Learning how to learn, course summary and review

Below is a summary of the Learning How to Learn course, available at Coursera. The course has almost 3 million students.

Key Concepts

Focused mode vs Diffuse mode

  • Focused mode is the mode when you work hard to figure out something or concentrate your attention on learning something.

In focused mode, thinking mainly occurs in a small area of our brain, usually centered in the prefrontal cortex.

  • Diffuse mode is the mode when you are relaxed and your ideas travel broadly in your whole brain subconsciously so you will see things in the whole picture.

Learning effectively needs to be switch between two different modes so our brain can create all kinds of neuron connections to form easy-to-grasp thought and ideas.


Working Memory vs Long Term Memory

  • Working memory is short-term memory. It can only hold about four chunks of information. It is like an easy-to-fadeaway blackboard.

  • Long term memory is like a storage warehouse with all kinds of thoughts and ideas. It is long-term and not easy to forget. Whenever we need to use it, our brain will easily take it out.

When we learn something new, we use our working memory to process it immediately and consciously. But it takes time and practice to move what we have learned from working memory to long-term memory.

First, it needs time. We can’t learn something 10 times in 1 day. We need to spread the learning time to several days.

Spaced repetition and sleep will allow our brain to form neuron connections to help remember in long term.

Our brain can tide up the learning and ideas together when we are asleep. Dreaming about something will also help us organize what we have learned and consolidate them into easier-to-grasp chunks.


What is a chunk?

Chunk is a compact package of information, bound together through meaning or use, that our mind can easily access.  

A chunk means a network of neurons that are used to firing together so you can think a thought or perform an action smoothly and effectively.

When we learn new things, we create little conceptual chunks first, then gradually knit those chunks together into larger and more complex chunks, which we can draw up in an instant to solve a problem in the future.

How to make a chunk?

  • Focus all our attention on the information.

The more we focus, the better we can create chunks. Because we only hold 4 chunks of information in the working memory. Distraction will take up our limited slots.

  • Understand the basic idea we’re trying to chunk and practice

If we don’t understand? It’s often a useless chunk.

But simple understanding is not enough, we also need to repeat and practice otherwise we’ll forget.

  • Gain context or see in the big picture.

Context means learning when to use this technique instead of some other technique. 

We need to know when to use the chunk to solve a problem.

  • Bottom-up chunking process and top-down big picture process

“There’s a bottom-up chunking process, where practice and repetition can help you both build and strengthen each chunk, so you can easily access it whenever you need to. And there’s also a, a sort of a top-down big picture process that allows you to see what you’re learning and where it fits in. Both processes are vital in gaining mastery over the material. Context is where bottom up and top down learning meet.”

When we learn something new, we can gain a sense of the big picture first then focus our attention on constructing each small chunks to fill in the details.

Be aware of illusions of competence

It is key that we are the ones doing the problem solving or mastering the concept to form our own chunks. Not whoever wrote the solution manual, or book, or summary.

Merely glancing at something and thinking we understand it is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning. 

We can simply recall to test ourselves whether we truly master it to form our own chunks.

Simple recall, trying to remember the key points without looking at the page, is one of the best ways to help the chunking process along. It seems to help build neural hooks. They help you better understand the material.

8 techniques to learn most efficiently

1. Focus attention on learning with the Pomodoro technique.

Pomodoro is an Italian word for Tomato. It is a timer that looks like a tomato. Actually, all kinds of timers work.

It is quite a simple technique.

Just set a timer to 25 minutes, turn off all interruptions, and focus intensively on a task.

After 25 minutes, stop the task, relax for 5 minutes and tune in to diffuse mode. We can give ourselves a little reward like having a cup of coffee, surfing some web pages, or stretching our body.

25 minutes of focused concentration, followed by 5 minutes of mental relaxation can enhance and strengthen the neural structures we’re building as we’re learning something new.

Pomodoro technique changes our mind from product-oriented to process-oriented. Our focus is not dealing with a difficult task but concentrating just 25 minutes. We can’t do the difficult task, but we can focus on 25 minutes. It can erase the uncomfortable feeling and the frustration when we are tackling difficult tasks. So it is a good way to avoid procrastinating.

2. Understand by using metaphor and analogy to visualize in mind.

One of the best things we can do to not only remember, but to understand a concept, is to visualize it. See it in your mind’s eye.

How to visualize?

We can create a metaphor or an analogy for it.

Try to explain the hard concept so that a ten-year-old could understand it. Using an analogy helps a lot, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water.

We can imagine a story in our mind for it.

We can sketch to illustrate it.

The visualization has been especially helpful not only in art and literature but also in the scientific and engineering world. 

Metaphor and analogy give us a physical understanding of the central idea behind the concept we are trying to understand.

They also help glue an idea into our mind because they make a connection to neural structures that are already there.

3. Chunk our problems by recalling, testing and practicing.

After we read some material, we simply recall what we’ve just read. And then repeat the process. Reread and then recall again.

Recalling after learning is better than solely rereading the text many times or drawing concept maps and diagrams.

The recall is actually a form of mini-testing.

Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After we solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure we can solve it ourselves.

4. Make long-term memory through practice & repetition.

Practice makes permanent.

When we learn something new, we store it in our short-term memory.

It’s through practice and repetition that we can strength the neural structures and move the new ideas to our long-term memory.

To remember forever, we need to practice and repeat at least a few times.

The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice and repeat to bring those ideas into reality for us. 

Instead of repeating several times in one day, extending our practice over several days does make a difference.

If we practiced and repeated something well enough to get it into long term memory and to create chunks, we can easily access it whenever we need to.

It is like organizing the newly learned to a big storage house in our brain. We just call it up immediately whenever we want to use it.

5. Level up and increase creativity by interleaving.

Interleaving learning means mixing up the learning, by practicing jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies.

We can interleave within one subject, or between several subjects.

Although practice and repetition are important in helping remember new thoughts and build solid neural patterns to draw on, it’s interleaving that starts building flexibility and creativity.

By interleaving within one subject, we can strengthen our understanding and apply what we’ve learned in different situations with flexibility. It means learning not only the basic chunks but also learning how to select and use different chunks.

By interleaving between several subjects, we can make interesting new connections between chunks in the different fields, which can enhance our creativity. We may not specialize in only one subject. But developing some degree of expertise in several fields means we can bring very new ideas from one field to the other. Of course, it takes time to develop solid chunks of knowledge in different fields, so sometimes there’s a tradeoff.

6. Upgrade our minds through deliberate practice.

Balance our studies by deliberately focusing on the more difficult part.

Deliberate practice on the toughest aspects of the material can upgrade our minds.

Just as practice lifting weights can help to get bigger muscles over time, we can also practice certain mental patterns that deepen and enlarge in your mind. 

7. Motivate ourselves by imagining our dream come true.

Imagining our dream come true will give us hope. This hope will motivate us when we find our motivation lagging.


8. Take breaks or even vocations, sleep well, and exercise a lot.

It is common to be unable to figure out difficult concepts the first time we encounter them.

Working on it continuously will make us frustrated and frustration will cause us to procrastinate.

Instead of studying and figuring out all at once, take a break and study a little of them every day.

Allow our brain to take it over unconsciously in the diffuse mode when we relax, sleep and even dream.

Sometimes, we suddenly figure it out after we wake up from a good sleep.

Sometimes, we will have new ideas after some exercises.

Give ourselves some reward, like take a long vacation to let our mind free of tasks, after we finished a big project.

How to tackle procrastination?

Procrastination is the biggest enemy of our learning. We need to know why we procrastinate and how to tackle it. The higher we go in our studies , the more important it is to take control of procrastination.

Two types of procrastination

  • Some procrastination is necessary. It takes time for our brain to really remember the newly learned. We can’t learn something ten times in one day but need to spread the learning into several days.

  • Some procrastination is bad. We procrastinate because learning a difficult subject or handling a difficult task will cause pain and our brain want to shift our focus of attention to something more enjoyable. Surfing the web for information is more fun than reading the textbook. It will make us feel better temporarily. But sadly it will make us frustrated in the long term.

Several tips to tackle procrastination.

  • Use the PomodoroShift the attention to process(25 minutes) from the product(finishing some tasks) to avoid the pain associated with uncomfortable learning.

  • Don’t use willpower to fight against procrastination because it uses a lot of neural resources.

  • Be aware of zombie mode and harness our inner zombie. Our brain will initiate into zombie mode to save energy. It is called habit. We go into this habitual zombie mode far more often than we might think. Habit is an energy saver for us. It allows us to free our minds for other types of activities. Habits can turn around us or bite us.

  • Eat our frogs first in the morning. Try to work on the most important and most disliked task first.

  • Watch for procrastination cues. Avoid the trigger that launches us into zombie mode, like shutting off our cell phone.

  • Re-wire our habit. The key to rewiring is to have a plan. Write to-do list the evening before and start our new day with one Pomodoro for the most difficult and important task on our plan.

  • Play and sleep enough. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  • Reward. Finding ways to reward good habits is important for escaping procrastination.

  • Believe in ourselves. The most important part of changing our procrastination habit is the belief that we can do it. We need to change our underlying belief before we change a habit.

  • Planning our quitting time is as important as planning our working time.

Review and my biggest takeaway

This course is very insightful and useful. It explains how the brains learn based on Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. It explains so well that everyone can understand.

And it introduces several techniques to apply in our future learning.

My biggest takeaway from this course is Pomodoro Technique if I can only choose one. It is very easy to apply, but very powerful.

I start my day with one Pomodoro after this course and do 6-8 Pomodoros each day. It really improves my productivity and pulls myself out from bad procrastination habit.

It is really worth the time and effort to learn this course. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning new things.

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