What I Learned from Learning

source: The Black Wall Street Times

I am always learning something at any given time, but I never really spent time learning how to learn. I started looking into techniques of better and faster learning and I found that I had been applying some of these techniques learned from my own experiences. In this article, I will share some of the lessons I have learned, the myths which can deter us from learning, and some methods to help improve learning.

Key Lessons from learning

  1. Learning is a skill.

Before we continue, please take a moment to answer these questions.

How do you learn and retain new things like new words, names, definitions, math formulas, chemical equations?

Have you ever attended a class or read a book on how to improve learning?

Just like any other skill I have learned like swimming or playing tennis, learning is also a skill that has to be learned. There are techniques that help with learning and retention. I adopted some techniques in secondary school, some taught by my father, and others learned by trial and error. Some of the methods I adopted include :

  • Repeating endlessly till the material becomes second nature.
  • Using acronyms of the most important words to memorize points in subjects like History and Economics.
  • Writing questions while I read and trying to answer them when revising.
  • Reading my notes the same day I learned them (this came from my father).
  • Learning the derivation of formulas in case I forgot during my exams.

Can you relate to any of these techniques? I will talk about why some of these are more efficient in this article.

2. I only remember what I registered

Have you ever heard someone’s name and can’t remember the next minute? Do you finish reading a page and can’t remember what the page was about? Do you go to a place and can’t find your way back? These are some of the afflictions I fight every day. There is a lot coming to my brain every second from all five senses and my brain does its best to filter out many of them. In order to remember, I need to consciously ask the brain to register what I just received from the senses. It is like pressing the save button on that word document, if you forget, all the content is gone. I discovered the only stimuli that seem to save automatically are those which arouse my emotions, but those are few.

3. I forget more than I would like to

The difference between my brain and the hard drive is that I forget very quickly. If I focus and take notes in a two-hour lecture but only read the notes towards the exam, the topic feels alien. Research suggests that we forget almost 50% of what we learn within an hour and up to 75% within a day (let’s not talk about a week/month). This is dreadful, given that I am expected to remember and apply during the exams. How do I remember what I have learned?

4. The more I learn, the more I can learn.

If I don’t understand the basics, how do I understand the advanced stuff which depends on the basics? “Let’s pick up from where we ended last time” is how most lectures start. If I did not learn anything in the last lecture, that trend continues. The longer I take to understand, the worst it gets and I end up thinking I am stupid. The brain learns by connecting the new knowledge to what already exists in the brain. This means the more I learn, the more things my brain can connect to.

6. A picture is worth a thousand words

This might be a cliche but remains very important. The brain is faster at processes and remembering pictures. The interesting piece is that the picture does not have to be a real one. If I create vivid pictures or visualizations in my brain about a topic, I remember it better(the more ridiculous the picture, the better). Imagine a beautiful night with a blue sky and sparkling stars. Suddenly the sky tears open and two huge tomatoes fall from it and smash the tall green building in the city. I would recall this next week. If I can connect this ridiculous visualization to some material I just learned, I would remember it. Before we delve into techniques of learning, let’s eliminate some myths of learning.

Myths of Learning

  1. Intelligence is fixed

Intelligent people are those who have mastered the skill of learning and are able to focus, understand, retain, and apply concepts and material.

In secondary school, I disliked the words “intelligent” and “smart!”. “Smart” sounded like a static characteristic people are born with, a good reason for lazy people to remain lazy. The patterns I found with the “smart” people were a disciplined, focused, and hardworking spirit with efficient methods of learning and a yearning to constantly improve. We don’t learn at the same pace, but those who have the work ethic become smart.

Because passion and obsession, even talent, are only useful tools if you have the work ethic to back them up. David Goggins

In primary school, I was very poor in maths (especially long division). I still have a vivid picture of my father teaching me long division on our kitchen door. It felt like rocket science and I couldn’t understand or retain the steps. What I appreciate now is that my father never once called me stupid, but found me lazy, playful, and unserious. In my sixth year in primary school, I understood long division and that unlocked my world. I became the best in maths in my class and went further to win an interschool maths competition in my seventh year. Two lessons I picked from here.

The best thing a parent can do for their child is to believe in them. Careless comments and insults will stick for a lifetime.

Intelligence is a lifestyle of continuous learning and a yearning to improve.

2. Learning is difficult

When we apply the learning methods we know and they don’t work, it is easy to say learning is hard. We rarely try to dig into the learning methods to see if they could be improved.

In Economics and History, there were so many points to remember. I tried to memorize these points and usually got about two or three in the exam. I then chose the dominant words in every point and formed an acronym. I would make words from the acronyms or add some letters if they did not form words. In the exam, I go through the questions and write the words by the side of each question. My work was reduced to remembering the dominant words which led me to the answer. I recall the next History exam, I finished early and got all the points. I saw how retention could be improved with a simple change in technique.

3. The criticisms of others define us

Do you remember that teacher calling you stupid because you did not answer a question in class? Remember your parents or sibling calling you “dumb”, “you fool”? Do you remember the exam you could not solve a question and you started thinking “maybe I am actually stupid”?

I earlier explained my father never called me “stupid” or “dumb” when I was struggling with long division and you might underestimate the power of that. Most often, students are lazy or don’t have the right learning methods. Instead of calling out the laziness in the students, teachers and parents give static labels. These static labels make children believe that even hard work cannot get them out of the hole. To me, these labels are the greatest blockers of potential. Let me write it as a quote

Negative labels by parents and teachers are the greatest blockers of potential

How do we get out of these labels and the numerous negative voices in our heads? How do we go past negative comments and start believing in ourselves?

Tips to unlock learning potential

  1. Mindset

The first limitation to learning is mindset or belief. If you believe you are stupid, foolish, or not good at something, you will see the evidence. I love these excerpts from Jim Kwik’s book “Limitless”.

There is enough evidence to prove your beliefs.

If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them.

When you accept that all of your potential is entirely within your control, then the power of that potential grows dramatically.

Have you seen how many times a child tries to walk and fails? They don’t know learning is hard, they don’t have prior beliefs or mindsets. They just know they have to learn and their parents are there to support them. The parents always clap for the child when they make one step and that is a great encouragement for someone trying to walk. Unfortunately, this takes a drastic turn when we start school. Teachers and parents expect us to learn, adding labels and curses that limit us. If we can go into learning with an open mind, trashing all the negative voices, and believing in ourselves, we would be better learners.

2. Set objectives

Be intentional about your objectives. There is too much material in every lecture. Go into any of these with an objective. Ask questions like: What is this lecture about? What do I want to learn? What should I focus on? What is important to me?. If possible, read about the topic beforehand so you have some brain connections to the topic. Apply the same when trying to read a book, an article, news, or anything.

3. Focus

This cannot be overemphasized. You cannot remember what you did not register. You also cannot register if you are not focused. Focus is and should be very intentional. Distraction and multitasking are common practices and the greatest efficiency killers. Here is some biological explanation from the book “Limitless”.

Multitasking causes the prefrontal cortex and stratium to burn up more glucose which is needed for focus. This leads to exhaustion and disorientation within a short time.

My two biggest distractions have been my thoughts and the mobile phone. A few strategies I have used to fight these afflictions.

I set chunks of time to focus and time to rest. My philosophy is “rest before you get tired”, so I work for 45 minutes and rest for 10. With this, I can work many hours in a day without getting tired. The focus hours are silent hours — my phone is disconnected from the internet and out of sight. I emphasize “out of sight” because it is easy to involuntarily pick up the phone when visible.

I also make sure I clear my workspace, having just my laptop, a book and pen, and a cup of water on the table. Having many things on the table clutter my mind, especially if they are related to work I have to do.

For my thoughts, I have been doing the Z-technique of meditation explained in Emily Fletcher's book “Stress less, accomplish more”. This has helped improve my focus and awareness.

4. Be active

It is common to see people listening to lectures or studying without writing down anything. Learning should be an active process. I recommend a pen and a book for any learning. In the worst case, use google docs or some notes app on your phone. Take notes, sketch images and ask questions.

5. Review

Remember the dreadful statistics I gave before? We forget about 50% in an hour and 75% in a day. Ideally, you should review your notes immediately after you take them. If there is no time, try hard to review the material at the end of the day. If you are reading a book, always start by reviewing what you read the previous day or take a minute to think about it.
During my peak days at school, I usually read my notes every day and tried to go through all the notes over the weekend. This reduced my sleepless nights towards exams.

6. Methods

a. Rediculous Visualization

The brain is better at processing pictures than words. If we can create ridiculous visualizations of what we want to memorize, we will easily remember. Take the visualization we saw earlier of two giant tomatoes falling from the sky and trashing a green building. If we were trying to memorize some chemical reaction like

blue substance + red substance = green substance.

We could associate the blue to the sky, the red to the tomatoes, and the green to the building. We could go further and associate the substance components with these objects and it will be easier to remember than trying to memorize them.

b. Acronyms+visualization

I talked earlier about using the most significant words in paragraphs to create acronyms. We could also pick the words themselves and form ridiculous visualizations. To memorize something unfamiliar like a name or word in a new language, you can pick a familiar word or words that sound like it and create a visualization. If you can relate the visualization to the same context as the new word, it will help with retention.

c. Loci method

This is explained in many memory enhancement books(I have added some in the conclusion). Basically, you pick a path you follow often, add stops to the path, and associate these stops with whatever you want to learn. For instance, I usually buy groceries in the evening. On my way back, I open my door (stop 1), remove my shoes and place them with other shoes (stop 2). I lock the door and hang the key on the wall (stop 3). I go to the kitchen and put some stuff in the Refrigerator (stop 4) and some on the Shelf(stop 5). Imagine I want to memorize a list of 5 things to buy (tomatoes, bananas, carrots, avocados, oranges). I visualize coming to my door, holding my lock to open and it suddenly becomes an overripe tomato. Getting into the house, my shoes have been replaced with pairs of tiny bananas. On hanging my key, the nail becomes a huge carrot and the key could not fit. When I open the Refrigerator, it is completely filled with ripe avocadoes and a few of them fall and become too soft to eat. I open my shelf and see small, green, and unripe oranges and I am like “who the hell harvests unripe oranges?” Can you remember this visualization? This method can be used to memorize points in a presentation or a list of things in order.

Conclusion

My goal in this article was to reinforce the idea that learning is a skill that can be learned. I wanted to convince people they can learn anything with the right mindset and methods, and also share a few techniques to improve learning.

Some of the books I read about memory enhancement that are referenced in this article include Limitless (Jim Kwik), How to Memorize anything (Aditi/Sudhir Singhal), The Power of Habit(Charles Duhigg), Stress Less, Accomplish More(Emily Fletcher).

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Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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Clasence Neba Shu

Clasence Neba Shu

Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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