators are chemicals that influence how neurons respond to other neurons. There are three major ones
    • Acetylcholine : important for focused learning and paying close attention. Leads to having a good long term memory.
    • Dopamine : sensation of joy and happiness. Helps in predicting future rewards and is behind the feeling of motivation.
    • Serotonin : chemical behind risk taking behavior and social life.
  • Amygdala is structure in brain that is where cognition and emotion is integrated. Works with the hippocampus to regulate emotional reactions
  • The hippocampus is important for learning and memory of facts or events.
  • Glial cells are supporting cells in the brain.
    • An astrocyte is a type of glial cell that provides nutrients to neurons, maintains ion balance, and repair injury.
    • Studies have shown that these may also help in learning.
  • Pre-frontal cortex is involved in complex analysis of social behaviors, decision making, and planning
  • Myelin sheets
    • There is evidence that the brain is still developing even into your twenties.
    • Myelin sheets are fatty insulation that help signals move more quickly along a neuron. This incomplete development may be why teenagers are unable to control their impulsive behavior
    • When you use neural circuits, you help develop the myelin sheath over them
    • Using neural circuits also reinforces connections between different brain regions
    • By changing the way you think, you make significant changes to your brain
  • Stress
    • When you are stressed your body releases cortisol, which makes your heart races and your body sweat.
    • You can avoid stress using two different methods:
    • Deep breathing while putting your hand on your stomach.
    • Telling yourself that you are excited, not scared.
    • Practice stress relieving to get better at it.

 

Note that going through the course is a lot better when it comes to learning all of this information. So if you are really serious about improving your ability to learn better, make sure to take the course!

Passed the Office 365 70-346 Exam!

As an update to my previous post, I finally passed the 70-346 exam! It took much longer than I expected. As an administrator for a similar product already, I thought I could pick up the knowledge very quickly. In reality though, it took me about two months from start to finish to pass the test.

This being my first Microsoft test, here are some things I learned:

  • The test is NOT only comprised of simple multiple choice questions. You will have to do a lot of fill in the blank and correct-order questions. This is probably the biggest reason why I couldn’t just breeze through the test. Test taking strategies help, but not as much as when compared to other certification tests. You do have to know your stuff.
  • If you buy a book to prepare, be prepared for dealing with outdated information. I purchased the 70-346 exam preparation book one week after it was released, and it was already outdated! Almost every single link you see in the current 70-346 exam book (which was released less than 2.5 months ago!) will redirect you to a Microsoft page saying that the resource is deprecated, or that it has been updated at a new location. This makes it extremely difficult to prepare for the exam! You cannot only use the book to prepare.
  • When preparing for this test, you must use the updated tech articles on the Microsoft website to supplement your learning. The Microsoft website (an online articles) is literally the only place where you can get the most up to date information about their products.
  • Purchasing the practice exam is worth it. Although the actual test has different questions than the practice exam, the practice exam will test you in an extremely similar fashion. If you study the practice exam questions and answers, and figure out why wrong answers are wrong, you should pass the real exam.

I’m glad that I’ll be able to be a resource for my company to provide Office 365 services if needed. A former manager gave me advice to get this certification, and I’m proud to have achieved it. Will I actually become an Office 365 admin? Who knows. In any case, I can at least prove to my company that I’m continuing my education and keeping up to date with the latest technology.