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The right psychology for learning

The right psychology for learning - Gary Wood

Posted on: February 10, 2020

I returned to education as a mature student for an evening class in psychology. It was pre-Internet and before Wi-Fi access became ‘more vital’ than oxygen, food, and water. Yes! That long ago. The first time around, I had battled with the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ approach to learning. It was often painfully dull, and the gains rarely matched the effort. But, it did not occur to me there was any other way. But this time, I had the idea that psychology must have tips on how to study itself. There were no study skills books on the market. Instead, I made do with a psychology textbook. I found a few ideas on attitudes, attention span, the context of learning, and how to take a more holistic approach. This modest find inspired me to look further and to apply what I found. As a result, I became better focused, more confident, wasted less time and could not have done better in the exam.

Attitudes help to shape our experience of the world: the viewing influences the doing, and vice versa. At the most basic level, attitudes are about our likes and dislikes. Adverse past events with learning can lead to feelings of resentment when we must study. If we’d rather be somewhere else or do something else, this gets in the way of how we grasp information. Instead, I approached learning by thinking of it as a luxury. This small change led me to create a more pleasant setting to learn. In turn, the improved mood created a positive context for learning.

I also learned that the human attention span is quite short. On average, we only have about 20-30 minutes of full attention. After that, there is a tail-off. A block of two or three hours of studying without a break does not work. With each minute, the efficiency with which we absorb the information lessens. So, I studied in short, intense 30-minute sessions with short breaks between. Or, I’d switch between types of tasks to create variety. After years of ‘no-pain-no-gain’, it was hard to accept that boredom was a choice! Instead, I chose to make studying more exciting and engage all my senses. In place of drilling in the information by repetition, I opted for more in-depth methods. If you ask and answer questions, it is less about memory feats and more about meaning.

And today, when I sit down to write, these first insights still form the keystone. Adopt a positive mental attitude, manage attention, and use all senses to engage at a deeper level.