Maximize your potential by learning how to learn

  • learning how to learn

Welcome back to part II of unlocking your true learning potential. Learning how to learn is a crucial skill and here we’ll uncover some actionable tactics to boost that specific meta skill. Why is this important? Well, as an entrepreneur you’re faced with the challenge of ramping up your business quickly. Because of this, there’s a lot of learning that has to take place for you to get up to speed with new marketing techniques, product development, effective team management, etc. The more information you can take in at any given time, the less time you’ll waste on mistakes in the future.

Today we’re going to dive into the second half of tips/techniques to get the most out of your learning. In part I, we uncovered:

  • Why making social connections and talking with strangers is good for your brain
  • How you can use physical exercise to encode things into memory
  • How using our five senses can help you retain information
  • How relating new material to prior knowledge helps remembering
  • How you can use stress to your advantage for effective learning.

Learning how to learn is a crucial meta skill and these are some of the things we’re going to cover today:

  • Why seeing the big picture is more important that individual ideas
  • Why intelligence doesn’t really matter for our learning potential
  • How learning isn’t a linear process
  • How and why to use metaphors more often

By the end of this article, you will have the tools available to overcome some of the challenges in learning that could be holding you back from your true learning potential. As always, this post is based off of established academic research. Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have sifted through hundreds of papers to ensure you have the fullest confidence in all our recommendations.

How to learn using big picture thinking

big picture thinking

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It is no surprise that summarizing information or finding the connections between information is an efficient means to a better understanding of information… or is it? It seems as though this idea is thrown around a lot but many people are still trying to use rote memory techniques for learning. This probably happens for several reasons, it’s the easier thing to do and it’s what we were taught in school. Unfortunately, this type of learning involves memorizing and soon forgetting information. But why does this happen? Well, when we learn something and associate no interest, emotional value, context, etc., we don’t leave engaging patterns or many connections in the brain to grab onto that information later when we need it. So, what we need to do is find ways to make meaningful connections with information. One way is through the practice of what is called information processing or levels of processing.

Levels of processing is the idea that our brain processes information on several different levels. When we process information on a deeper level, that information is remembered better later on whereas, shallow processing leads to a more short-term storage of that information.

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1. Shallow processing

  1. Results in short-term retention
  2. Usually involves repetition
  3. Brushes the surface of an idea or concept
  4. This can be done in 2 ways:
    • Structural: our brains encode the physical traits of the information such as the words we’re reading
    • Phonemic: Our brain encodes the auditory components such as the pronunciation of the words we’re reading

2. Deep processing

  1. Results in long-term retention
  2. Involves the interaction and analysis of information
  3. Goes much deeper than the surface of an idea or concept
  4. This can be done in one major way:
    • Semantic: Our brains encode the meaning of the information and then connect this with similar information we have already stored.

The way we process the information we encounter affects the extent to which that information is encoded in our brains. Within these studies, information that was processed structurally had a recognition memory of 17%, information that was processed phonetically had a recognition memory of 36% and the memory for information that was processed semantically was 65%! Deep and semantic processing creates a lasting impression because it creates enough connections in the brain where it can be easily accessed. Whereas shallow processing only scratches the surface of information causing it to be forgotten shortly after it is encoded.

What should you do?

Focus on the overall idea rather than the specific details

When learning something new, rather than attempting to memorize everything take out the main key ideas, make connections and try to understand the bigger picture.

If you’re in a meeting, don’t waste time taking notes verbatim. This is an example of shallow encoding, you won’t be making very many good connections for this information in your brain. Instead, try to summarize the key points. By doing this, you’re going over the material once in your head, picking out the important point and writing those down. Essentially, you’re processing this information much more.

Give information meaning

When learning something new, give information meaning to gain a deeper understanding and encoding of said information.

This is similar to our learning strategies blog post where we talked about relating information to what you already know. The reason this works is because of something called semantic network theories. Basically, if information is compatible with pre existing information, it will have many connections to other encoded memories, which can be activated easier because of the semantic closeness. This activation increases cognitive analysis, providing a memory enhancement.

Another way to do this is to relate the information to yourself in some way. This is known as the self-reference effect. Information is remembered better if you can find some way to relate to your life. The reason this works is because information about ourselves is highly organized and easily accessible within our brains. Therefore, this new information will be much easier to recall later on. In addition, we also tend to think deeply about things related to us – hence deeper encoding- creating a more integrated memory.


Intelligence doesn’t affect your ability to learn

intelligence does not affect learning

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Sure, having a high intelligence quotient (IQ) can help many things but when it comes to learning it isn’t everything. IQ tests are good at measuring certain mental abilities such as logic and abstract reasoning, and working-memory capacity – how much information you can hold in mind. However, these tests fall short when it comes to measuring a person’s ability to critically weigh information or our ability to override certain biases we experience day to day.

“A high IQ is like height in a basketball player. It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.” – David Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education

When it comes to learning, intelligence isn’t everything. Even some of the great known “geniuses” such as Santiago Ramón y Cajal, nobel prize winner and the father of neuroscience, or Charles Darwin, attribute their successes more toward their abilities to persevere, take responsibility for their learning and change their ways of thinking rather than to how smart they were.

What should you do?

Practice makes perfect….but actually, it does

Perseverance is something Santiago Ramón y Cajal (remember from above) called the virtue of the less brilliant. Why? He believes he got to where he did in life due to his ever changing mind and his ability to admit his faults. In other words, Santiago had what scientists call a growth mindset. This refers to our ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn, an ordinary part of the process and to become excited by challenges. This is in direct opposition of what is known as a fixed mindset. Here, we care about being judged for our failures, we believe that our intelligence and character is fixed and if we fail, there is nothing we can do about it.

You see, when we practice something, we reinforce and strengthen the neural connections between different brain regions. This creates highways between the brain’s control centres and the centres that store knowledge. You can enhance the development of your neural circuits by practicing thoughts that use those pathways – creating more traffic on those highways so to speak. Let’s go over some ways to develop a growth mindset.

Keep in mind that these are going to be more introspective in nature.

  • Emphasize growth over speed
    • This one is difficult for entrepreneurs but learning fast isn’t always the same as learning well. If you’re stuck on a challenging problem, don’t fall into one of the common learning illusions but instead focus on gaining full understanding.
  • Value the process over the end result
    • One of our major downfalls when completing a task is to focus on the end result rather than the process to get there. A lot of growth and development happens during these stages. Be mindful of them. The process is what builds an intelligent mind.
  • View challenges as opportunities
    • Challenges are inevitable especially when starting up a business. In fact, you may go through more challenges than successes when first starting out. View these as opportunities for growth.
  • Allow for regular reflection
    • Reflect on your learning at least once a day. Reflective learning allow you to assimilate new learning. When you learn to describe your thinking, you give yourself the opportunity to close the gap between what you know and what you still need to uncover.
  • Take ownership over your attitude
    • If you find yourself falling into a fixed mindset be aware of that and pull yourself out. Once you develop a growth mindset, own it. Take it with you throughout your day and apply it in all areas.


Use metaphors as a learning strategy

metaphors help learning

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Metaphors and analogies can be very helpful for understanding different concepts. These are useful because they use already stored knowledge as a scaffold upon which to build known information off of – remember this is a key for effective learning. Additionally, they can be used both when trying to teach and learn new information. This can be especially useful if your business has complex elements to it that are difficult to get across in easy and mundane fashions.

Why should you use metaphors when learning?

  • They capture our attentional system
  • They create more connections in the brain
  • They help simplify complex ideas

What should you do?

Use metaphors to help explain complex ideas

By associating an unfamiliar idea with a familiar one, you will lead to a better understanding. Let’s say you want to explain the concept of the business cycle to a novice. You could use a lot of definitions and explain everything you know for 10 minutes leaving yourself and the person more confused than they started. Or, you could use a metaphor about how the business cycle is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth from peaks of accomplishment, down through economic dips and then back up again. Sure, this doesn’t go over every detail but it captures the main concept. Now, that the person has related the business cycle to back and forth movement, they will have a vivid image to anchor those connections to in the brain.

Use Sensory Metaphors

It turns out, our unconscious minds are quite literal. Saying something like, “that was a sweet comment” will activate your amygdala which is the section in your brain involved with emotions, memory and decision-making. Basically, saying something is sweet will activate the same areas of your brain as if you were waving a chocolate bar under their figurative noses. What this tells us is that the language we use when learning something new or when teaching something new is very important for increasing engagement and retention.

Remember in the first part of maximizing your learning potential where we talked about the importance of including all five senses as much as possible in learning? Well, here’s a way to do that with language/words. Turns out when we use metaphors utilizing our senses such as talking about sweet business plans, loud marketing opinions, smelly quarterly numbers and soft operation strategies, you’re activating your emotions, memories and decision making areas in a more energetic way. For example, one study used neuroimaging to show that when participants read the sentence “the patient kicked the habit”, the motor areas in their brain lit up as if literally kicking the habit. Such integration of information within the brain will create more connections, leading to long term retention.


Learning isn’t linear


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If you’ve been taking in what we’ve been telling you this whole time, it should come with no surprise that when we learn, it is in no way a linear process. We don’t go through life-learning, through a staggered, textbook process. Inevitably your brain will hit a collapse during certain times, at which point you will work toward restructuring your understanding through the actionable techniques I have gone over with you to build a more solid foundation.

Instead we learn through direct experience and through dealing with situations as they come up. In early life, we learn language through random exposure as we make sense of language through pattern recognition, then store the patterns that work. Most of all, we learn through making connections between things we already know and the new stuff we don’t – hence why a lot of these activities have involved just that. This process is very subjective, proceeds on an individual basis and is in no way linear.


Recap on skills for learning how to learn

Today we wanted to cover another side of how to access your true learning potential. Understanding these concepts will help you learn more deeply to create lasting memories. We hope by now you’ve learned that it’s all about the connections! Let’s take a look at what we’ve covered today.

Bigger picture thinking

  • According to the levels of processing theory, we hold things in memory better that we’ve processed deeply.
  • Focus on the overall idea rather than the individual details
  • Give your information meaning

Intelligence doesn’t matter

  • What’s important is your ability to keep working toward what you want and to change your thinking
  • View challenges as opportunities
  • Emphasize growth over speed
  • Value the process over the end result
  • Allow for regular reflection
  • Take ownership over your attitude

Use metaphors more often

  • Using metaphors allows us to effectively connect well known information with information that we don’t.
  • Using sensory information like words that involve taste, images, feelings, etc. will further add to the connections in the mind.

Learning isn’t linear

  • Learning isn’t something that is built upon in a linear fashion but rather depends on how well you’re able to utilize the brain’s network system.

Now that you have nine different but related activities/teachings about how to access your true learning potential, try implementing them throughout your day. Even if you can start utilizing the importance of connecting information, you’ll be well on your way to learning more effectively.