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Learning tips from a wildly successful online course


Learning How to Learn” is online education provider Coursera’s most popular course of all time, with 1.8 million students from 200 countries.

The course, created by Dr. Barbara Oakley, demonstrates how to use approaches drawn from neuroscience to enhance learning capability and improve focus. Oakley is a university professor and author of “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.”

In order to learn to your full potential, Oakley says it’s important to understand focused and diffuse modes of thinking, and to be adept at switching between the two – a good way of doing this is to use the Pomodoro technique. Focused thinking is where you concentrate intently on the material at hand; diffuse is when your attention relaxes, perhaps during a break or a less-intensive task. This is when new information is processed by the brain, when connections and insights occur.

It’s good to form learning material into “chunks” – for instance a chord progression rather than individual chords, or a phrase rather than single words. These chunks create context and patterns, enabling them to be more easily remembered and recalled. Also, chunks can be associated with other chunks to form more complex knowledge.

Finally Oakley distinguishes between learners with “race-car brains”, who quickly gather and understand information; and “hiker brains” who take their time and notice more detail. Recognising which applies to you will help you devise a strategy to maximise your own learning potential.

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