THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING: "Learning How To Learn" Week #1

One of the things I most love about teaching CHADD’s Parent to Parent Family Training for ADHD course is what I learn from each new group of parents that cycles into the course. This fall, one of my parents concurrently took “Learning How to Learn”(LHTL) through UCSD on – bursting with all sorts of fantastic information each week on how the brain learns. I was so intrigued that I decided to take the course and see what I could glean from it myself. Here’s the highlights of what I learned about learning from week #1.

Week #1 left me with a deeper framework for the types of learning modes we use and what is needed to hold information in your memory. For my ADHD clients, this can often be the greatest struggle during the teenage and college years – sustaining focus to absorb and retain information. Even though the majority was a review, I always find it helps to reinforce my own memory by learning from others. The data and techniques in this course further solidify many of the techniques I often suggest when attention span is a factor.

WHAT IS MEMORY? Let’s start with some background in memory: specifically, Working Memory (WM) vs. Long-Term Memory (LTM). Many with ADHD struggle often with working memory, which holds immediate facts at hand and is processed in the pre-frontal cortex. It’s like a weak blackboard which requires repetition and concentration to hold and retrieve the facts needed. Many of us may even shut out eyes to visualize these facts until we can write them down, such as phone numbers or short grocery lists. Current neuroscience contends that we typically hold a maximum of 4 chunks of data or information that can easily be retained in our working memory. This is typically why I recommend the use of lists when you have more than 3 things to keep track of in a day. Once you push the information into another vehicle such as notes or a list, you can revisit it later AND open up valuable real estate for more short-term memories.

In order to store information into long-term memory, repetition of these facts must be put into practice 2 or more times and over multiple days. This kind of memorization is also referred to as “spaced repetition”, which gives your brain time to build synaptic connections to help the information stick. See, there really is something to that old adage “practice makes perfect.”

LEARNING & THINKING MODES: So, how does your brain differentiate between the facts and link them all together? Your brain has 2 modes of thinking that help us learn: focused mode vs. diffuse mode. Focused mode is concentrated, linear thinking that focuses on familiar facts and concrete information. Diffuse mode is where the problem-solving begins – new thoughts and connections are made. I would even hypothesize that Diffuse mode is where ADDers enjoy the freedom to make connections and spark new ideas based on the facts they have retained. The catch, of course, is that you need the thoughts and facts from your focused mode learning in order to build your diffuse mode connections. How in the ADD do you make that happen?

As I listened to each of the short video lessons this past week, I sat in a familiar space of awareness:

persistence + passion = success

This first lesson talked about common issues for attention-challenged learners: procrastination, stimulation, in-attention and focus. It was no surprise that the following concepts were discussed with respect to combatting some of the challenges of learning:

  • POMODORO TECHNIQUE: 25 minute sprints in concentration can often help you power through procrastination or FOP(Fear of Pain). Couple that with some sort of brain break or reward for completing that 25 minute period of work and you can often find a great rhythm for personal working success. More on this can be found here:

  • SLEEP: No surprise that I love having this on the list. Your brain not only uses sleep to self-clean and recharge, but it also processes all of the information you have learned in the current day. Perhaps this is where journaling before bed can be helpful to those with racing minds? Better sleep increases the neural connections and your ability to problem-solve when you are awake. Get that shut-eye! Want more? Check out one of the many posts from by favorite business blog regarding sleep:

  • GET OUT IN THE WORLD: Stimulation and interaction with others can create a stronger hippocampus, which is critical for long-term memory storage.

  • EXERCISE: Exercise is one of my favorite methods for managing ADHD symptoms. Did you know it can also help your brain learn and even compensates for a lack of stimulation and interaction?

  • SUCCESS IS MORE THAN SMARTS: passion and persistence lead to greater success in learning. Staying the course even when learning is a struggle will pay off in the end. Challenging our brain to learn something new builds neurons.

  • BEAT BOREDOM: the best way to survive a boring lecture? Ask a question! Making a learning environment more interactive can keep your brain engaged. It’s one of the reasons Chris Zeigler Dendy recommends incorporating movement in the classroom (raising hands, standing, etc.) to keep her students engrossed in the topic. Creative and collaborative environments increase learning – for ADHD it can mean the difference between daydreaming and leading a class discussion.

Sound interesting? Check out the course for yourself. Best of all, it’s FREE!

Kate Barrett