Reading: Learning how to learn

Watch video

Source: Tedx

Transcript: Learning how to learn

I grew up moving all over the place. By the time I’d hit 10th grade, I’d lived in 10 different places. Math is extraordinarily sequential.

By the time I’d hit 3rd grade, I’d fallen off the math bandwagon.

Basically, I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. So it’s a little strange looking back now because today I am a professor of engineering and I’m passionate about my job.

How did you change your brain?

One day, one of my students found out about my past, and he asked me, “How did you do it? How did you change your brain?” And I thought, you know, “How did I do it?”. I mean, here I was, this little kid, and I just loved language and culture, and that’s all I wanted to learn when I grew up, but I didn’t have the money to go to college, so I enlisted in the army right out of high school to learn a language. You can see me there, looking very nervous, about to throw a grenade. And I did learn a language.

I’d learned Russian, and I ended up working out on Soviet trawlers, up on the Bering Sea, as a Russian translator. So, I just love adventure and getting new perspectives. So I also ended up in Antarctica, at the South Pole Station. That’s where I ended up meeting my husband. So I always say – I had to go to the end of the Earth to meet that man.

But I begin to realize something, though. I was doing all these adventures and seeing these new perspectives, but somehow they were always external. They weren’t internal; I wasn’t changing inside. When I’d worked in the military, I worked with all these West Point engineers, and they had these powerful techniques for problem-solving. I thought, you know – I’d look sometimes at what they were doing, and they had these calculus and physics books, and it looked like hieroglyphics to me.

But I thought, “What if I could get those ideas?What if I could learn that language?

I mean, the world’s evolving. Language and culture are important, but math, and science, and technology are important, too. What if I could learn these new ideas and add them to the ideas I already knew and loved?

So, when I got out of the military, at age 26, I decided to try and change my brain.

It wasn’t easy. But if I knew then what I know now about how to learn, I could have learned much more easily and much more effectively. So, several years ago, as I begin trying to answer that student’s question, “How did I change my brain?“,

I begin reaching out to top professors from around the world, people who not only had knowledge of their difficult areas of expertise, but also who could teach effectively.

And I asked them.

I said, “How did you learn? And how do you teach, so others could learn?

What I found was the way they learned, and the way they taught was often similar to the way I learned and I taught. It was almost like this kind of shared fraternal handshake.

But we often didn’t know why we did what we did. So I begin researching neuroscience and cognitive psychology and reaching out to talk to top experts of those fields. Here is what I found, the keys to learning effectively.

As we know, the brain is enormously complex.

Focus vs Diffuse

But we can simplify its operation into two fundamentally different modes. The first is just what I’ll call the focus mode. The focus mode is just like it sounds like: you turn your attention to something and boom! It’s on. But the second mode is a little different. It’s a relaxed set of neural states that I’ll call the diffuse mode. It’s a number of resting states. So it seems that, when you’re learning, you’re going back and forth between these two different modes.

How can we better understand these modes? Through analogy. What we’re going to use is a pinball machine analogy. You all know how pinballs work. You just pull back on a plunger, and the ball goes boinking out and bounces around on the rubber bumpers, and that’s how you get points. What we’re going to do is we’re going to take this pinball and we’re going to put it right on your brain. So, there it is. There’s the pinball machine on your brain.

If you look, this is the analogy for the focus mode. When you’re learning, you’re often thinking tightly, as you’re focusing on something. It involves thoughts you’re somewhat familiar with, perhaps historical patterns, or you’re familiar with the multiplication table. So you think a thought, and it takes off, and moves along smoothly, pretty much along the pathways that you’ve already laid.

But what if the thought you’re thinking is actually a new thought, a new concept, a new technique that you’ve never thought of before? Well, that’s symbolized by this new pattern towards the bottom of the pinball machine metaphor. To get to this new place, I mean, at least sort of metaphorically speaking, look at all the rubber bumpers that are in the way.

How can you even get there? You need a different way of thinking, a new perspective in a sense, and that’s provided here by the diffuse mode. Look at how far apart those rubber bumpers are from one another. When you think a thought, it takes off, and it can range very widely, as you’re attempting to come up with some new ideas. So, you can’t do that careful, focused thinking that you can in the focus mode, but you can, at least, get to the place you need to be in to grapple with these new ideas.

The bottom line for all of us out of this is this: when you’re learning, you want to go back and forth between these modes, and if you find yourself, as you’re focusing in on something, trying to learn a new concept or solve a problem, and you get stuck, you want to turn your attention away from that problem and allow the diffuse modes, those resting states, to do their work in the background.

Dali and Edison

How can we actually use these ideas in real life?

If you look at this guy right here, he was Salvador Dali, one of the most brilliant surrealist painters of the 20th century. Dali was the very definition of a wild and crazy guy. You can see him there. He’s got his pet, Ocelot Babu.

What Dali used to do when he was kind of stuck as he was solving some problem related to his painting was he’d sit down and he’d relax in a chair, and he’d have keys in his hands. He’d hold those keys, and he’d relax, kind of letting his brain noodling away. Just as he’d relax so much that he’d fall asleep, the keys would fall from his hands, the clatter would wake him up, and off you go: he’d take those ideas from the diffuse mode over to the focus mode, where he could work with them, refine them, and use them for his painting. You might think, “That’s great! It’s good for an artist. But I’m an engineer. So how can I use these ideas?”

If you see this guy right here, he was Thomas Edison, one of the most brilliant inventors in history. What Edison used to like to do, at least according to legend, he’d sit in a chair with ball bearings in his hand. He’d relax away, kind of thinking about the problem, loosely, that he was trying to solve related to his inventions, relaxing. Just as he’d fall asleep, the ball bearings would fall from his hands, and off you go: he’d be woken up, and he’d take those ideas from the diffuse mode back into the focus mode. He’d use them to refine and finish his inventions.

The bottom line for all of us out of this is this:

whenever you’re sitting down to solve a new problem or analyze a new idea, even if millions of other people have thought the same thoughts, or solved the same problems. For you, it’s just as creative as it was for famous people like Dali and Edison, and you want to use some of these creative approaches. But you might say to me, “Yeah, but I’ve got a problem, though.”

You know, I just love to procrastinate. This back and forth stuff is great, but I don’t have time. I cram at the last minute. That’s just me.”

So, let’s talk just a little bit about procrastination. What seems to happen when you procrastinate is this: you look at something you’d really rather not do, and you actually feel a physical pain in the part of your brain that analyzes pain.

So, there are two ways that you can handle this. The first way is you can just kind of keep working a way through it. And research has shown that within a few minutes it actually will disappear. But the second way is you just turn your attention away, and guess what? You feel better, right, right away.

So, you do this once, you do this twice; it’s just not that big a deal. But you do this very often, and it’s actually like an addiction. It can really cause problems in how you lead your life.

Pomodoro Technique

How can you handle it? A very simple way: using the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro technique, as it turns out, all you need to do is you get a timer. Any timer will do. Then you just take it and set it for 25 minutes, and make sure everything else is turned off – so, no instant messengers, nothing like that – and you work with focused attention for 25 minutes. Anybody can do 25 minutes, virtually anyone. When you’re done, you do something fun; just a little bit, a few minutes of relaxed fun.

What this seems to do is this: you are enhancing, you’re practicing in some sense your ability to have focused attention, and you’re also practicing your ability to relax a little bit. Now you understand that relaxation is also an important part of the learning process; there are things going on in the background.

The only thing is this: when you do the Pomodoro, you want to make sure that you don’t sit there and say, “I’m going to do my entire homework set in these 25 minutes.” No. You just sit and say, “I’m going to work with focused attention for 25 minutes”, and that’s the key.

Students sometimes make the mistake of thinking that some of their absolute best traits are their worst traits. What do I mean by this?

Let’s take the idea of memory. Let’s say that you have a poor working memory. You can’t seem to hold things in mind very well. You watch these other students and they’re able to grasp all these ideas and kind of manipulate them, but you can’t. Well, what this means is: surprisingly, you are more creative. Because you can’t hold these ideas in mind so tightly, other ideas are often creeping in.

If you have problems with the tension, you’re always kind of diverting off into some other idea, it’s similar: you are often more creative because these new ideas are slipping in instead. There’s another thing, and that’s slow thinking. Some students compare themselves to other students and say, “You know, I’m really slow by comparison. These other students, they are like race car drivers; they go past me so fast.” But, think of yourself as a hiker.

Hiker analogy

Yes, a race car driver gets there much faster than you ever can, but a hiker has a completely different experience. A hiker can smell the pine air, they can reach out, touch the leaves, they see the rabbit trails. In many ways, your experiences are deeper and more profound, and you don’t jump to conclusions. So if you are a slower thinker, yes, you may have to work harder in order to grasp the materials, but the trade-offs in many cases are well worth it; you gain solid mastery of what you’re studying.

So, there is something called “illusions of competence in learning“. What this means is you can study all day long and you can be spinning your wheels because you’re not using effective study techniques. There is such a thing as test anxiety, but in many cases, surprisingly many, it arises because you’ve just come face to face with the scary bear, and that is that you have just learned that you are not a master of the material.

Researchers, with both critters and people, are finding powerful insights into how we can learn most effectively. One of those ways is simply through exercise. Exercise within a matter of a few days can increase our ability to both learn and to remember, and researchers are beginning to understand the neurophysiological pathways that allow this to occur.

Tests. Tests are the best. Test yourself all the time. Give yourself little mini tests. Make flash cards, even in math and science, mix them up, study them in different places, and this brings me to homework. When you do a homework problem, never just work at once and put it away. Would you ever sing a song once and think you knew that song? No. Test yourself, work that homework problem several times over several days until the solution flows like a song from your mind.

Recall. When you’re looking at a page as you’re trying to learn something in a book, people’s tendency is to highlight, right? There’s something about the motion of the pen on a page that makes you think that it’s actually going into your brain, but it often isn’t. Oftentimes, people will just reread, but that too is simply spinning your wheels.

The most effective technique is simply to look at a page, look away, and see what you can recall. Doing this, as it seems, helps build profound neural hooks that help enhance your understanding of the material.

And finally, don’t be fooled by the erroneous idea that understanding alone is enough to build the mastery of the material. Understanding is truly important, but only when combined with practice and repetition in a variety of circumstances can you truly gain mastery over what you’re learning.

So, in closing, I would like to say that learning how to learn is the most powerful tool you can ever grasp. Don’t just follow your passions; broaden your passions, and your life will be enriched beyond measure.

Application: Learning how to learn

  1. Task: Answering questions about this week’s topics.
  2. Purpose: Students are required to reflect on their learning style and use this reflection for their future actions and activities.


  1. Download this week reflective activity
  2. Answer question prompts in the file
  3. Look at the rubric to ensure you are ready to submit your worksheet.
  4. Submit your writing assignment by the deadline.

Deadline: 11 P.M, 14/04/2024

Go back to the course’s page:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top