Tuesday, January 27, 2015


(Graphics are taken from Microsoft Word 2010 Clip Art)

 While completing Activity #17- learning about Online Education for DiscoTech 2.0, I explored Coursera and discovered a course called "Learning How to Learn". I was intrigued because one of the instructors Dr. Barbara Oakley had studied Russian and worked on a Russian trawler (I was a Russian major at Macalester way back when) and also had been in Antarctica which is a place my son is fascinated by, but in any case I digress and this is something I was also intrigued by in the course, learning how to learn and how to deal with distractions and procrastination.


Procrastination happens when we are cued by something like a homework assignment or a looming project or performance review and it activates an area in our brain associated with pain. Our brain looks for a way to stop the pain by switching our attention to something else, but if instead of giving into this desire/impulse to switch to something else you start working on the less desired task it has been found that the discomfort tends to fade away.

However, we often give in to the temptation towards the more pleasant-web surfing, e-mail, even-gasp-cleaning and for a while we feel better because the discomfort seems like it is gone. If we can learn to recognize what cues lead us towards procrastination, change our routine, and reward our efforts, it can lead to greater success. For me, an assignment, a task that I need to complete and compile my thoughts feels at times insurmountable and so I am easily distracted, especially by e-mail. So I am changing my routine and my e-mail is OFF. Well, I could easily turn it on but I am resisting.....I am trying to rewire my old habit (although I REALLY WANT TO LOOK AT MY E-MAIL). In Learning How to Learn we are taught that it helps to have a plan-maybe you leave your cell phone in your car when you go to a class or a meeting, maybe you go to a quiet (well, we try to have it be quiet) library to study without distractions.

One technique for helping with this is the Pomodoro Technique. This is a technique of setting a 25 minute (or can be adjusted to whatever makes sense for you) period of time of focus when you get rid of outside distractions and you just work, chipping away at whatever needs to be done and after the 25 minutes (or whatever period of time you set) you give yourself some kind of reward...that is the next step in dealing with procrastination-first recognize the cue, work on changing/rewiring the routine, and then give yourself a reward.

The reward could be feeling proud that you did it, that you made it through, it could be reading a book, reading your e-mail, etc. My treat right now is that I inserted this graphic because I love sticking graphics in, but now I'm reining it in to tell you more. Some people schedule rewards at certain times. Dr. Oakley suggests keeping a journal of one's efforts to deal with procrastination, what works, what doesn't (don't worry, you won't necessarily have success at first or you may have setbacks), just keep at it. The final step after recognizing cues, changing routines, the reward, is the belief--we need to believe that we can do it. When temptation to go off course calls to me, I have to believe that I can get through what is making me squirmy-this can be helped sometimes by hanging out with others or studying others who have attitudes/work ethics that we admire and are inspired by and can help us remember that we can do it too.

Having this belief can help me tell myself that I can get through the anxious feelings that may accompany starting a project. Another thing I can do is to think about the process (flow of time and habits and actions that go along with it) and not the product (outcome). Instead of focusing on how much I have to do and/or what I need to accomplish, I focus on how I handle the time I have by building habits that will help me get through it like breaking projects down into manageable chunks using the Pomodoro Technique (or other methods). By doing this I get away from the anxiety-producing thoughts about the product and what has to get done. I focus on techniques that will keep me going through whatever amount of time I have committed myself to work for and give it my all. I try to avoid distractions, but when one comes up I try to not let it derail me too greatly.

Um, Erin, why is there a picture of a sidewalk in the middle of your blog post? Are you getting distracted?

Well, I do love graphics, but in this case there is a reason. Another thing I learned in this class is that using visuals and mnemonics can help with retention and retrieval. So, I have a picture of a curb. Why? Well, CRRB (Cue, Routine, Reward, Belief-CRRB -kind of sounds like curb, right?) Also in my head I am picturing that a cue to procrastinate could turn you down one path, but if you change your routine it could get you to turn/change your path and the reward is that you get where you want and then success makes you believe you can do it again. Another thing I learned about memories is that apparently we have pretty powerful visual memories, so if we can tap into that, it helps with making long term memories. Some people create memory palaces where they store things they want to remember by visualizing someplace they know well and "placing" the items they want to remember into this place.

On a side note I think putting things to music can help too. I still remember an episode of Cheers where Coach and Sam were taking a class and Coach says you can learn anything if you put it to music. I can still sing the song Coach created about Albania from memory. I also can remember an Anna Akhmatova poem I learned as part of a language learning semester in Russia. We were asked to commit a poem to memory and recite it and after many times practicing it I finally got it down. I mostly remember it today, although I discovered I had accidentally let go one part of it, but now I will try to add this part back to my memory.

Another fascinating thing I learned in the is class was about illusions of competence. I was somewhat stunned and disappointed to hear that just reading or re-reading a text and/or highlighting what you read or your notes or whatever may help you recall information for a test, but doesn't generally help with long time recall. Darn! and here all this time I thought the highlighter was directly inputting the information into my brain, bummer! However, if you take notes where you synthesize what you are learning, that can help because you are actively processing what you have learned.

Here is a really valuable resource:

10 Rules of Good Studying
Excerpted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014
1. Use recall. After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. An ability to recall—to generate the ideas from inside yourself—is one of the key indicators of good learning.
2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.
3. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Pretend it’s a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind, so the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want. (This is like my memorizing a poem in Russian way back when-Erin)
4. Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete. Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your practice. Never practice too long at any one session using only one problem-solving technique—after a while, you are just mimicking what you did on the previous problem. Mix it up and work on different types of problems. This teaches you both how and when to use a technique. (Books generally are not set up this way, so you’ll need to do this on your own.) After every assignment and test, go over your errors, make sure you understand why you made them, and then rework your solutions. To study most effectively, hand write (don’t type) a problem on one side of a flash card and the solution on the other. (Handwriting builds stronger neural structures in memory than typing.) You might also photograph the card if you want to load it into a study app on your smartphone. Quiz yourself randomly on different types of problems. Another way to do this is to randomly flip through your book, pick out a problem, and see whether you can solve it cold.
6. Take breaks. It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts in math or science the first time you encounter them. This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying all at once. When you get frustrated with a math or science problem, take a break so that another part of your mind can take over and work in the background.
7. Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, think to yourself, How can I explain this so that a ten-year-old could understand it? Using an analogy really helps, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water. Don’t just think your explanation—say it out loud or put it in writing. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are learning.
8. Focus. Turn off all interrupting beeps and alarms on your phone and computer, and then turn on a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus intently for those twenty-five minutes and try to work as diligently as you can. After the timer goes off, give yourself a small, fun reward. A few of these sessions in a day can really move your studies forward. Try to set up times and places where studying—not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you naturally do.
9. Eat your frogs firstDo the hardest thing earliest in the day, when you are fresh.
10. Make a mental contrast. Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies will take you. Post a picture or words in your workspace to remind you of your dream. Look at that when you find your motivation lagging. This work will pay off both for you and those you love!

Ten Rules of Bad Studying
Excerpted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014
Avoid these techniques—they can waste your time even while they fool you into thinking you’re learning!
1. Passive rereading—sitting passively and running your eyes back over a page. Unless you can prove that the material is moving into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, rereading is a waste of time.
2. Letting highlights overwhelm you. Highlighting your text can fool your mind into thinking you are putting something in your brain, when all you’re really doing is moving your hand. A little highlighting here and there is okay—sometimes it can be helpful in flagging important points. But if you are using highlighting as a memory tool, make sure that what you mark is also going into your brain.
3. Merely glancing at a problem’s solution and thinking you know how to do it. This is one of the worst errors students make while studying. You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step, without looking at the solution.
4. Waiting until the last minute to study. Would you cram at the last minute if you were practicing for a track meet? Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
5. Repeatedly solving problems of the same type that you already know how to solve. If you just sit around solving similar problems during your practice, you’re not actually preparing for a test—it’s like preparing for a big basketball game by just practicing your dribbling.
6. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions. Checking your problem solving with friends, and quizzing one another on what you know, can make learning more enjoyable, expose flaws in your thinking, and deepen your learning. But if your joint study sessions turn to fun before the work is done, you’re wasting your time and should find another study group.
7. Neglecting to read the textbook before you start working problems. Would you dive into a pool before you knew how to swim? The textbook is your swimming instructor—it guides you toward the answers. You will flounder and waste your time if you don’t bother to read it. Before you begin to read, however, take a quick glance over the chapter or section to get a sense of what it’s about.
8. Not checking with your instructors or classmates to clear up points of confusion. Professors are used to lost students coming in for guidance—it’s our job to help you. The students we worry about are the ones who don’t come in. Don’t be one of those students.
9. Thinking you can learn deeply when you are being constantly distracted. Every tiny pull toward an instant message or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to learning. Every tug of interrupted attention pulls out tiny neural roots before they can grow.
10. Not getting enough sleep. Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep, and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in mind before you go to sleep. Prolonged fatigue allows toxins to build up in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and well. If you don’t get a good sleep before a test, NOTHING ELSE YOU HAVE DONE WILL MATTER.

There's a lot here, but take some time to look it over. Basically it says that we can't just input the information in to our brain by listening or reading one time or just cramming it in right before it is due..well, some cramming may get you some results for a test, but it won't lead to future recall. Brains need repetitive and active input. Do a little at at time, pick some days to study and then do studying in small amounts and test yourself to see if you can remember it. Flash cards can be very helpful and writing the flashcards by hand can be even more helpful as writing seems to help with retention.

This inspired me in a way to help my son, Max, who has in the last year or so developed a passion for learning Russian (my husband is Russian/Ukrainian) and Max has been asking me to write down words for him to memorize. I took a mini notepad and turned it so it was horizontal so the coiled spine is pointing up and have him write the English word on one side of the paper and the Russian word on the other side-so it's like an index card. I have him write it because of the connection between writing and memory and also because I want him to practice writing in Russian which uses a different alphabet. This way he can test himself by seeing if he can recall either the English or the Russian and we can keep adding new words.  There are many sources of online flash cards that are supposed to be good like Anki and Quizlet and StudyBlue. Some others I came across are Bitsboards (an app that can be downloaded-this can help make flashcards and boards, etc.) and Scholastic has nice resources for studying, writing and teaching (some are subscription but there are a number that are free), and I discovered they have a flash card maker. Quizzing yourself, making yourself recall (or practice) problems or things you need to memorize helps them stick in your memory as the retrieval helps in ingraining the information into our memories. It also helps us see what we don't know and need to work on.

An interesting thing that I learned is that you should practice spaced and interleaved learning.  This means not cramming as I mentioned before, but bit by bit over several times and interleaving refers to not practicing the same way/same types of problems each time. Instead use a variety of problems (both in type and difficulty) and techniques. This helps build creativity and flexibility as well as retention. Other ways to help with recall are having you or the person you are working with talk about why they are learning what they are learning and/or how it relates to something else that you/they have learned. I was surprised to find out that one should vary where one studies because apparently as we are studying our brain takes our surroundings in and that studying in different places can help the brain not be dependent on the surroundings to recall the information. I really like this article which examines different studying techniques.

I can't possibly cover everything this class does, but I will end with the importance of taking breaks and getting sleep and also getting exercise. I have learned that one can over-learn and that cramming and massed studying don't lead to greater retention. One needs sleep and breaks for the brain to relax and process and store memories. Planning when one is to be done studying is just as important as planning when to study. Sleep is also important because the brain needs a chance to rid itself of toxins (Toxins-who knew? But, on the other hand if digesting produces waste why shouldn't thinking, I guess).

In short, I highly recommend this class and am happy to share further what I've learned if anyone is interested. As Dr. Oakley says at the end of each video lesson, "Thanks for learning how to learn!"

Erin Zolotukhin-Ridgway, Librarian II
George Latimer Central Library


ash966 said...

Transparent Language also uses virtual flashcards.

--Andrea H.

Erin Z-R said...

Very true. Max and I sometimes use this to study Russian. It's nice because it keeps testing you on the ones you struggle with.