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If you want to improve your high school and college grades, and to have more free time, you need to check out the free online course Learning How To Learn, where two professors from University of California San Diego will share with you scientific findings from psychology, cognitive sciences, neurophysiology and anatomy the pen out the best learning strategies. 

In this blog below we will outline a couple of such learning strategies, though we still recommend you go and check out this course on Coursera. 

Optimize your learning by alternating between diffused and focused modes

The first important idea that will help you learn better is a distinction between a focused and diffuse mode of learning. Focused mode is when you trying to learn something or solve a problem by focusing your uninterrupted attention on the matter. Diffuse mode is when you’re not trying to think about a problem or study your subject, and still, the processing is going on in your subconscious mind, tying new information or your problem to the vast bank of information that you already have. The best way to study is to alternate between these two modes, that is - studying intently for some time (20 minutes to 90 minutes) and then take a break, take a walk, read something unrelated or rest in any other way. While you’re working on the problem and seem to be struggling with it, toiling on it for an hour without being able to figure out the solution, it’s especially important to take a walk (here's an article about how walking makes us think).

The best way to study is to alternate between focised and diffused modes of thinking, that is to stidy intently for some time (20 minutes to 90 minutes) and then take a break, take a walk, do someting you like

You’re trying to solve a problem with your conscious mind, and if it’s not working, you need to allow your unconscious to do the job. The unconscious mind holds much more neurons than our conscious mind - the conscious mind is basically being pre-frontal cortex, and the difference between two “minds” can be illustrated with this comparison. The conscious mind is like your personal computer that holds a limited amount of information but a few programs that can perform a few operations in a structured and organized way. The unconscious mind is like Google, everything is there, but it’s unstructured and you need to have a special algorithm crawling this space to retrieve necessary information. We want to have access to that raw information, therefore when you’re working on a problem or learning a new thing, you need to take a walk after some time to let your mind wander around, retrieve necessary information from the databanks, or record what you have just learned in those databanks. 

Deal with procrastination head-on: face the pain

The second idea concerns advice on procrastination. When we are thinking about things that we don’t feel like doing, we’re activating areas of our brain associated with pain - insular cortex. The brain literally “feels the pain” just at the thought of necessity to do something undesirable. This pain makes us postpone these actions for later, thus perpetuating the pain itself, because the task ain’t gonna disappear anywhere. Moreover, if left unsolved, tough tasks can create even more painful repercussions (you can check a study about it: Steel, Piers. "The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure." Psychological Bulletin 133, no. 1 (Jan 2007): 65-94.).

Luckily, scientists have found that the pain associated with unwanted activity disappears a few minutes after you start doing this activity. So in other words, you feel the unpleasantness only when you're contemplating the task, but once you start working on it, the feeling will go toward neutral and even more, you might start enjoying it. So our methodology of dealing with procrastination is facing the pain. Plan all the tasks that you need to do today, and once you face an unpleasant one, stop yourself from distractions. Distractions feel pleasant because they do not require any mental effort. Try to eliminate the distractions (close your Facebook page, turn off the TV, etc.) and set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes during which you will do nothing but this task. You will see that doing even one chunk of such activity a day, you will actually start to tackle it, and diminish your aversion of attention-intensive tasks. When you (initially) force yourself to concentrate, you actually condition yourself. You are building neural patterns that you need to be more successful in learning more challenging material. You need to practice these brief periods of focused attention every working day, and you rewire your brain to be able to do some deep work. 

The pain associated with unwanted activity disappears a few minutes after you start doing this activity. So in other words, you feel the unpleasantness only when you're contemplating the task, but once you start working on it, the feeling will go toward neutral and even more, you might start enjoying it. So our methodology of dealing with procrastination is facing the pain.

Take care of your sleep

A third idea I would like to share with you is the HUGE importance of sleep. Just being awake generated metabolic toxins in our brain. When we sleep, our brain cells shrink and our intercellular fluid washes away the toxins, restoring our brain functions (you can read more about it here ). During sleep, our conscious self (pre-frontal cortex) is deactivated, which allows other parts of the brain to “talk to each other” and exchange information to find a solution to the unsolved tasks. Thus during sleep, the brain tidies up important ideas, records important information from short-term memory into long-term memory, and erases unimportant info. It’s hard to believe, but learning actually happens in sleep. If you learn some material with great care throughout all day but do not sleep, this material will never get to your long-term memory. That is to say, you will forget everything that you learn in 1-2 days. When you sleep, your hypothalamus "consolidates the memories” - takes information from working memory, compares it to previously recorded information, associates it with relevant information in short-term memory and thus records it. If you study right before going to sleep, you raise your chances of dreaming about the information you study, which is very good for learning, because dreaming about what you study consolidates your memories. 

Learning actually happens in sleep. If you learn some material with great care throughout all day but do not sleep, this material will never get to your long-term memory.

So that’s the most important advice for all our dear students for today: spend half an hour intently focusing on the material that you want to study, take a walk, and then have a good night's sleep!


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