The Neuroscience of Learning: How I Learned to Learn at Flatiron School

There’s a lot of buzz around coding boot camps these days. A crash course in a new set of programming languages can be a huge career boost for bootcamp graduates. I know this firsthand: I learned so much at Flatiron School, which I attended online through their Learn program. However, one of the most important things I learned was how to learn most effectively.

If you’re attending a boot camp, some of these tips might help you as much as they helped me.

image from Lifehacker

Create a Focused Environment

There are plenty of distractions when learning online. I try to always stay focused directly on the content I’m learning. I use the Firefox Add-On Leechblock to allow myself only ten minutes a day on distracting websites like Reddit, Product Hunt and Hacker News. I keep my phone face down and away from my desk. I play only instrumental music (more on that in a bit). I’ve also found how important it is to take notes on the content I’m learning—it helps me internalize what I am learning as I learn it.

Take a Break

Every twenty or thirty minutes, I take a five minute break. I’ve found that a short break is a breath of fresh air that allows for more focus in the long term—unless I get into a good flow with a longer lab, in which case I keep working.

The key is to recognize unproductive brain space, like when I’m actively searching for distractions. Instead of fighting my mind in these moments, I take some time to clear it before returning back to learning. This allows me to work almost all day, most days.

Feel Out Your Brain Space

The Brain’s States are super interesting.

Modern neuroscience tells us a lot about our brains. There a few distinct brain spaces that have patterns we can recognize, both through EEG readings and in self-examining meditation. All the below processes are happening at the same time, but we can move into one dominant thought pattern with some simple exercises.

The first brain space is Beta

This is every day consciousness. A mind on the run, perceiving and interpreting. Thinking busy thoughts. Beta-level consciousness is the mind when it is wide awake.

The next is Alpha

This is when the mind is calm and receptive. It’s an open and meditative state, and it’s the best state to be in when learning, as we absorb information most effectively in alpha brain space. Learning while the brain is in an alpha state means that I am learning on two levels: alpha and beta.

You can easily transition between alpha and beta by relaxing. Take a few breaths, meditate for 20 minutes, or listen to music. Research shows classical music induces an alpha wave pattern in the mind, but I’m partial to instrumental music like El Ten Eleven, Madlib, Vulfpeck Damu The Fudgemunk and Thievery Corporation.

The sleepiest is Theta Wave

That dreamy state right before you fall asleep is called theta. It’s disorienting; random dreamy thoughts intermingle with normal ones. The chemical melatonin is released, which lulls us to sleep. Recognizing the sleepy mind and stopping work is just as important as capitalizing on an alpha state. I’m not learning as effectively if I’m tired.

REM sleep

REM sleep, the state in which we dream, is also essential to the learning process. Dreams are the way we digest and store information. I’ve found that getting quality sleep is the best way to internalize lessons and content. Some mornings, I wake up dreaming in code, finding solutions to problems I am stuck on automatically. Let your dreams do the heavy lifting. It’s an evolutionary process to digest information and store it in long term memory.

Short Term and Long Term Memory

Understanding the way memory works can be empowering, too. Ideas are stored in either our short term or long term memory, based on time and frequency of exposure. Anything can stick in our short term memory after one exposure, sure. But it is only transferred to long term memory if it’s rehearsed immediately. So what’s the most efficient way to store things in our long term memory?

Research shows short, repeated exposure is actually the best way to memorize something. Rereading my notes on a daily and weekly basis helps me to internalize points and move them into long term memory. It’s the philosophy behind Memrise, which is how I’m learning Portuguese.

This is the most important thing to understand. You’ll be learning HTML, CSS, Ruby, JavaScript, and a few different frameworks. It might seem like too much at times, but if you chunk things down into short repeated exposures, the mind comes to understand and remember the new information effortlessly.

What do you do?

It’s easy if you know what to look for. Try to be in relaxed Alpha-Wave brain space, review lessons and concepts at regular intervals, and just keep learning!

Anything I’m missing here? What tips do you have for working effectively in a coding boot camp? Reach out to me on Twitter or let me know your thoughts below.