Hundreds of thousands of students struggle with learning “difficult” subjects such as Science and Maths. While the problem may lie in the topics in and of themselves, these issues often find themselves stemming from the method of learning. To avoid these obstacles, students must learn how to learn. Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland and McMaster University and creator of “Learning how to learn” course on Coursera, reached out to some of the top professors in the world who not only succeeded at their specific areas of expertise but also who could teach just about any topic as effectively. After speaking to these teachers, she found out that the learning methods between all of the people from the group were similar.
So, how to learn? There are essentially two modes of learning a topic: Focused Mode and Diffused Mode. Focused mode involves keeping a topic in mind and focusing on that. It includes topics that you are somewhat familiar with(for eg.Historic events, The multiplication table). Your brain draws connections between your starting point and the problem that you are dealing with until your mind grasps the concept tightly with regards to the knowledge that you have beforehand. But what if you find yourself trying to learn a new idea or solve a new problem that is entirely foreign to you? This is where Diffused mode comes in the picture. In diffused mode, you think of the problem or the concept with a broader image in mind to be able to grasp the roots of a particular topic or question. While diffused mode does not give you the ability to focus carefully on a specific topic, that focused mode gives you; it gets you to the place you need to be in to grapple with the new ideas.
A perfect example would be that of Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history. Whenever Edison faced a problem related to his inventions, he would sit in a chair, relaxing and letting his mind wander off, thinking about the issue in a very relaxed manner. He would keep ball bearings in his hand, so just as he was about to sleep, the ball bearings would fall from his grip, waking him up. He would then take the ideas he gathered from diffused mode into the focused manner and implement them in his inventions to refine them.
The bottom line is: whenever you study or learn something, you want to go back and forth with these modes. If you find yourself working on a new problem and you get stuck, you want to turn your focus away from the problem, think about the problem with relation to concepts you have already dealt with, and let the diffused modes to do their work.
Happy learning! Team – WinUall