Sometimes we charge into learning something new and full of excitement. But as the weeks go by, our passions sometimes fly away. Something that initially appeared thrilling can eventually become monotonous and even annoying.

Why? Because we aren’t aware of the fundamental paradoxes of learning!

There are fundamental paradoxes in the process of learning. It is surprising how frequently we overlook the things that we should be doing. Here’s a roadmap to help you be aware of the paradoxical pitfalls of learning, and how to avoid them.

1. Persistence:

We’re often told that to be successful learners, we’ve got to be persistent. That’s true in the long run—but not in the short run! Here’s what neuroscience is telling us. When you’re learning something new, the best way to approach it is to focus and do your best to understand it. But if you get stuck, you need to stop focusing.

By temporarily taking your attention off the problem, you allow other neural modes of thinking to attack the problem in the background. Later, when you try again, a new understanding can suddenly appear!

Good learning means knowing how to balance persistence. Stop when frustrated and return later after other thinking modes have a chance to work.

2. Success:

We always want to be successful in our learning. But this means that we sometimes shy away from making mistakes. As it turns out, however, if you make a mistake when you’re studying—and just catch it with a tiny chagrined “ouch”—that’s one of the very best ways to learn! As you’re learning, celebrate each mistake.

The goal is to make those mistakes before your high-stakes tests. (And also keep in mind that the ones who never make mistakes are the ones who never do anything! Go for it.)

3. Concrete Learning:

We often want to learn something in concrete terms. If you’re learning math for a professional program, for example, you often want to be able to apply your learning directly to the type of problem you’ll be expected to solve on the job—calculating doses of medication, for example.

But instructors often want us to first step back and learn ideas more abstractly—they want us to understand the fundamentals behind concrete problems. It turns out that the instructors have a point. Being able to solve not only concrete issues but also to understand the abstract ideas behind those problems, helps us to transfer our thinking to new situations.

Sometimes the real world throws problems at us that we’ve never seen before, and it’s essential to be flexible and ready! Take the time to understand the abstract concepts that are being presented; ironically, this leads to solving problems in more concrete situations.

4. Study with groups? Or alone?

Some people like to study in groups—the give and take of learning with others can make everything more fun, and can also allow them to catch errors in their thinking. Other people like to learn alone—the quiet lack of distractions allows them to focus more fully on their learning.

It is highly recommended to utilize both methods of learning to maximize your educational experience. By alternating between the two, you can reap the benefits of each approach. It is important to avoid the notion that one method is superior to the other and instead focus on incorporating both into your learning routine.

5. Memorization:

We’ve often been told that memorization is bad for us—that understanding alone is the key to learning. While it’s true that understanding is important, it turns out that memorization can also be very helpful when you are learning something new.

Experts in any domain generally have great swaths of memorized information directly at their fingertips. If you try memorizing some of the key ideas you are learning about, you’ll find that the memorization process can, perhaps surprisingly, lead to deeper understanding. It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true!

It’s a paradox that learning involves contrary and often contradictory approaches. Knowing these paradoxes can help with the learning process.

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