MarkS myguru

A fundamental prerequisite for adopting a growth mindset is an understanding of the malleability of the brain (i.e., like a muscle, the brain changes and grows the more it's used). As we know, once you understand that the brain can change and grow, you are more likely to engage, focus, and learn.

However, a deeper understanding of how your brain works can enhance anyone's ability to develop and apply a growth oriented mindset in school, at work, or at home. If you simply believe the brain is malleable and like a muscle, that's good. But, if you can articulate some of the ways in which your intelligence grows with effort and in which your brain operates to help you design solutions to problems, it can both a) reinforce or deepen your growth mindset and b) help you develop strategies to improve your brain's performance.

And, of course, by you, I mean you and your students!

So, in this article, I'll first discuss three key concepts which help explain how our brains work.

1. Working memory vs. long term memory

2. Knowledge "chunking"

3. Focused vs. diffuse modes of learning


Then, at the end of the discussion of each concept, I'll offer a few simple, practical strategies one could apply to become a more effective and efficient learner.

 Working memory vs. long term memory

While neuroscientists continue to learn more about the brain every day, many suggest that humans have three types of memory: sensory, working (or short-term) and long-term. When you initially hear a sound, see something, or smell something, your sensory memory is engaged and processes the stimuli. At that point, your working or short term memory kicks in, and in some cases, the information you encounter or the knowledge you develop is stored in your long term memory. In this post, we'll be focused on short and long term memory only.

When you are talking to someone, or focusing on a topic in school, you are engaging your working memory. Facts, ideas, concepts, are being held in your working memory and combined in various sequences to help you make points in a conversation, reason through a problem, or make decisions.

However, there is a ton of other stuff in your head, sitting in your long-term "memory warehouse." And, when you are faced with a decision or a question, your working memory helps you "retrieve" the relevant information from your long-term warehouse. So, say someone randomly walks up to you on the street and says "who was the U.S. President during the Cuban missile crisis?" Your working memory is engaged to a) focus on what the person is saying and b) retrieve facts from long term storage (assuming you have the facts stored) related to what the Cuban missile crisis was and that the president during it was John F. Kennedy.

One additional feature of your working memory is that it has about four slots in which pieces of information can be held (that's what most neuroscience researchers currently believe, although not everyone agrees on this number, and perhaps 2-8 would be a more accurate statement) and that it can use at any one time. In other words, we can handle about four concepts/ideas/scenarios/situations at once as we're trying to solve a problem or simply engage with another person. One implication of this is that multi-tasking, particularly when we're trying to solve a complex problem, can be costly. If your brain is trying to logically work through something and one of its four slots is focused on texting back and forth with a friend, your chances of successfully solving that problem go down.

There is evidence that, as we study and achieve increasingly higher levels of education, and even as we exercise and adopt positive mental habits, our working memories become faster and sharper.

tipSo, one powerful strategy to use to become a more effective learner of new ideas would be to take steps to keep your "memory hardware," i.e., your working and long term memories, operating as efficiently as possible by:

· Eating right and getting enough sleep to give your brain the "fuel" it needs to perform

· Using mental math all the time (i.e., calculating tips in your head, etc.) to keep your working memory sharp

· Exploring stress reduction strategies (e.g., like slow breathing exercises) to keep your mind focused and uncluttered, which can help your working memory get better at recalling information from your long term memory

Knowledge chunking

When we are trying to learn something new or solve a complex problem, we start with four ideas or concepts we think we'll need to figure out this new problem and we begin putting them together in different ways to find a solution. Once we are able to solve the problem by organizing the ideas in a way that makes the solution clear, this complex jumble of connections can sometimes be "reduced" or "morphed into" a cleaner concept in our minds. Instead of having fact 1, fact 2, idea 1, and idea 2 in its working memory, the brain can combine all of that into "chunk A" and store it in long term memory for future retrieval. Then, in the future, one of the four slots can be taken up by this new "chunk" and the other three slots can contain other pieces of information.The brain then treats the entire new concept, idea, or problem as one "chunk" of knowledge that it can "slot" into your working memory to help you work your way through your next challenge. Remember when I said your brain could hold "facts, ideas, and concepts" in its working memory? Well, one of the ways the brain gets more efficient and more productive over time is by turning facts and ideas into complex "chunks" that it can then reference easily and understand without as much effort as before.

One helpful way to think about learning anything new is to realize that, to figure something out in any one study session, your brain has to use those four slots to make things "click" and cement new neurological connections in your brain. When we learn, we need to find ways to break complex new ideas into efficient chunks that we can then use moving forward on increasingly complex problems.

Chunking Example: Consider this math equation:

[(2+3)^3] – [-5 + x ] where x = -7

If you're comfortable with math at the pre-calculus level or beyond, you might look at that equation and find it very simple. Sure, there are a few different math rules to follow, but nothing too difficult. The whole solution might take up only one "slot" in your mind. But, as you were getting comfortable with this type of problem, there's actually quite a bit you had to pay attention to:

1. When working with a variable, you substitute the value of the variable into the equation, and then solve.

2. Complete all the arithmetic inside the parentheses first.

3. Remember that "to the power of three" means 5 * 5 * 5

4. Remember that when you subtract a negative number, you are actually just adding that number, and when you add two negative numbers, the result is more negative.

So, you've got [2+3 = 5, and 5^3 = 125] – [-5 + -7 = -12], or 125 - -12, which you can then turn into 125 + 12, for a solution of 137.

When you are first learning how to do this type of algebra problem, you probably need to use all of the slots in your working memory. In other words, you need to break the problem down into its component parts and then manipulate those elements to form a solution. Once you turn these steps into a chunk, you can being to apply that chunk to even more complex math problems.

I used math for this example, but understanding a concept, learning a new vocabulary word, following a set of directions, understanding the meaning of a paragraph, and almost anything else requires the formation and use of chunks.

tipAnother way in which the brain finds ways to perform more optimally is by creating increasingly complex chunks of knowledge. The practical strategy that you can use to more efficiently solve all types or problems would be to recognize when chunking would be helpful to solve a problem. Your brain is always chunking anyway, but when it's stuck, you can sometimes step in and help by proactively trying to determine where and when you will chunk.

For example, say you are faced with solving a complex physics question, and you really aren't sure where to start. One thing you could do is begin by trying to deconstruct the problem (i.e., the questions being asked, numbers given, terms used, etc.) to see if there are smaller concepts, problems, or questions to more fully comprehend first. Chances are good that, once you deconstruct the problem and more fully understand its component pieces, your brain might form a few "chunks" of knowledge to hold in working memory, which then might allow it to define a path towards a broader solution. With too much going on "pre-chunking" your mind is at a loss as to how to address the problem.

Diffuse vs. Focused learning

Our brains are, indeed, fascinating.

Thus far, most of what we've been discussing has related to only one of the two main ways in which we learn new things. Up to this point in the article, we've been describing a brain in a "focused" state of learning, where connections being made between ideas and facts are sequential and organized, and we are consciously aware that we are trying to use our working memories, along with retrieval from our memory warehouse, to piece concepts together.

But have you ever woken up from a dream, and been fascinated with a realization that much of your dream, even if it was in many ways completely random and nonsensical, was clearly connected to something you'd experienced, but hadn't really noted or found important, the day before?

Or, perhaps more importantly, have you ever had trouble remembering something, or figuring out a problem that you really wanted to solve, and felt like you just needed a rest? Then, after taking a run, getting a good night's rest, or just doing something else for a long period of time, found that you could now figure out how to solve the problem?

Both of these situations are examples of the brain's diffuse mode of learning. In the focused mode of learning, we are highly organized, intentional, and sequential with our thinking, as we focus squarely on the problem we're trying to solve. However, the diffuse mode is totally different, and a bit more mysterious. In the diffuse mode, we sort of "let go." In the back of our minds, we know we'd like to come up with a solution to a problem, but instead of focusing on that problem, we simply let our mind sub-consciously wander and search for a solution. In this mode, we allow ourselves the freedom to search all over the place for connections between ideas and concepts that don't seem related, but which might somehow come together to help us understand a problem in a new way.

The focused mode is a bit more analytical and logical, while the diffuse mode can be thought of as more creative.

tipThe takeaway here is that, by getting to know ourselves and becoming comfortable stepping away from a problem when we are clearly "stuck" to let the diffuse mode do its thing, we can become more efficient and satisfied students. If you are really struggling with a problem, and want to solve it, consider the unintuitive strategy of simply stopping for a period of time. Take a nap. Go for a run. Let the diffuse mode of learning take over, and you might find yourself able to solve the problem in a matter of hours.

I was exposed to many of the ideas in this article while taking a massive open online Coursera course called "Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects".

Can you imagine how a better understanding of working vs. long term memory, knowledge "chunking," or the diffuse mode of learning might help students become more effective learners, or more likely to adopt a growth mindset?

About the Author

After spending three years as an economics tutor at Indiana University and then earning his MBA from Northwestern University, Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru, an education start up focused on helping students improve academic performance through customized study plans, better study habits, and 1-1 instruction.  My Guru's Facebook TwitterGoogle Plus