Thursday, January 29, 2015

Learning How to Learn

This blog post is a course assignment for the Coursera MOOC titled "Learning How to Learn" taught by Prof Barbara Oakley and Prof Terrance Sejnowski, University of California, San Diego. Here I discuss my ideas and experiences with three of the learning techniques mentioned in the course: (1) Switching between focused and diffuse mode of thinking, (2) Memory: spaced repetition and associations, and (3) Interleaving.

1. Focused and diffuse mode of thinking

The pinball analogy described by Prof Barbara Oakley is a very elegant way of conveying how the focused and diffuse mode of thinking work.

Depiction of focused and diffuse mode of thinking in Prof Barbara Oakley's lecture.

The importance of playing ping-pong between these two modes in cementing the learning cannot be over-emphasized. Several accomplished people have vouched for it. Prof Arindam Ghosh at the Indian Institute of Science is a renowned scientist in the field of low-temperature nano-electronics. I happened to be team mates with him in the institute cricket team and once did an interview of him where he stressed the importance of playing sports. "Sport rejuvenates the mind. In research or, for that matter, any profession that involves a fair deal of thought, it is very easy to get stuck in a thinking loop. Sports helps break that loop so that you can start your thought process afresh, from a new perspective", he avers. You can read the full interview here.

I've come up with my own analogy to illustrate the importance of switching between the focused and diffuse modes. Picture a fly trying to escape out of a car banging against the glass window. The window is half open but the fly is pushing away at the closed part of the window duped by its transparency. Its trying really hard in its focused approach to get out of the car. But no amount of pushing and buzzing against the glass will solve the fly's problem. What it needs to do is to back away from the glass (akin to going into a relaxed diffuse mode) and come back at it a few inches from where it had approached earlier and voila! It's an open window. The problem is solved, the fly is free.

2. Memory: Spaced Repetition and Associations

I tend to browse and read about a diverse range of subjects. In the process of looking up new information all the time, I might not repeat what I already learnt and hence tend to forget many of the things that I learn. On the contrary, when it comes to identifying plants along with their common and scientific names and their key features, I found that I had a very good memory. The key difference that I noticed was that of spaced repetition. Every time I take a walk in the campus to and from my laboratory, I notice these plants and recall their names while observing them. This routine of recall and spaced repetition helped cement the details of these plants in my mind. I now intend to use the same technique in other aspects of my learning.

Another common problem that I had was to frequently forget where I parked my bicycle possibly because I'm absent minded, not paying attention while I'm parking. Lately, I started leveraging my good plant memory for solving this problem. Every time I park my bicycle, I notice the nearest tree. By building this association, the next time I'm looking for the bike I just have to recall the tree and I find my bike!

3. Interleaving

Prof Barbara Oakley stresses the importance of interleaving one's learning using various techniques and from various perspectives. This helps in gaining a better understanding and in better retention of the material. An interleaving technique that I often use and that has helped me in learning various subjects is what I call "Repeated Classification" of the material. I shall illustrate this technique in the following paragraphs.

Number based classification
After having studied a chapter or several chapters of a book on a subject XYZ, I try to cull out all the numbers mentioned in the text and put them together in a list called "XYZ in numbers." E.g. recently I attended a colloquium by Prof Arnab Rai Choudhuri titled "The mysterious magnetic personality of our sun." I distilled out the numbers he presented at various points of the talk as follows.

The sun in numbers:
Surface temperature of sun = 6000K
Temperature at sunspots = 3000-4500K
Temperature of corona discharge = 1,000,000K
Strength of the sun's poloidal magnetic field = 0.3T
Strength of the magnetic field at sunspots = 10T
Time taken by the sun to complete one rotation about its own axis = 27 days
Time period of the sunspot cycles = 11 years
Time period of the polar magnetic field reversals = 22 years

Time based classification: (when)
Another form of classification is based on the historical timeline of events pertaining to a field of study. Systematically listing down the years of occurrence of significant events provides a sense of how a particular field evolved and creates a storyline that makes it easier to grasp the complete picture. Call it the "Timeline of XYZ."

Spatial classification: (where)
Making a list of places and the associated events is another handy way of classifying. Marking the places on map is even better. This can provide insights on how geographically diverse or concentrated the development of a particular field has been. Call it the "XYZ map."

People based classification: (who)
List down the names of all the people associated with the field of study, preferably along with their significant contributions and quotes. Here's a list of the people who appeared in the 'Learning How to Learn' course lectures and interview videos along with a memorable quote or key take-way from each of them:

Dr Barbara Oakley: "Do not just FOLLOW your passions. Instead, BROADEN your passions."

Dr Terrance Sejnowski: "Unfortunately, there is no instruction manual for the brain."

Dr Robert Bilder: "Disagreeability can spark creativity."

Daphne Gray-Grant: "Do not edit while writing!"

Benny Lewis: "Why children learn language easily is because they are not afraid of making mistakes."

Dr Norman Fortenberry: "Multi-mode input is critical for learning."

Scott Young: "Learn a language by immersing yourself in it."

Amy Alkon: "Fast reading tip: approach a book like a buffet; do not eat everything!"

Dr Robert Gamache: "Study every subject everyday, even if it is for only 10 min"

Dr Keith Devlin: "Switching from one task to another is when one is most likely to fall into the procrastination trap."

Dr Richard Felder: "Don't wait for that 'block of time' to get things done. Do the task in short bursts with whatever time slots are available."

Dr Rebecca Brent: "Give your subconscious an assignment."

John G Maguire: "The secret to good writing is objects, not ideas."

Kalid Azad: "The ADEPT method of learning: Analogy, Diagram, Example, Plain English, Technical Description."

While we looked at questions like how many, how much, when, where and who, several other ways of classification are possible using 'what' based questions. E.g. classifications based on techniques, methods, objectives, products, types, resources etc. There are no limitations to how many different ways you can classify the material and play with it providing various insightful perspectives. It is down to your own imagination. Happy learning!