Learning Course #5: Chunking, Illusions of competence, Motivation, Library of Chunks, Overlearning #LH2L1

Here are the points I want to remember or be able to find again from the videos of the second week of the Learning course*

What is a chunk?

  • Chunking is the mental leap that helps you unite bits of information together through meaning.
  • Memorizing a fact without understanding or context doesn’t help you understand
  • When you’re focusing your attention on something it’s almost as if you have an octopus. The octopus of attention that slips it’s tentacles through those four slots of working memory
  • Focusing your attention to connect parts of the brain to tie together ideas is an important part of the focused mode of learning.
  • Chunks are pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, through bound together through meaning or use.
  • Your neurons fire and wire together in a shimmering mental loop cementing the relationship in your mind between the sound mama and your mother’s smiling face.
  • One of the first steps towards gaining expertise in academic topics is to create conceptual chunks, mental leaps that unite scattered bits of information through meaning.
  • Focused practice and repetition, the creation of strong memory traces, helps you to create chunks.
  • The path to expertise is built little by little, small chunks can become larger, and all of the expertise serves to underpin more creative interpretations as you gradually become a master of the material.

How to form a chunk

  • First listen or watch.
  • Getting an initial sense of the pattern you want to master for yourself is similar for most subjects or skills.
  • You grasp and master various bits and pieces of the skills you need.
  • You’re creating little neural mini chunks, that you can then gradually knit together into larger numeral chunks.
  • The best chunks are the ones that are so well ingrained, that you don’t even have to conscientiously think about
  • Chunking in the subject of history  is quite different from chunking in chemistry or in karate.
  • The first step on chunking is simply to focus your undivided attention on the information you want to chunk.
  • The second step in chunking is to understand the basic idea you’re trying to chunk
  • Can you create a chunk if you don’t understand? Yes, but it’s often a useless chunk.
  • Don’t confuse the “aha” of a breakthrough in understanding with solid expertise.
  • The third step to chunking is gaining context, so you can see not just how, but also when to use this chunk.
  • learning takes place in two ways.
  • There’s a bottom up chunking process, where practicing repetition can help you both build and strengthen each chunk, so you can easily access it whenever you need to. And there’s also a top down big picture process that allows you to see what you’re learning and where it fits in.
  • Context is where bottom up and top down learning meet.
  • Learn the major concepts or points first: the key parts of a good instructor or book chapter’s outline, flow charts, tables, or concept maps.
  • Once you have this done, fill in the details.

Illusions of competence

  • After you’ve read the material, simply look away, and see what you can recall from the material you’ve just read. In the same amount of time, by simply practising and recalling the material students learned far more and at a much deeper level than they did using any other approach.
  • The retrieval process itself enhances deep learning, and helps us to begin forming chunks.
  • If you’re trying to build connections between chunks, before the basic chunks are embedded in the brain, [concept mapping, drawing diagrams that show the relationship between the concepts] doesn’t work as well.
  • The only time rereading text seems to be effective, is if you let time pass between the rereading
  • Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you truly know it yourself is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning.
  • [Highlighting,] making lots of motions with your hand can fool you into thinking you’ve placed the concept in your brain.
  • Words or notes in a margin that synthesize key concepts are a very good idea.
  • Mistakes are very valuable to make in your little self tests before high stakes real tests.

What motivates you?

  • Acetylcholine neurons form neuromodulatory connections to the cortex that are particularly important for focused learning, leading to new long term memory.
  • Our motivation is controlled by a particular chemical substance called Dopamine. Dopamine is released from these neurons, when received an unexpected reward. This can motivate you to do something that may not be rewarding right now but will lead to a much better reward in the future.
  • It can lead to craving and dependence, which can hijack your free will and can motivate actions that are harmful to you. Loss of Dopamine neurons leads to a lack of motivation. Severe loss of Dopamine neurons causes resting tremor, slowness, rigidity, this is called Parkinson’s disease.
  • Serotonin is a third diffused neuromaginatroy system that strongly affects your social life. Prozac, which is prescribed for clinical depression, raises the level of Serotonin activity. The level of Serotonin is also closely linked to risk taking behavior. Inmates in jail for violent crimes have some of the lowest levels of serotonin activity in society.
  • Emotions were once thought to be separate from cognition but recent research has shown that emotions are intertwined with perception and attention and interact with learning and memory.
  • If you want to learn more about Acetylcholine, Dopamine, and Serotonin, look them on brainfacts.org.

The value of a library of chunks

  • What people do to enhance their knowledge and gain expertise is to gradually build the number of chunks in their mind.
  • Valuable bits of information, they can piece together in new and creative ways.
  • The bigger and more well practiced your chunked mental library, whatever the subject you’re learning, the more easily you’ll be able to solve problems and figure out solutions.
  • When you grasp one chunk, you’ll find that that chunk can be related in surprising ways to similar chunks, not only in that field, but also in very different fields. This idea is called transfer.
  • A chunk is a way of compressing information much more compactly.
  • If you have a library of concepts and solutions internalized as chunked patterns, you can think of it as a collection or a library of neural patterns.
  • In building a chunked library, you’re training your brain to recognize not only a specific concept, but different types and classes of concepts
  • Law of serendipity: Lady luck favors the one who tries. Focus on whatever section you’re studying.

Overlearning, choking, Einstellung, and interleaving

  • Once you’ve got the basic idea down during a session, continuing to hammer away at it during the same session doesn’t strengthen the kinds of long term memory connections you want to have strengthened. Focusing on one technique is a little like learning carpentry by only practicing with a hammer.
  • Repeating something you already know perfectly well is easy. It can also bring the illusion of competence.
  • You want to balance your studies by deliberately focusing on what you find more difficult. This focusing on the more difficult material is called deliberate practice.
  • Einstellung (means installation) – an idea you already have in mind or a neural pattern you’ve already developed and strengthened, may prevent a better idea or solution from being found.
  • You have to unlearn you erroneous older ideas or approaches even while you’re learning new ones.
  • The best way to learn that is by practicing jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies, this is called interleaving.
  • Although practice and repetition is important in helping build solid neural patterns to draw on, it’s interleaving that starts building flexibility and creativity.
  • When you interleave between several subjects or disciplines, you can easily, more easily make interesting new connections between chunks in the different fields, which can enhance your creativity even further.
  • Science progresses one funeral at a time, as people entrenched in the old way of looking at things die off.

Interview with Dr. Robert Bilder on creativity and problem-solving

  • Leadership is the ability to disguise panic.
  • When you experience some discomfort you’re actually accomplishing some kind of change.
  • Personality characteristics: OCEAN stands for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticisim – relate to degree of creative achievement
  • Correlation with agreeableness is negative: people who are less agreeable or more disagreeable tend to show higher creative achievement.
  • I like to go back and forth between those two kinds of approaches [verbal versus visual learning styles]

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.

2 thoughts on “Learning Course #5: Chunking, Illusions of competence, Motivation, Library of Chunks, Overlearning #LH2L1

  1. Isabel Gomes

    I Gabor. This is a very good summary of what was taught, I am taking that course to and I have found your work very, very good, particularly because my mother language is not English and you put it so clearly. May I use it to study for the final exam? Even if no, thank you for the enlightenment.

  2. Gabor Por Post author

    Hi Isabel,

    I am glad you liked my summary. Of course you can use it whatever helps. FYI: I may not get to summarizing all the lectures before the final is due. But eventually I will.

    “Happy learning”



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