Dr Puja Myles is a volunteer and member of the Leadership Group. Puja is a Public Health Academic based in the Division of Epidemiology and Public Health, at the University of Nottingham, UK. In this article she shares her reflections on a course that teaches how to learn. By the time we reach MPH level study we often assume that we know how to study effectively, but you may be surprised by some of the issues Puja summarises below. You may also recognise some of them!I have just finished a very interesting course called ‘Learning how to Learn’ on Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/course/learning) which I would highly recommend to all learners irrespective of age or the type of learning they are engaged in. Essentially, the aim of this course is to introduce students to evidence-based learning strategies that can make them effective learners. In this post I am going to share some of my favourite learning strategies from the course.
  1. Dealing with procrastination: Have you ever struggled with procrastination, putting off studying with all sorts of excuses (like suddenly deciding the cupboards need cleaning or just needing to go to the shop to buy a new notebook to help you study better)? If yes, then the Pomodoro technique is what you need. The Pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo (1) and uses a timer to break down work into more manageable 25-minute distraction-free work chunks punctuated with short 3-5 minute breaks. A classic ‘Pomodoro set’ is made of four such pomodoros and each set should be followed by a 20-20 minute break. During an active ‘pomodoro’ session, you essentially enter into a ‘focused mode of thinking’ that enables you to focus on detail. A bit of physical activity during breaks can unlock the ‘diffused mode’ of thinking that is associated with ‘big picture thinking’ and allows the brain to make connections between different concepts. According to Oakley, effective learning takes place when both focused and diffused modes of learning are combined (2).
  1. The importance of breaks and spacing of your studying: Research has shown that breaks and sleep  are important for consolidating memory patterns associated with new learning so don’t try last-minute cramming without breaks or sleep for a test (3-5). It is better to space learning and practice over a longer period of time to embed new concepts in your memory for e.g. it is preferable to spend half an hour every other day in a week than putting in a solid 3-5 hour chunk of work just once a week (6).
  1. Practice, practice, practice: Another interesting concept that is covered on this course is the ‘illusion of competence’ (2). I myself have fallen into this trap many times and seem to be especially prone to this when it comes to studying problem solving subjects like epidemiology or statistics. This is how it works- you listen to the lecture or glance through the notes including the problem based exercises and the worked solutions; it all looks straightforward and you feel confident that you will be able to replicate it, until of course the moment you actually have to solve the problem by yourself. How can you avoid this ‘illusion of competence’? Lots and lots of practice- may not sound appealing but it is the only sure-fire way of mastering skills based competencies.
  1. Interleaving of practice: Research has shown that it is better to ‘mix-up’ (or ‘interleave’) your practice rather than attempt to practice in ‘blocks’ (7). In order to implement this, mix up problems from different chapters or topics to help you improve your ability to discriminate between different types of problems.
  1. The evidence for the role of handwritten notes and other commonly used learning aids: I have personally been a fan of handwritten notes to help with learning and now there is research to suggest that handwriting allows students to process information better thus aiding understanding and memory encoding (8, 9). Interestingly though, underlining and highlighting without thought is not only ineffective, but potentially misleading as it can contribute to the ‘illusion of competence’ (2). Using flash cards to help prepare for an exam can be helpful as practicing ‘retrieval’ of information helps embed a new concept more firmly in the long-term memory (2, 10).
There are numerous more learning strategies covered in this course and if this post has inspired you to learn more about how to learn, you can either enrol for the next offering of this course (a free option is available) on Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/course/learning) or get hold of the book by Barbara Oakley (2). References:
  1. Cirillo F. (2009). The Pomodoro Technique. www.pomodorotechnique.com  [Accessed on 25.08.2014]
  2. Oakley, B. (2014). A mind for numbers: How to excel at Math and Science (even if you flunked algebra). Penguin. Pp:336.
  3. Ellenbogen, J.M., Hu, P.T., Payne, J.D., Titone, D., Walker, M.P. (2007). Human relational memory requires time and sleep. PNAS 104(18): 7723-28.
  4. Djonlagic et al. (2009). Sleep enhances category learning. Learning and Memory. 16:751-755.
  5. Eichenbaum, H. (2007). To sleep, perchance to integrate.PNAS. 104 (18): 7317-7318.
  6. Logan, J.M., Castel, A.D., Haber, S. and Viehman, E.J. (2012). Metacognition and spacing effect: The role of repetition, feedback, and instruction on judgements of learning for massed and spaced rehearsal. Metacognition and Learning. 7(3): 175-95.
  7. Taylor, K. and Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 24: 837-848.
  8. Longchamp, M. et al. (2008). Learning through hand-or typewriting influences visual recognition of new graphic shapes: behavioural and functional imaging evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20(5): 802-15.
  9. Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.A. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science. Doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581.
  10. Karpicke, J.D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 21(3): 157-163.

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