How To Learn: Proven Mental Tools To Help You Master Tough Topics

How To Learn: Proven Mental Tools To Help You Master Tough Topics

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We’ve all been there. The five minutes before the exam room door opens, our palms are sweaty and our mind suddenly goes blank.

And then there are the tough assignments. The questions that tie us in knots, the equations that we don’t know how to solve because we just don’t know where to start.

When we are faced with difficult learning situations, there are many options we can choose from. We can say ‘it’s too hard’ and shy away, or we can look at the challenge, accept it and do our best.

As you stand at the precipice of a new course, you probably have mixed feelings. On one hand, you are excited to be learning something new and wondering where it will take you. You may also have feelings of deep trepidation – what if you fail? What if you just can’t do it? What if you cannot learn anything new at all?

Mastering Tough Topics – 4 Ideas

Whether it is learning a new language or delving into science, you will face many in your course.

When it comes to mastering tough topics, we have to understand how we learn and how our negative thoughts and experiences impact on our ability to grasp new.

Thinking Skills

You may have come across the term ‘thinking skills’ within education settings.

How we think impacts on the level of information we absorb.

Focused thinking is when we have an ingrained mental path for solving a problem. You may use this form of thinking as your default setting – it is often how we are taught to learn in school. It means focusing on the problem in hand.

head with a puzzle piece cut out of it

Your brain quickly attempts to find the solution to the problem.

Diffused thinking is when you are faced with a problem that you have not come across before. Your brain may jump from one idea to the next.

This is a form of thinking that happens subconsciously. For example, when you need to work out how to solve a complex problem that your have not come across before, you can benefit from diffused thinking. You know you have the skills to solve it, but you cannot work out how to apply these skills to get to the point where you know you need to be.

Consider the problem and then go and do something else. Go for a walk, have a nap, do something else where the brain is not ‘focused’ on the problem, but is instead ruminating on it in the background. Chances are, you will hit on an idea and you’ll find that with renewed energy and a different way of thinking, you solve the problem.

You need both modes of thinking to be able to learn effectively.

1.   Spaced Repetition

Your memory is complex. There is a common learning misconception that the more times you do something, the more likely you are to remember it.

This is true to a point, but it isn’t all that helpful when it comes to mastering tough topics. Spaced repetition can be much more helpful.

I Believe in Me

Instead of spending a long-time memorising something, spaced repetition uses a short amount of time. This has been proven to help lock things into the memory.

2.   Fight Procrastination

Procrastination prevents learning. It is the act of avoidance, and it is something that many of us do, especially when faced with a problem or topic that we find difficult.

Getting through the wall (as some people refer to it) takes willpower, but this is insufficient on its own.

The Pomodoro technique can be helpful in combating procrastination:

  • Remove as many distractions as possible – close the Internet browser, for example.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • This is your 25-minute focused study time.
  • When the stop watch tells you 25 minutes is up, take a 5-minute break.
  • Repeat this process four times then take a longer break of at least 30 minutes and then repeat the cycle again, if needed.

3.   Tackling Niggling Self-Doubt

How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I’m not good at maths,’ ‘I never could do physic,s’ ‘I’ve never been able to knit.’ These are all examples of negative self-talk.

Man With Head on Laptop

For many of us, it seems that these things are proven – you ‘failed’ Maths GCSE, or you didn’t understand physics with poor feedback from your teacher, or the scarf you knitted is riddled with are holes.

Dealing with self-doubt means understanding why we say or act in this way, acknowledging that our doubts are there, but understanding that these experiences do not define us.

This means changing thought patterns, and this is where neuro linguistic courses and even mental health courses can come into play. By changing how and why you think and act, you can equip yourself with new tools to master the topics you find tough.

How do you tackle learning challenges?

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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