Learning to learn in order to improve personal knowledge and communication

When we say “you never stop learning” we refer not only to our natural curiosity for all things new, but also to our need to update our professional preparation in order to interact more easily with others and process new experiences.

Claudia Braatz

Niccolò, a young student, looks at me with big, curious eyes, carefully listening to what I am explaining to him about the passage of information from short-term to long-term memory, on the rhythms and pauses of learning times and on the need to review what we have studied several times. At the end, Niccolò says to me: “Then the way we usually do it is all wrong!” 

No, it’s not all wrong. But lots of study and memorization habits are not very effective. They wear us out. They make us lose our concentration, boring us and making us even more tired.

So what is the secret of an effective learning method? When we look for the individual mechanisms that determine learning, we realize that it is a rather complex and delicate process and that several factors must be taken into consideration: we learn faster and remember more easily.

LET US LOOK AT THESE INDIVIDUAL FACTORS. The first concerns the foundational physiological needs: respect for the proper resting time for body and mind and a proper diet were precepts that the ancient Romans and Greeks recommended already back then (“mens sana in corpore sano”!). The quality of the environment, maintaining a good posture, respecting the correct alternation between the time dedicated to learning and to resting also play an important role. These may seem banal but often, even a few slight modifications to our habits are enough to yield positive changes.

The second important element is understanding our favorite learning channel.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) theories distinguish three different types of channels: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. We usually have a preference for one of them, two maximum, when learning something new. Recurring to our favorite channel comes naturally and in situations of stress or when we have little time to learn something new, it represents a quick & useful choice. But if we learn to strengthen the other channels, too, and to “play” with the different approaches, then our all round performance will improve.

A “visual” type of person needs a graphic support on a blackboard or on a screen: this person has a hard time remembering what he or she has only listened to, for example, at a conference. For an auditory individual, listening and orally relating to others is his or her perfect method for memorizing. A kinesthetic type learns by doing, for example by taking notes personally.

I was giving German lessons to a kinesthetic company director. I used a clipboard with sheets of paper as a support and I gave him these notes at the end of each lesson. Despite this, although it took a bit more time, he always said to me “I have to write things myself so I remember them better.” And it was perfectly true.

MNEMONIC TECHNIQUES. The third factor concerns mnemonic techniques. They are specific techniques to improve memory. With the first World Memory Championships in the 1990s organized by English educational consultant Tony Buzan, these techniques witnessed broader diffusion, although some of them date back to centuries ago. The technique employed by the ancient Greeks, the loci, which associates the elements to be remembered with specific physical locations, helps memorize information in sequence, for instance a particular procedure that must always be carried out in the same way. Visualizations are very useful to remember words, specific terms and names. They make it easier to remember the name of a new collaborator at work, the speaker of a conference we just attended or of a new product having a name that is difficult to pronounce. Phonetic transcription allows remembering “rows” of numbers without making mistakes thanks to their translation into words.

THEN THERE IS THE TECHNIQUE OF MIND MAPS that, besides memorizing an elaborate content, is useful in making brainstorming visual, taking notes without halting the listening process. They replace bullet point lists more effectively: they put ideas in order and help distribute duties and tasks. Mind maps are graphic representations where complex and articulated concepts are hierarchically branched out, making visual memorization easier and hence facilitating the possibility of recalling them.

To build them, we start with writing the main topic in the center of the sheet of paper. Proceeding by branches and concentric circles, we report the correlated elements of decreasing importance towards the periphery of the sheet. In this way, we can grasp the different parts of the issue at first glance, their relationships and importance.

A sales director, after having put her work “on the map”, realizes how she can better distribute the areas of competence among her collaborators and finds new connections within the activities she herself performs. Practically, the map helped her to “come up” with solutions she already knew existed but that the graphic representation made evident.

Tony Buzan, in 2012, wrote in the introduction to his book “Mind Maps for Business”: “In order to improve our way of working and conducting business, and in order to make it more effective, we have to change infinite ‘bites’ of information into something meaningful. In other words, we need to use our intelligence to process the information. To do this, we need to know how to use our brain effectively - to use our memory, to think creatively - and this is where Mind Maps come in.” (Tony Buzan/ Chris Griffiths: Mind Maps for Business, 2012)

MIND MAPS ARE SUITABLE IN A GREAT MANY SCENARIOS. Giulia, a college sophomore, came to see me one Monday morning to take the test to identify her preferred channel. She tells me that tomorrow she has an exam and doesn’t think she can pass it because she’s had only fifteen days to study four books. Since there is little time, we agree to postpone the test to a later date and to instead immediately begin mind mapping. I explain the construction and use of the mind maps and give her some practical advice on how to spend the rest of her day. That afternoon, at home, Giulia builds four maps, one for each book. Then she hangs them up, compares them and learns them by heart. That evening, she is careful not to tire her brain out too much and to relax as much as she can. The next morning she heads off to her exam, a bit skeptical. She gets a grade of 24 out of a possible 30. By reading the books, she had already studied them without realizing it, and the mind maps served to make the information in her mind clearer.

SILVIA HAS WORKED AS AN INSURANCE AGENT FOR OVER 25 YEARS. For several reasons, she decided to become a freelance agent and so broadened her policy portfolio with those of other companies. So now she needs to learn these new insurance policies by heart and immediately begins working with mind maps. When she comes for her second lesson, she says:” But this is a brilliant method! Initially, I wanted to make a complete map for each policy, but then I realized that it was much better to just note down the differences, since I have a rather in-depth knowledge of the topic. With the maps, I see everything at first glance and when I write things down, I notice things that were not totally obvious to me before.” Piero is a salesman and uses mind maps to take notes during training courses: “Before, everything was a total chaos of arrows, asterisks and erasures. With the maps, I was no longer scared of jumping from one topic to another; I no longer lose my way and can add details even at a later time.”

MIND MAPS ARE A VERY VERSATILE INSTRUMENT. Their simple and open structure is easy to learn. They exercise one’s use of the imagination which is at the root of all problem-solving abilities. In the digital era we are living in, they can extrapolate the really relevant material from a great quantity of information.

In order to study well, we must vary our techniques. Varying them leads to less burdensome processes. In the most successful cases, it brings us back to our preschool years when we learned simply by playing.

ONCE THE MAPS ARE PRODUCED, together with the visualizations and the other mental supports, we must then transfer the information acquired from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. Well equipped in this way, we are ready to enter into the virtuous cycle of Concentration – Memory – Relaxation. If I am well concentrated, I work better; my performance increases and new input will easily enter my memory. I will be able to recall the stored information when I need it. This relaxes me and a deeper relaxation yields greater concentration which, in turn, helps me to remember better and more quickly.

If my initial concentration is too low, interest must be stimulated and the contents of the training process must be better connected to the learner’s real life situation. If the concentration is “too high”, i.e., when there is too much agitation, it must be diminished and we must return to the optimal starting point: the famous flow. This term, coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, denotes continuous attention, focusing on the target, intrinsic motivation. A contented state where we are so totally absorbed by the task at hand that we even forget about our physiological needs. With a bit of exercise, we can learn how to attain and maintain this very fruitful state of concentration.

* For information on “Mind maps” you can contact Claudia Braatz, specialized in teaching techniques and instruments to enhance the effectiveness of communicating, in memory techniques, mind maps and learning methods. claudia.ina.braatz@gmail.com

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