Highlights from “Learning how to learn” course.

Recently I passed this course on Coursera and want to share my notes from it. You can use this article during passing this course by yourself. Hope that it could be helpful.

Firstly, I strongly recommend going through this course not only students but also people who never stop learning to improve their career or life skills.

Brain modes of thinking. Focused vs Diffused mode.

When you learn something new, you need always to switch between focused and diffused mode.

Focused mode means that you are focused only on the topic that you are busy with. In focused mode, you receiving new information during reading articles or books, or watching lectures. At this time your brain spends cognitive resources to process new information. These resources are very limited so that’s why you fill that you spend more time understanding something after a few hours of focused work. That’s why you should switch between focused and diffused modes.

In diffused mode, your brain combines new information with the knowledge you already have. It helps to build chunks in your mind, we will talk a little bit later about this.

To switch to the diffused mode you can go for a walk or make some physical exercises or just sit at the chair and let your minds go free. For me driving a car also works well.

Tips: You can use the Pomodoro technique for switching between modes.

Your brain has short-term and long-term memory.

When you learning something new you often use working memory. Working memory (short term memory) has a small amount of “memory slots”. It’s like a whiteboard.

Long term memory is like a storehouse. It keeps fundamental concepts that you learned for. To put some new information into the long term memory you should repeat and practice it at least a few times.

Tips: Spaced repetition: try to repeat new parts of knowledge at different times and make different spaces between “learning days”. There’s a time needed to build new neural patterns.

  1. To begin tapping your visual memory system, try to make a memorable visual image representing one key item you want to remember.
  2. Make meaningful groups that simplify the material. Make an abbreviation and then think which word will help you to memorize this abbreviation.
  3. Associate the new information with the information that you are familiar with.
  4. “Memory palace”. Think about the place you are familiar with and try to imagine there some unusual things from the information you need to remember. For food list, for example, imagine giant bread on the sofa in your house and giant milk package in the center of the room.
focus_bell/Adobe Stock

Like muscles, you need to grow your neural networks every day by small steps.

To learn better, you need to sleep. During sleep, your brain cleans up from metabolism products.


Chunks are neural networks that combine pieces of information to perform some actions effectively. Focused practice and repetition help to create chunks. Once you’ve chunked an idea, a concept, or an action you don’t need to remember all underline details. You’ve got the main idea, the chunk, and that’s enough.

Firstly the brain creates “mini chunks” that later combine into larger chunks. The best chunks are chunks that you don’t need to think about how to combine smaller chunks to take some action, it happens automatically in your mind.

The first step to form a chunk is to focus your undivided attention on the information you want to learn.

The second step is to understand the basic idea you trying to chunk. You understand something is when you can do it yourself.

Tips: when you start reading a book, go through the pictures and headings to create first “mini chunks“. Once you’ve done with it, continue with a detailed investigation of new material.

The third step is gaining context, understanding not only how to do something but also when.

Chunks can be related to similar chunks in other spheres. For example, some ideas from physics can be used in business, etc. If you have a library of concepts and solutions compressed to chunks, you can use it as the library of chunks to solve different problems.

Ways of problem-solving:

  1. Moving step-by-step reasoning. Involves focused mode.
  2. Intuitive thinking. It’s when you are in diffused mode jumping through different focused mode thoughts.

Note: You can be deeply involved in only one discipline and be a very good professional in it but it also can means that you stuck in one way of thinking.

Sometimes after receiving new information, you can think that you already got the idea but it’s not. After you read some material, try to look away and figure out what you can recall.

Note: Highlighting sentences in the text doesn’t work. It would be much better if after reading the material you will write down the notes by yourself. Marks and keywords on margin are also a good idea.

A helpful way not to be fooled with the illusion of competence is to test yourself.

Tips: recalling the material in an unusual place where you are usually learning is also helps to grasp of the new material.

Zombies are everywhere

How often you postpone planned tasks like learning a new skill, answer emails, do homework, finish the article (hello)? After one thought that you need to start doing something like this, you realize that you still didn’t check Facebook or drink coffee today. People call it “Procrastination”. (Here is cool Ted talk about this by Tim Urban.)

Procrastination is one of our habits, it’s an unconscious reaction to the unpleasant activity. Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski call it “Zombie mode”.

Zombie mode (habits) parts:

  • The cue: for example start writing an article.
  • The routine: brain reaction on the cue, it could be useful, harmless or sometimes harmful. For example “I’d better go drink a cup of coffee”.
  • The reward: it’s much easier to drink coffee than to write an article, it’s faster and more pleasant so that “bad habit” will be developed faster.
  • The belief: habits have power because you believe in them. If you believe that you will never be able to start doing morning exercises it will be exactly like that.

To prevent procrastination you should focus not on the product (the result of the work) but press or processes. Here is where Pomodoro is very helpful. You aim to focus on work for 25 minutes and do not think about the finished task right now.

It is about our zombie mode which like habits more than the result, so we can use it to make helpful habits and to learn effectively.

The first thing you need to do is to change your reaction to the cue. You need to find out how these cues appear.

Cue categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • How you feel
  • Reactions

You can prevent the most damaging cues by shutting off your cellphone or to avoid you from using the internet.

When you start reacting on cues, this is the point where you may try to change your destructive habit to procrastinate to something useful that will help you to start or continue working.

You need a plan for what to do if this cue appears. It may be your favorite place when you fill the most comfortable during learning or isolate yourself from noises by using headphones.

And the next — you need a reward when you’ve done something right. The bigger aim you achieved the bigger reward you need to provide yourself.

And the last — you need to believe.

If you don’t want to “die” under a lot of work and learning you should use some simple techniques:

  • Write the plan for every day with short tasks, commit yourself to certain routines and tasks each day (I use Notion for this).
  • Plan the quilting time when you stop working.
  • Do the most painful work firstly.
  • Do not forget to use Pomodoro.
  • Write notes about what works and what doesn’t
  • Delay rewards until you finish the task
  • Have backup plans for when you still procrastinate
  • Gain trust in your new system

In conclusion

One of the best things to understand new material is to create a metaphor or analogy on it. It’s better to do it as much visual as possible.

People learn by trying to make sense of the information they perceive.

If you use the procedure a lot, by doing different types of problems you’ll find out that you understand both the why and the how behind the procedure far better than you do after getting an explanation by the teacher or a book.

If you can’t keep in mind more than one thing at the same time, it seems that you are a creative person. You can try to understand what’s going on using more time than others, but once you chunked it, you can use it easily, especially on other spheres, sometimes unpredictable.

Information from one teacher or a book is the only a partial version of the full three-dimensional reality of the subject. So you need to be responsible for your learning and look through different pieces of information.

After reading about something new you should revisit it with the bigger picture and see if it make sense.

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