A Few Tips on Dramatically Improving Your Learning Abilities


Engineering & Technical Blog

Steve Mackay, Dean of Engineering at EIT and sister company, IDC Technologies enjoys writing his engineering blog with useful tips and current industry matters for his fellow colleagues. With a loyal and expanding following base reaching over 600,000 people around the world. Click here to read all of Steve's blogs over at EIT's sister company, IDC Technologies.

Below is one titled - A Few Tips on Dramatically Improving Your Learning Abilities.

Today, as engineering professionals, we are all lifelong learners if we are to prosper. Technology and indeed life is changing fast and we have to continually learn quickly and effectively new approaches, techniques and systems. Bear in mind that most learning is informal – i.e. through your colleagues and on-the-job. The good old traditional classroom course which we all used to attend is a dim memory.

A week or so ago I attended a superb (free or almost free) online course on learning presented by the University of California, San Diego entitled: How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Worth considering if you want to start learning quickly and effectively. It will definitely help you. Many of the suggestions below are probably fairly obvious, but are worthwhile mentioning.

Some Tips on Learning Effectively are:

  • It is vital to get good a solid sleep every night. 8 hours. All the toxins surrounding your neurons get washed out when you sleep and enable your memories to be refreshed. So there is definitely a reason to sleep. Even if you are a driven teenager.
  • Your brain operates with two parts – the focussed and the diffuse modes. You need to use both when learning. Use the focussed (working) mode to study and rely on the diffuse mode (really your subconscious) to store the stuff you learned and to quickly recall it into your working memory when required.
  • Once you have read through a section you are studying; the best way to test yourself is to pause and try and recall it (or even better to teach someone what you have just learnt). This is far more powerful than merely highlighting the text you are rading or sketching out wonderful concept maps of the materials.
  • If you have difficulty understanding a section or in tackling a problem try to work through it and then come back later when your diffuse mode has had an opportunity to work through it (in your subconscious). You may find the answer or understanding jumps out at this point.
  • Reinforce your materials in your diffuse or subconscious mode by frequently going through the materials and buttressing them in your brain i.e. interleave your study sessions on a specific topic with other activities or topics.
  • Metaphors and visualization—being able to see something in your mind’s eye—have been especially helpful in storing stuff you have learnt.
  • No matter what age you are - new neurons are born in your hippocampus every day. Helped by regular physical exercise and keeping your brain stimulated. These neurons can survive and help you remember things if you learn a new skill (Maxwell Equations?) or work in a stimulating environment. Or indeed try a new route to get to work.
  • The best study sessions with others start on time, stay on task and contain a bare minimum of small talk in order to focus on the purpose for the gathering.
  • Interleave your learning by alternating your practice with different types of problems--don't waste study time by simply repeating the same technique over and over again.
  • Although pretty obvious your understanding is like a superglue that helps hold the underlying memory traces together. One can’t be a parrot and simply regurgitate stuff by rote memory. This can be unreliable and unstable on its own. Understanding is the critical ingredient.
  • To prevent procrastination in learning, you want to avoid concentrating on ‘product’ (the end result of your learning session). Instead, your attention should be on building processes. Processes relate to simple habits—habits that coincidentally allow you to do the unpleasant tasks that need to be done. to avoid procrastination you want to avoid focusing on a product, because thinking about completing a product is frequently what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate.
  • Making your task list for the next day is best done at night before you go to sleep because research has shown that it helps to enlist your subconscious processes to process the list, making them easier to get through the items on that list the next day.
  • Use of handwriting (as opposed to typing) appears to help you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are trying to learn.


Quite a deluge of information you may exclaim  – well – it is from a three week course so there is  a lot of stuff to cover. My apologies.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
Yours in engineering learning


Mackay’s Musings – 8th March’16 #590
125, 273 readers – www.idc-online.com/blogs/stevemackay