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Roadmap for effective learning

Tekst and ideas: Ellen Vos-Wisse, Mentor Medical Neuroscience (Coursera)
Illustrations: Kevin Parks1, Mentor Medical Neuroscience (Coursera)
Feedback: Prof. L.E. White, Instructor Medical Neuroscience (Coursera)


The challenge of learning can be overpowering. To manage the challenge the

material can be chunked: the material is divided in bitesize chunks that can be
thoroughly learned. In learning the chunks the focused mode of brainwork is

The diffuse mode, a more relaxed way of learning when the brain settles into a
resting state, is another brain state for cognitive brainwork. In this state the
brain can be very productive. For example the chemist Kekulé was working on
the chemical structure of benzene. He had a day dream about a snake seizing his
own tail. This inspired him to come up with a structure of benzene consisting of a
ring shape with alternating single and double bonds.

The bigger picture is re assembled later in the learning task. Puzzling the chunks
into a complete picture whilst keeping an eye on the main points is what appears
at the end of the learning task.

Essential during the complete learning task is to test ones knowledge every step
of the way.

Except the index card: coupled transport’ of course

• Explore

Explore the material at the beginning of the learning task. Go to a well-organized

lecture or class. Or take a ‘picture walk’ of the material in the textbook, give
attention to the titles of chapters and headers of sections paragraphs and take a
good look at images and pictures in the material that has to be learned. Get an
idea of the major concepts or points and activate your foreknowledge.

• Chunk

A chunk is a compact package of information that your mind can easily access.
You first form mini-chunks and join them into bigger chunks as you master
various bits and pieces of the needed skills.
• Work thoroughly on the chunk.

Focus undivided attention on the information in the chunk. Use the focused mode
and avoid all distractions. Use different problem solving and learning techniques.
Use for example: visualization, use index cards, metaphor, story, deliberate
practice (give selective attention to the parts of the material that are difficult for
you), interleaving. Test your knowledge every step of the way. And be sure to
study the material repeatedly, sporadic over several days.

Focused learning is best done through a process of hard work with undivided
focused attention to the subject for periods around 25 minutes. With breaks in
between those periods to recharge brain flexibility and creativity and to be build
up motivation again and a reward (for example: coffee, a short walk, 10 minutes
to do some texting on the telephone)

D. Assemble the bigger picture

Go back to your experiences in the exploration phase. How does it all fit
together? In sleep the mind repeats patterns and pieces together solutions. You
can enhance that by making a bullet list on what you’ve learned today before
you go to bed.

Test this step of your learning as well for example by making a test for fellow
students , or prepare a presentation (start the outline of this presentation lining
up the headlines while keeping your book closed).
Do Do not

• Chunk the problem Underline so much that chunks

are not clear

• Focus on working on the Try to learn all the material at

separate chunks. once
• Learn from mistakes Avoid making mistakes by merely
glancing at solutions and not find
answers yourself.

• Alternate different problem- Kid yourself by spending a lot of

solving or learning techniques time just passively reading and
during your practice rereading

• Let your mind ramble over Only focus very hard without
the material that has to be allowing your mind to play with
mastered concepts, problems and solutions

• Use recall and test yourself Trust you know the material
every step of the way without actually testing your

• Take breaks after 25 minutes Try to be a tough learner by

learning studying long periods without rest

• Space your repetition over Only learn immediately before a

several days test with the sole purpose of
passing the test

• Learn by teaching the learned Fail to give attention to testing

material, design tests for the whole material
(imaginary) peers, prepare a
presentation of the material

• Make sure you get enough Prioritize last minute cramming of

sleep. material over a good night’s sleep

Susan is a first-year student at a university. She was very successful in a course

on Cell biology. Some of her peers failed the exam and they have asked her to
explain her learning strategy for them so they can do better on the re-exam.

The course took 6 weeks. It takes up all the mornings of these 6 weeks. It has
an impressive textbook with a lot of illustrations, a course reader and supporting
ICT on the University website. In the beginning of the week it starts with a
lecture. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there are 2 mornings for self-
study ICT work and one morning with laboratory work. Students are assigned a
place in a team. Each team has a lab session during the week and a theoretical
team session at the end of the week. On Friday one student gives a presentation
on the learning goals of that week another student is the discussion leader, these
two team roles change each week. The presentation is filed in the teams
computer workspace so the whole team can use it to review material. On Friday
students also take a diagnostic test (obligatory but ungraded).

Susan presented her learning strategy to the students and gave them a paper
called: ‘Roadmap for effective learning’. Her final assignment for a Coursera
Course, free online course ‘Learning How to Learn’. She had taken the course in
the summer holiday to prepare for her study.

Susan has started her work on the weekend before the beginning of the course
week. Taking 25 minutes for exploration by reading the titles of the chapter,
paragraphs end sub paragraphs in the textbook material of the coming week.
She gave a lot of attention to the illustrations in the textbook of the material she

Highest level chunks where the course material treated in the week. Susan took
handwritten notes during lectures. She created sub-chunks based on the
separate learning goals. At the beginning of a self-study session Susan started
thoroughly reading the material in the textbook. She made index cards with the
names of concepts to be studied on one side of the card and a quick sketch or
short verbal description and 3 to 5 keywords in relation to that concept. For
example the concept card ‘coupled transport’ had this backside.
She did all the problems in the textbook and took work on the ICT resources
seriously. She reviewed her knowledge during this focused learning by doing the
diagnostic test of the textbook. At the end of the week she took the diagnostic
test of the course. She made notes of the mistakes she made during the tests.

Susan went to all team sessions and prepared discussion questions before each
session. In her presentation she used video material present already on YouTube
to clarify things.

Susan explored the material of the laboratory work on the evening before the
lab. She could start the lab report during the lab because she had already was
familiar with the procedures and the structure of the report through her
exploratory work.

In the week before tests there was time to learn the material. Susan avoided
diversion by studying in the Library, she carefully planned (and mostly stuck to)
25 minute learning periods. She always started early in the morning, had a solid
lunch/ sport/ social break and set a fixed end time each day.

Susan started with the chunks on which she had make the most mistakes in her
diagnostic tests. She reviewed the index cards and used different learning
techniques when she thought they were useful. For example: In one chunk she
make a lot of sketches from her memory on the concepts, then looked up the
index card of the concept, checked her drawing with the illustration in the
textbook. In another chunk she prepared an imaginary consult (with her in the
role of researcher) in which she was explaining the genetic cellular defect to the
parents of the baby. She made a script for an explanatory video on one of the
chunks. She challenged herself with trying different learning techniques as much
as possible. In the end she prepared a mock exam for the course with a lot of
questions on the highlights of the course and some detailed questions.

She went to a sport training the night before the test and had a good night sleep
after that.

Susan’s tips to students preparing for the test.

• Start reviewing the material already in the time leading up to the re-exam.
Do not leave it to the last moment.
• Re-watch the recorded lectures and make notes by hand.
• Start an index card system of the material or make a summary with the
main points (remember not to be to elaborate do not copy text but use
your own phrasing).
• Retake diagnostic tests with the intention to learn from mistakes.
• Form teams among people that have to do the re-exam and prepare oral
exams for each other. Take those mock exams in pairs.
• Have as much fun as you can trying new learning techniques and share
positive experiences with those techniques among your peers.