Learning is an instinctual process, but effective learning strategies have to become habitual.
Many people have a problem with mastering math and science, although in most cases language is not a significant barrier. Math uses the language of numbers, which is universal, while science typically uses terms that are not native to any modern society. Yet some people do very well in both fields without even being particularly good in school. Famous figures in science and math that flunked school are Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, and more recently, Jack Horner.
Of course, most people would be happy just to get through their Math and Science projects with a whole skin. To do this, they have to be taught the right approach to absorbing the information from these two citadels of learning.
Here are 5 learning strategies students can adopt to grasp new materials and concepts and master Math and Science.
Believe it or not, the first key strategy for learning math and science is to sleep on it.
Any type of learning requires you to be on the top of your game, because the brain has to work hard to make the right connections. If you don’t get enough quality sleep to prep your brain for the workout it needs to do, it makes it harder to get the job done.
Additionally, scientists believe that learning and memory are tied in with sleep. You take in new information while you are awake, of course, but you actually do most of putting it together in your sleep.
They do not know this for sure, though, because the functions and mechanisms of sleep is still a deep mystery. Based on observation, however, people appear to recall what they learned better after they have had a chance to get a few hours of restful sleep. Some speculate that this is due to a better ability to focus on the task at hand, while others believe that it is when the active brain is quiescent that neural pathways have a chance to form.
Regardless of the reason, the fact is, people learn better when they get enough sleep. Whenever you feel yourself going around in circles trying to understand a new concept or solve a problem, take a break and sleep on it. There is a good chance you will see connections you did not see before.
Break the Material Down into Conceptual Chunks
You probably have a computer, and probably know that it has random access memory (RAM). This is where the computer processor keeps temporary files before it is saved into the hard drive, which is where permanent files are kept and which you can retrieve at anytime.
When you type out a document, the processor creates a temporary file for it so that you can work on it without saving it. However, if you shut down the screen or the computer and you forget to save the file, whatever you worked on is deleted forever.
The brain works in much the same way. The RAM is your short term memory, and the hard drive is your long-term memory. In order to learn something for future use, you need to “save” the information in your long-term memory, which is has infinite storage space. However, your short-term memory, just like RAM, has limited storage. You can only take in so much information before your brain either crashes, or you forget some vital data you may need.
The way to deal with this overload is by chunking. This means breaking up large concepts into manageable chunks. Take one chunk into your short-term memory, process it, and save it to your long-term memory before moving on to the next chunk. You will eventually take all of it in, and be able to recall it when you need it.
Employ Focused and Diffuse Modes Judiciously
A related concept to sleeping on it is taking a break. Focusing too hard on something to the exclusion of everything else is not a good thing.
The brain works on two modes, focused and diffuses. Focused mode is where you are when learning a new concept, and you make a point of putting a spotlight on it by eliminating all distractions. This is akin to sweeping everything off a desk and putting a strange new object in the middle of it. This enables your prefrontal cortex, which is the center of memory and information storage, to work on overdrive. It takes in all the little details that can lead to understanding that object or concept.
Diffuse mode, as you can probably imagine, is the opposite. It is removing the spotlight and taking in the big picture, engaging other parts of the brain in the process. It may sound counterintuitive when you need to learn something quickly, but that is how the brain works. The diffuse mode allows the brain to connect the information you just gathered through your prefrontal cortex and make connections.
Little is known about the brain, but there is an established belief that learning occurs when connections, or neural pathways, are made. New information needs to be interpreted in a way that the learner can understand, and that is accomplished by calling on established pathways from previous learning during the diffuse mode.
A child, for example, has come to learn that one apple is good for one person, so if you have two people, you need two apples. That is one-to-one correspondence. The child may also learn that one apple can be good for two people if it’s cut in half. That is division.
However, the prefrontal cortex needs to call on other parts of the brain to make such connection, so while focused mode is essential for gathering information, diffused mode is required to fix that information in the brain. Relying only on focused mode to truly make connections will simply overload the brain with information it can’t digest, and you have the equivalent of a stomach ache. The only way to relieve it is to stop eating and walk around a bit. In other words, you need to give your brain a break in order to learn something new effectively.
Beware of the Einstellung effect
You have probably heard about “thinking outside the box” when it comes to a creative way of solving problems. The Einstellung effect is the opposite of that, and it usually happens when you use focused mode for everything you do.
Einstellung is a German word for “setting,” and refers to what some people call a “one-track” mind. While some believe that such doggedness is sure to lead to results, it is not always the case. People tend to stick to what they know, and in some cases that can work. However, people unable to consider a problem from other angles will often find themselves stumped for a solution. Concepts and ideas are rarely linear, which means that one does not always follow another.
Think of a concept as the center of a web that radiates in every direction. You can arrive at a solution if you start at any point provided the connections are whole. However, if there is a gap in the web, you’ll be stuck, unless you can find connections that may be the best, if not the only, way out of the rut. It is not always easy to see alternatives, so the best strategy for solving a hard problem is to give yourself a break.
A Mind for Numbers author Barbara Oakley observed that, “figuring out a difficult problem or learning a new concept almost always requires one or more periods when you aren’t consciously working on the problem.” Walking away from a problem for a short period is not giving up on it. It gives you an opportunity to come back to it when your mind is clear. Give yourself as much as a day before going back to a particularly hard problem or difficult-to-understand concept. You can also talk to your teacher or other students to find out their take on it to give you ideas on how to tackle it.
Use Recall to Reinforce Learning
Recall is the culmination of all the strategies mentioned above, and it is both the proof and the piece the resistance of learning. Recall is the ability to draw on what has been previously learned as needed, and provides a checkpoint for gaps in that learning.
Some people have developed the habit of testing themselves at intervals when learning something new. They would read something, put it away, write down what they remember, and then go back to the material to check what they got correctly. This fixes the information in the memory more resiliently, so it comes to mind automatically when the occasion calls for it. However, experts recommend spacing these knowledge acquisition sessions to give the brain to chance to form firm connections. This is known as spaced repetition, and apps like Study Blue and Anki are based on this learning strategy.
Many people today have lost the art of recall. With information so readily available from the Internet, there is really no need to remember anything. However, the inability to recall previous learning indicates a failure to develop connections in the brain, and this means that many people are no longer learning effectively. When it comes to complicated mathematical and scientific concepts, you need to use effective learning strategies in order to build your knowledge base and use it in practical ways.