On Learning How to Learn

These past few weeks, I took Coursera’s Learning How to Learn, thanks to Toptal’s advancement program.

My main takeaways from this course were the Memory Palace technique and the Hard Start-Jump to Easy technique.

The course is about much more than just those two tips, but I should admit that to a large extent I already knew and practiced them: chunking, diffuse and focused modes of studying, using visual analogies for memorization, the importance of sleep in learning, how apparently unrelated interests help propel deep learning, motivation-procrastination-blocks, focus on process rather than final product. If anything, it was nice to get something of a more scientific basis for things that we learn in life by trial-and-error or by imitation.

The Memory Palace Technique is useful for when we need to memorize unrelated items, for example a shopping list. It’s a seemingly bizarre strategy: you mentally place each item in, say, rooms in your home. Cheese goes on top of the fridge, detergent goes inside the oven, toilet paper on your bed, and somehow, they say, your visual brain helps you recall the items much better.

I was not aware of this technique, and so far I used it for small lists of things, and they seemed to work. We’ll see for challenging, longer lists. And also it remains to be seen in what situations this is better than just writing it down.

The Hard Start-Jump to Easy technique is a test-taking approach I was also unaware of. My best strategy when taking exams and tests was to find the easiest questions and tackle those first, leaving the hard ones for later. The course offers another idea: you start by taking a hard question. Once you feel you got stuck in it and can’t progress, you leave it unfinished and then move to the easy questions. The rationale is this warms up your brain, or sets it in focus, so you gain some performance. 

I seldom take tests these days but I can suppose this is applicable to our own day: start by tackling a hard task, use it to jumpstart our focus, and then move on to easy tasks. Maybe some fine-tuning on this idea can improve performance. I do know that I start my day, whenever possible, by studying, usually things with very long-term goals.

I wish the course went in deeper with practical examples instead of overvarnishing each concept. Still it was enjoyable and it seems likely that it’s going to add to my repertoire for learning.