Learning How to Learn

We humans are born poised for learning. But we don’t necessarily know how to learn what doesn’t come easily to us.

Blue exam book cover. Tests are useful to the learning process, it turns out.For years after I finished college, I had a recurrent nightmare. I was sitting down to take a final exam, and I realized I hadn’t even opened the textbook. As you might guess, I’d had a rocky time in college. It was a liberal arts school where the ideal was to be studying all the time. Our workload reflected that. I literally got every grade you can get, from A+ to F.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: I’m still curious about myself and the world around me. I love learning. So when I stumbled across a reference to “learning how to learn,” I immediately clicked on the link.

It lead me to a New York Times article about an online course taught by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski. Oakley had failed science and math in high school. She decided in her twenties to get an engineering degree and taught herself how to learn the material which didn’t come easily to her. Now she’s an engineering professor.

When I read that, I signed up for the course immediately. Hey, it’s free! (Unless you’d like a certificate: then it’s $49.) And the info’s invaluable.

The material, backed by research in neuroscience—with plenty of supplemental material if you want to dig deeper—complements what I’ve learned, from a different perspective, as a Feldenkrais teacher.

tomato kitchen timer

A Pomodoro kitchen timer. “Pomodoro” means “tomato” in Italian.

Just a few of the concepts from the course:

  • Emphasize the process not the product
  • Practice the Pomodoro technique: studying in 25-minute periods
  • Give yourself rewards
  • Alternate between focused and diffused attention
  • Spread your learning out over time; don’t try to pack it all into one or two days
  • Get a good night’s sleep before exams

I wish this course had been offered before I went to college. I’m certainly glad I’ve taken it now.

Going deeper with learning

Are you ready to learn how to learn? Register for the course here, on Coursera. Apparently it’s their most popular course, by far. I’m not surprised.

Would you like to discover more about how the Feldenkrais Method® supports learning? Here are core principles suggested by Norman Doidge, MD.

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