Photo of a girl procrastinating for an article about Coursera and Psychology of Learning. (Photo by Tony Tran from Unsplash)

‘Psychology of Learning’ Offers Winning Strategies for Studying and Acquiring Knowledge

Struggling with procrastination and feeling overworked? This free class through Coursera will make researching much easier so you can excel in college.
March 9, 2021
9 mins read

You may encounter many hardships in your academic journeys, especially if you’re approaching a new field of study. Due to the unfamiliarity of the subject, it is reasonable to feel discouraged at the beginning. Frustration might grow if you don’t master the most efficient way to digest the initial learning obstacles, and you could even become overwhelmed. Subsequently, some people may form a negative impression about themselves and might feel that they aren’t smart enough for this intellectual matter. As thoughts like this accumulate, it’s possible to gradually lose confidence in your learning capability.

Though it seems to be more obscure because of its relative intangibility, learning is similar to driving — if you find the right way to drive, you will ultimately reach your destination. To maximize your learning efficiency, it is important to understand the biological and psychological principles underlying this critical behavior that is intimately related to human evolvement.

The online course “Psychology of Learning,” available on Coursera, reveals the deepest secret of human behavior in acquiring knowledge, and it teaches people the best ways to approach a complex intellectual subject. I thought it was incredibly helpful and a worthwhile lesson for everyone. The following is what I found particularly beneficial for college students.

Taking Necessary Breaks Is Just as Important as Studying

“Psychology of Learning” leads people to recognize the misconception that people often have about the study process and helps them to unlearn unconducive habits. One of the most distinctive practices is the importance of taking breaks and exercising. Based on the course, there are two primary modes in the brain when studying: diffused and focused. The activation of these two modes is related to different areas of the brain. When you intensely focus on solving intellectual problems, the focused mode is normally activated and your pre-frontal cortex will energetically support your brain activities.

To maximize learning efficiency, just like a company that aims to optimize its decision-making by recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds, you want other parts of your brain to actively participate as well. To switch from the pre-frontal cortex — which primarily functions to fuel your intense intellectual engagement — to involving other parts of your brain, you may need to loosen the at-the-moment concentration, enter the diffused mode and thus enable the activation of these parts. The diffused mode allows your brain to wander freely, facilitate neural activities and contribute to the process of creative thinking.

I believe many of you have benefited from the diffused mode, especially when you were mired in some difficult questions. Think of the moments when you encountered a difficult question that you so “painfully” wrestled with, but suddenly found the answers to on your way from the library back to the dorm.

In addition to constant study breaks, exercise and sleep are also critically important to support your intellectual growth. Sleep is indispensable for cementing memories and maintaining your brain’s robustness. Based on psychology research, without a sufficient level of sleep, the ability to acquire new things could drop by up to 40%. Regular exercise is not only essential to enhancing mood and benefitting mental health, but it can also cause blood to flow to the brain, which facilitates the firing of neurons and the growth of cells.

I know some peers may take pride in their excessive hard-work ethics or even their sleep-deprivation habits. However, the next time you proudly validate your commitment to studying, remember to honor it and make it more effective by taking necessary breaks and exercising.

Overcome Procrastination

I believe at least a good number of college students have experience with procrastination. According to “Psychology of Learning,” it could be natural for people to procrastinate because when they are faced with a task they are not so motivated to start doing, the area of their brains where pain is processed will be activated. So, the process is understandably “painful.” Then, they are biologically tempted to find some other mentally satisfying task and subconsciously rationalize this behavior.

Neuroscientifically speaking, this process is similar to addiction. As people procrastinate, the painful feelings they need to overcome in order to get things started will accumulate, which will ultimately steal away more happiness.

Does this sounds like you? No worries! There is a fairly easy way to conquer this annoying feature once you understand its underlying psychological principle. Normally, the initial pain you experience when you think of starting an activity is temporary. It will evaporate shortly after you begin to immerse yourself in the study. People who tend not to procrastinate often tell themselves that the pain is short-lived and it will disappear quickly.

So next time, when you are lying on the bed, texting your friends and justifying this behavior by subconsciously telling yourself that you care about your friends so you want to spend more time with them, remind yourself that getting started might be a bit painful, but the discomfort will go away quickly.

It can be hard to get work done when you have so many friends on social media who you really care about. How can you possibly immerse yourself in studying? “Psychology of Learning” introduces another incredibly helpful tool to overcome this dilemma — the Pomodoro technique. The technique essentially involves the “25-minute work sprints.” Just set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on this single task until the bell rings. This method not only helps to disrupt the force of distraction with conscious concentration, but it also makes the initial start of a task substantially less painful.

The course also emphasizes the importance of focusing on the “process” over “product.” To make it simple, “product” represents the results, and the “process” is the practice by which people strive for the result. It’s natural for anyone to feel overwhelmed and less motivated to get started when they are thinking of how much work needs to be done. However, the Pomodoro technique helps people keep their attention tightly on the “process,” and thus, further minimizes the “buzzing” constantly harassing their mood.

In addition to the techniques mentioned above, “Psychology of Learning” on Coursera also discusses how to master complex materials with the effective “chunking” method, and it explains why cramming for exams is detrimental to the knowledge acquisition process. All the videos in the course are fairly short and digestible, yet truly beneficial. Learning is a life-long process, and knowing the secrets about how to excel in studying will instill an unstoppable sense of satisfaction and achievement.

Still hesitating to learn? Go ahead and take advantage of this free resource. I promise, you will get immediate inspiration.

Benjamin Chen, Columbia University

Writer Profile

Xiaobin (Benjamin) Chen

Columbia University
Economics and Psychology

Benjamin Chen is an economics and psychology student at Columbia University. He is always motivated to innovate and change the world for the better. He is driven and guided by values, principles and love.

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