The Psychology Of Optimal Learning

Thomas Moran
Aug 31, 2018 · 11 min read

Understanding the key processes that drive your learning can help turbo-boost your career.

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510)

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

— Plutarch

Introducing: The Software That Powers Your Brain

In the previous blog post, on the Neuroscience of Learning we explored the hardware infrastructure that runs your most important learning software — ie. the physiology of the Brain.

Now we move on to explore what could be described in some sense as the operating system:

An operating system is computer software that manages hardware and resources. It acts as an intermediary between programs and the computer hardware.

Our brain operates, controls and regulates all conscious and unconscious thoughts and tasks both voluntary such as walking or talking and involuntary like our heartbeat or respiration.

Likewise, we can take the analogy further so the user interface corresponds to the input to the brain from the senses and language and motion as output.

The nearest thing we have that could be described as software is the data that our brain holds — the things you have learned — and this could be visualised as the state contained in the neurons.

Most people assume they’re consciously aware of and in control of pretty much all their feelings, actions and thoughts. Astonishingly, science proves them wrong.

In his 2011 book, “Incognito”, American Neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the secret lives of the brain and how at any given moment, the thoughts and feelings you are consciously aware of form only a tiny fraction of what’s going in your brain.

Some key takeaways :

  • Many processes in our brain, like decision making actually work best on autopilot, without conscious interference that would slow it down.

So we see that what we consciously perceive is merely the tip of the iceberg and subconscious thoughts and processes are really what determine to a large extent our outward behaviour.

These subconscious thoughts and processes form the framework of our belief systems and mental models of the world and act as the code and instructions of our operating system, because our thoughts, emotions and feelings are derived through our beliefs.

Art Credit: Stonemask Design

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

— Albert Einstein

The Most Important Factors Affecting Learning

  1. Goals: A goal or purpose is an aim or desired result. Goals should be specific and clear. You feel more empowered by having a purpose if you have clearly defined goals.

Introducing The 4 M’s of Learning

A mnemonic is any learning technique that aids efficient information storage or retrieval in the human memory.

And since there are a huge number of different factors implicated in the context of effective and successful learning we are going to use a mnemonic to help give our psychological learning framework some meaningful structure.

To this end I propose that the most important psychological constructs can be generally summarised into the following four main categories:

Mindset, Metacognition, Motivation and (Mental) Models

Each of these is worthy of at least their own individual post — which I will be doing in future — so I won’t be going too deep here for now.

What follows is a high level overview and rundown of each.

Credit —

1. Mindset

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett

Some examples of harmful vs useful mindsets that are key to effective learning:

  • Fixed vs Growth Mindset

Learning is about improving, trying things you haven’t mastered, and maximizing mistakes. You need to deliberately choose high quality learning. To “win”, your rate of change has to be faster than society’s rate of change.

People who believe that they can increase their intelligence through effort and challenge actually get smarter and do better in school, work, and life over time.

These people know that mental exercise makes their brains grow smarter — the same way that exercise makes an athlete stronger and faster.

Among these beliefs, the most foundational and critical for us to focus on is the Growth Mindset, first identified and studied by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

“Becoming is better than being.“ -– Carol Dweck

After studying the behavior of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck and her colleagues coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.

When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that subsequently leads to higher achievement.

Dr. Dweck’s discovery of fixed and growth mindsets have shaped our understanding of learning

They see effort as what makes people smart, they are motivated to focus on continued growth, and they persist in the face of setbacks.

Kaizen in kanji

Kaizen (改善) is the Japanese word for “improvement”. In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.

We should always look to implement Kaizen and the Growth Mindset in our daily lives to achieve continuous improvement.

Self-Efficacy: “I Can Succeed.”

Closely related to the growth mindset is the belief that one can succeed. You must believe that you can achieve your goals, however those are defined. The stronger the growth mindset, the more you will seek ways to overcome adversity and find alternate strategies to achieve your goals.

Belonging: “I Belong in this Community.”

When you feel that you belong to a learning community, you become much more highly engaged and connect learning activities with social rewards that you value.

Relevance: “This Work has Value and Purpose For Me.”

It has been shown that people engage in learning much more energetically and deeply when they value the knowledge and skills that they’re working to acquire, or find them relevant or interesting. That leads you to think more deeply, question, pursue, and put your full self into the work.

If you are interested, you can test your own mindset here:

2. Metacognition

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom”

— Socrates

Thinking Man by Deviant Art

What is metacognition?

Metacognition is often referred to as “thinking about thinking”, or “knowing about knowing”.

Metacognition is a regulatory system that helps a person understand and control his or her own cognitive performance.

It includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving.

Metacognition allows people to take charge of their own learning. It involves awareness of how they learn, and generating strategies to meet these needs and then implementing the strategies.

Metacognitive knowledge is crucial for efficient independent learning because it fosters forethought and self-reflection and it can be broken down into three main components:

  • Declarative (Content) Knowledge

Scientists have only recently begun to pinpoint the physical center of metacognition in the brain.

Researchers at the University College London have discovered that subjects with better metacognition had more gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex and studies are ongoing to determine just how this brain area contributes to these critically important skills.

Metacognitive Strategies

“The mind has a mind of its own.” — Old saying

These facilitate learning how to learn. You can incorporate strategies, as appropriate, into all kinds of learning experiences and other formal or informal learning activities — including online courses.

Some examples of these strategies that you can implement are :

  1. Knowing the limits of your own memory for a particular task and creating a means of external support.

3. Motivation

Photo Credit: Getty Images

“Motivation is a word that is part of the popular culture as few other psychological concepts are.”

— Maehr and Meyer

Motivation is a theoretical construct used to explain behaviour. It gives the reason for people’s actions, desires, and needs.

A motive is what prompts the person to act in a certain way, or at least develop an inclination for a specific behavior.

There are 2 main Incentivisation Theories: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards such as money, social recognition and awards and have been shown to be significantly less effective than intrinsic motivation — that which comes from inside.

According to career analyst Dan Pink, the secret becoming more motivated is not to worry about money — it’s to worry about how intrinsically motivated you are in your job.

Pink argues that the more autonomy, mastery, and purpose someone has in their job, the more motivated they become.

I recommend the following fascinating animation which summarises his talk at the RSA on the topic.

RSA Animate: Dan Pink on Motivation

In order to foster motivation through Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose here are some key things you can leverage:

  1. Discover your Mission. What are your Values & Interests?

4. Mental Models

A mental model is the representation we create in our brains of how the world works.

We create models for everything we learn. We use individual models as the basis for creating more complex models — much like building blocks from the bottom up using first principles.

When we learn something new we create a condensed shortcut of it in our mind so that we can apply it in the future

We do this intuitively, but it can also be done deliberately, and when it is, it speeds up our ability to learn, solve problems and make good decisions.

Polymaths like Nikola Tesla, Leonardo DaVinci and Elon Musk would have mastered creating solid fundamental models, building on them and being able to apply them to different domains and problems.

Cognitive Biases & Heuristics

There’s too much information in the world but we can’t let it paralyze us.

We need to make some sense of it all or we could have died out as a species long ago. For example, we prefer generalisations over specifics because they take up less space.

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality in our judgment.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that ease the process of making a decision. (e.g a rule of thumb, a guesstimate, stereotyping)

Both of these are mental constructs that we have created to help ease the cognitive load.

Cognitive biases can be organized into four categories:

  1. Too much information so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal. Examples are contrast bias we notice when something has changed and confirmation bias — we are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs.

Why it matters: Accelerated Learning

Learning involves creating mental models of the world around us.

Whether that is when learning about advanced calculus and using the building blocks of elementary algebra or when learning a new language and building sentences from the first principles grammar and words.

So gaining an insight into how our mindsets and psychological constructs work together with the explicit use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies can be leveraged as a framework to enable us to learn faster and more effectively.

In future posts, I will be diving into more detail on these individual strategies as well as exploring the topics of motivation, cognitive biases, fluid intelligence, mental models, growth mindsets and the pivotal roles each play in learning along with the best up-to-date tools and data analytics available for you to use right now.

In the meantime why not head over to and sign up for early access to the platform we’re building to harness the power of all of these accelerated learning strategies…

I’m really excited for you to join us as we embark on this journey to build and validate the first part of our platform — the the world’s best online course aggregator and discovery portal.

The OptmizMe Platform

Thomas Moran

Written by

Full Stack Engineer, Blockchain and AI Enthusiast, Lifelong Learner, Founder at

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