How Experts Master Challenging Material
Updated August 2017
No doubt about it, studying at least a little bit of the Spanish language is required to get the most out of visiting or living in Mexico.
By middle age I assumed that I at least knew how to learn, but after more than a year of revisiting the Spanish language, I wondered if I was studying as efficiently as I could.
So when I stumbled upon a course taught by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejinowski at the University of San Diego called “Learning How to Learn,” I decided to take the course. The first thing I learned was that I had been approaching the learning process wrong my whole life.
Not only was I not learning as effectively as I could, often I was making the process of learning unpleasant.
Here I will share a few key points that might help if you are undertaking learning anything new. If you aren’t learning anything new, maybe these tips will spur you to tackle a new subject by making learning fun again
1. Alternate focused learning, characterized by structured repetition and rote learning, with relaxed modes of learning that require a diffused mode of thinking.
Your brain is under a heavy cognitive load when you learn something new. Breaking up the modes of learning helps your brain make more connections between disparate ideas or between disparate bits of information. In learning Spanish, diffused modes of studying might be relaxing with movies or music in the language.
As another example of diffused thinking, Thomas Edison used to think on a problem in a concentrated, focused mode, then relax on the sofa with ball bearings in his hand. When he dozed off enough, he’d drop the ball bearings and the clatter would wake him up. Often he’d wake up with additional insight into the problem he’d been noodling. Most heavy lifting in learning actually occurs under the radar of our consciousness, in this diffused mode.
2. Study a little every day. You need to do a little learning in a new subject consistently to most effectively build neuro-scaffolding to hang new thinking on.
Just as you would not train for six hours every Saturday for a bodybuilding contest, you are better off studying your new subject for 20 minutes a day than for four hours on the weekend. Slower learning, according to Oakely, enables your mental “mortar” to set. Cramming creates crumbly mortar.
3. Reward yourself. Rather than force yourself to study through sheer will, you can better resist procrastination by rewarding yourself for blocks of studying you have completed.
You reinforce procrastination when you “reward” yourself for not studying. When you watching a movie rather than study, you trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure. In a sense, you can chemically addict yourself to procrastination.
By reinforcing your studying with rewards like a walk or 15 minutes of Facebook after a set period of study, your brain begins to associate pleasure with learning something challenging.
The more challenging the material, the more periodic the rewards should be. I always kind of thought rewards were for sissies and would bust through hours of study without break. No wonder it was hard to pick up the Spanish grammar books again.
4. Practice makes permanent. The first time you solve a problem, the neuron connections are weak. By practice you deepen the connection.
“Chunks” are information bound together by meaning or use. Practicing over time, the “chunk” of learning in the front of your brain, where short-term learning occurs, develops to the point that the chunk can move to a permanent spot in your long-term memory, in the the back of your brain.
You still need to review the material from time to time once the material becomes part of your long-term memory but the review takes far less effort than the initial learning.
5. Create an enriched environment. One way to create an enriched environment is to incorporate exercise into your study plan. Studies have shown that exercise is a diffused form of learning; your muscles rather than your brain are processing information.
In learning a language, you enrich your learning environment by having study partners or talking to native speakers. Social elements of study are enrichment tactics.
6. Learn the basic idea first. Don’t just dive in to the subject material (like I used to). Read the headings, the table of contents and skim the material first to get an understanding of how the ideas fit together before heading into focused mode for concentrated learning.
7. Test yourself often. Only by doing something yourself will you complete the creating of the neuro-patterns underlying mastery.
Studies by neuroscientists show that the retrieval process stimulated by testing does more to produce learning that re-reading or re-studying. Retrieval is a form of deep study that builds neuro-”hooks” to hang our thinking on. By only studying and not testing ourselves, we create the “illusion of competence” that prevents real learning.
The hardest association to break for me was the association between testing and pain from my college days. Over time I have learned to welcome mistakes as something that would shine a light on the gaps in my learning rather than make me flunk class.
Verb drills, the bugaboo for all Spanish students, are more like a game than something to dread now that I am not looking at wrong answers as indications of some kind of personal failure.
Thankfully, language programs have come a long way since I first studied Spanish in high school. These days they likely incorporate elements of gaming into their testing methods to make the quizzes more fun and motivating.
The best language learning programs contain structured repetition, rote learning with talking, practice and relaxed diffused methods.
The initial learning curve for many hobbies is steep so whether you are learning languages or learning to play chess, reward yourself frequently and relax - you’re no longer going to flunk the course and be thrown out of school.
Related link: Meetup groups are the best way to warm up your language skills when learning in the U.S in preparation for expat life. Ventanas Mexico
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Hi, I am a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to those considering expat life in Mexico, including the recently released, "If Only I Had a Place" on renting luxuriously in Mexico for less, written especially for aspiring expats.
I am also author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web. If you're thinking about expat life, get started today. Speaking spanish will save you money, frustration and help you get the most out of expat life.