Learning How to Learn

Learning How to Learn

Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.

This course is provided via Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn.

The book A Mind for Numbers contains more in-depth information related to this course.

Week 1

Focused versus Diffuse Thinking

Researchers have discovered two different modes of learning: focused, and diffuse. Focused mode is when you concentrate intently on something. Diffuse mode is a more relaxed thinking style related to a set of neural resting states. As far as neuroscientists know, you can only be in one mode at a time.

When you’re learning something new, your mind needs to go back and forth between the learning modes. Do a little work every day to gradually grow a neural scaffold. It takes time.

Brain connectivity is dynamic, even after full development. Sleep can make it easier to learn new things,

Procrastination, Memory, and Sleep

When you look at something you’d rather not do, you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. Researchers have discovered that not long after people start working on what they didn’t like, the neurological discomfort disappeared. Pomodoro is a structure to overcome this discomfort. The name is the Italian word for tomato, and it involves using a timer (kitchen timers look like tomatoes). Set a timer for 25 minutes, no interruptions, and focus, followed by a reward.

Math and Science may be harder due to the abstract ideas. The more abstract a concept, the more practice required to build neurons. Practice makes it permanent.

Working memory is the part of memory that has to do with what you’re immediately and consciously processing in your mind. It’s widely believed that working memory holds about four chunks of information. It needs to be repeatedly refreshed in order to retain its contents. Long term memory is like a large warehouse. Its concepts need to be revisited so long term memories can be found at a later point in time. A helpful practice for this is spaced repetition: practicing over several days is more effective than practicing the same number of times in one day.

Sleep keeps the brain clean and healthy. It’s also an important part of the memory and learning process: it tidies up concepts you’re thinking about, erasing the less important parts of memories and strengthening areas you want to remember.

Learning by doing is a great way to get started. You learn more by active engagement rather than passive listening. Exercise and an enriching environment can help form neurons (in the hippocampus area of the brain). Being in an environment with others who are working in a similar goal (creative, enriching) can help form stronger ideas. Handwriting builds stronger neural connections than typing.

Post about Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD

On a to-do list, write the number of Pomodoro cycles instead of a length of time. Habits, pain avoidance, and procrastination are affect depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Learning Languages — Benny Lewis

Safety around making mistakes helps with learning. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. Mnemonics and spaced repetition can help form stronger associations that help with speaking a language, as opposed to reading/ listening to a language.

Book — Fluent in 3 Months

Creativity and Problem-Solving — Dr. Robert Bilder

Creativity can include creating connections between neurons in your brain too, even if the problem has already been solved. Leadership is the ability to disguise panic. Repeated experience allows one to overcome criticism. Accomplishment requires some degree of discomfort.

More openness and less agreeableness is correlated with creativity.

Zooming in and zooming out are methods to achieve another perspective with regard to problem-solving and learning.

Week 2

Chunking — The Essentials

A chunk is a compact package of information the mind can easily access. Focused learning uses working information and associates the chunks with concepts in long-term memory. Chunks can be used to learn sports, languages, and other abstract topics. Practice and building chunks are all that’s needed to form creative thoughts.

Chunking helps the brain run more efficiently, learning the main idea rather than accessing the individual pieces.

Build mini chunks and use those to form larger chunks. Work through a practice problem, observe an expert, or listen to a native speaker. Try to understand the “why” between steps to put chunks together rather than just how an individual chunk works. Chunking in each subject is slightly different, even though they are closely related. Begin by focusing on the topic you want to focus; complete focus helps you associate the new chunk with your existing long term memories. Switch between focus and diffuse mode. You must understand how the chunk works to form a useful chunk.

Only doing it yourself helps you form a strong neural connection. See how your chunk fits into the bigger picture. Practice helps you broaden your context to use a big chunk. Chunks are best built with focused attention, understanding, and practice to fit it into the context of the bigger picture.

After reading material, look away and see what you can recall from the material just read. Recall is more effective than re-reading or drawing a concept map. The retrieval process itself helps form deep learning. Recall is more effective at understanding basic concepts. Reading a solution doesn’t form the material in working memory and eventually into long-term memory. That is the importance of practice. Using the internet or reading a book is an illusion of competence — you may think you have the material, but it’s not actually in your brain. It’s also important to vary the location of learning so that your material is not actively tied to the physical characteristics of a single area.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Neuromodulators are chemicals that influence how a neuron responds to other neurons. Acetylcholine neurons form connections to the cortex that are important for focused learning. Dopamine controls your motivations, not just in the immediate term, but also in future time. Serotonin is inversely related to risk-taking behavior. Emotions also affect your learning–the amygdala and the hippocampus can influence the creation of neurons.

To gain knowledge and expertise, people gradually build chunks of information they can piece together in new and creative ways. When you grasp one chunk, you can find surprising ways to relate that chunk to similar chunks. Solving problems (relating chunks together) can be done in two methods: sequential and holistic intuition. Sequential thinking is related to focused mode, whereas intuition is related to the diffuse mode. The law of serendipity applies to learning many things: subsequent chunks are easier to grasp than the first chunk.

Practicing easy material you’ve mastered is called overlearning. It can be another sign of an illusion of competence. Deliberately practice harder material to avoid overlearning. Interleaving, or skipping between subjects/studies, can help deepen learning by not only helping the brain form stronger chunks (how a chunk works), but also when to use a chunk. Einstellung is the concept of a mental roadblock, preventing you from choosing a solution because of an initial thought, idea, or pre-formed neural pattern.

Learning at MIT — Dr. Norman Fortenberry

Collaboration is important for studying. Use as many modes of input as you can while learning. Auditory, visual, tactile. Teaching is a great way to learn as well.

Interview with Scott Young

Try to dive into a position where you are wrong as quickly as possible. Completing problem sets, speaking languages, etc. Deliberate practice. Self explanation — take a blank piece of paper out and try to write/teach others about a process. Spots where things are vague reveal material to review.

Week 3


Good learning is a bit-by-bit activity. Spacing learning will help you learn better; overcoming procrastination is important for stronger learning. Procrastination causes longer unhealthy effects even though it may be small to begin with.

Chunking is related to habit. Habits are energy-saving activities neuroscientifically. Habits consist of a cue, a routine, a reward, and a belief.

If you feel uncomfortable, focus on the process rather than the product. The product may trigger the pain causing procrastination. Focus on doing a pomodoro instead of the product itself. This can help with relaxation and flowing into the work. Reducing distractions is also key to the pomodoro.

Override habits by changing your reaction to a cue. Recognize the cue, which is usually a location, a time, how you feel, or reactions to other sensory inputs. Have a plan to develop a new ritual as a routine. Don’t try to change everything at once. Can you substitute a reward to overcome previous cravings? Have the belief that you can change your habit. Developing a new community can help reinforce beliefs.

Write tasks weekly in a planner journal. Each day, write a list of tasks to accomplish the next day. Try to do it the night before, because research shows that your subconscious helps you grapple with the tasks on the list, otherwise the list may occupy your valuable limited working memory. Mixing up tasks makes them more enjoyable and keeps you moving instead of sitting the whole time. Planning your quitting time is as important as planning your working time. Healthy leisure time outperforms monotonous slog and work.


The mind is built to remain general visual-spatial memories as a part of evolution. The more neural hooks you build by using the senses, the easier it is to form long-term memories. Repetition sporadically, over several days, enhances retention. Say things aloud to begin to set auditory hooks. Interleave index cards to help interleave learning.

The hippocampus is responsible for forming long term memories. Memories are living, breathing parts of the brain that are constantly forming. It’s also possible to plant false memories in the brain. Spacing learning allows the memory to re-consolidate during sleep, forming stronger memories. Astrocytes are cells in the brain that provide nutrients to neurons, perform repairs, and assist in learning.

Grouping things simplifies the material assists in chunking and forming memories. Mnemonics can help remember difficult information, like the order of sharps in music FCGDAEB (“Fat Cows Get Drunk At Eddy’s Bar”). I’ve remembered that since 6th grade, that’s how powerful these memories are. A memory palace can help form memories for unrelated concepts. Use a familiar visual-spatial location with striking imagery to relate the memories being learned. Forming these evocative images to remember things also assists in creativity.

Using memory in a disciplined creative manner helps focus attention. Practice and repetition spaced over several days helps build better long-term memories. Working memory only has approximately four active slots; chunking helps compact memories and allows storing more detailed information in working memory. Humans evolved to have a large visual-spatial memory, which is why techniques like a memory palace are so powerful.

Interview with Nelson Dellis

Basics of learning: turn things into a picture, store it somewhere (like a memory palace), then associate meaning with that picture and location. Tips for brain health: try to memorize things and learn a new skill, being active, being social, and diet. Being silly, creative, imaginative, and fun helps with forming memory.

Interview with Dr. Robert Gamache

Spend a few minutes studying every subject every day. Practicing every day helps recover memories more easily. When getting stuck, taking a break to relax can help move the brain into a relaxed state to help solve problems. Refresh yourself periodically.

Interview with Keith Devlin

Adapt existing patterns to help solve new problems. It’s just as important to be able to focus on a problem as it is to back away from it. Slow thinking can help solve problems, no need to act too fast. Thinking and problem-solving requires relaxed states between focused states.

Week 4

Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

Physical exercise is the best gift to help the brain. There are critical periods in the development of the brain where sudden improvements occur in specific abilities. Practice can repair and train the brain, but taking much longer than in the critical period.

Learning doesn’t progress logically, adding a neat chunk to the repository of knowledge. Encountering a wall or feeling like losing some knowledge is a natural part of the process as the brain rearranges chunks in order to support a more solid foundation.

Creating a metaphor or analogy for concepts is one of the best ways to remember and understand concepts. Imagining yourself as the concept is also a strong way to learn. Metaphors also help make a connection to neural structures that are already there.

Forming chunks over time allows experts to make decisions subconsciously. At some point, self-consciously understanding your decisions slows you down and causes worse decision-making. Having a larger working memory generally makes things easier to learn, but also leads to decreased creativity.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal wrote in his autobiography that perseverance allowed him to be successful even though he recognized other brilliant people doing more exceptional work. Charles Darwin was able to investigate the data he collected and formulate the theory of evolution by following his own path (he dropped out of medical school) and taking responsibility for his learning.

Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential Part 2

The right hemisphere of the brain helps to see the bigger picture. It provides a reality check for nonsensical answers, such as calculating the circumference of the earth to be 2 feet. This stands in contrast to the left-center hemisphere of the brain, which tries to keep consistent it’s interpretations. When using the focus mode of the brain, it’s easy to make mistakes which the left hemisphere clings too. One of the best ways to catch the errors of the left hemisphere is teamwork. Study groups help to discover and test your thinking against blind spots.

Testing is a powerful learning experience, because it focuses the mind. There is a checklist that can help prepare for any type of test.

Start with the hard problems on a test, spending a minute to focus on it, then move to an easy problem to allow the hard problem to make connections when the brain is in diffuse mode. This is known as the hard start — jump to easy technique. You have to pull yourself off of a hard problem.

The body puts out chemicals under stress, but it’s how you interpret those signals that influence how you perform. Breathing from the belly can help reduce stress in a test-taking environment.


The brain doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Switching between focused and diffuse mode can allow for more creative thinking. Forming chunks in small segments using the pomodoro method can strengthen learning.