Learning how to learn

This is a summary from the course: Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, offered on Coursera, by McMaster University & UC San Diego and presented by Dr.Barbara Oakley & Dr.Terrence Sejnoski. I highly recommend going through this course (it’s free) before tackling your next learning challenge (from academia, sports, music, new language etc). Otherwise, you can just read through this summary:

Week 1: What is learning?

To start, we learn about the focused and diffuse mode of thinking.

  • Focus – when you concentrate on something you’re trying to learn. 

  • Diffuse – When you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random.

Why do we procrastinate?

When you look at something that you really rather not do, it seems that you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. Your brain, naturally enough, looks for a way to stop that negative stimulation by switching your attention to something else.

So how can we handle procrastination? Just start! A handy tool suggested in this course is to use the Pomodoro technique, where you focus for 25 minutes non stop, turn off all distractions. Once this is done, reward yourself than get back to it again! 

Introduction to memory

There are two types of memory:

  1. Working memory – What you’re immediately and consciously processing in your mind. (4 slots of working memory)
  2. Long term memory – like a wide storage warehouse, where you store fundamental concepts and techniques in whatever you’re learning.

When you learn something new, make sure to take time to rest, then come back to it and recall what you learnt. This is very important. Don’t cram information in one day.  Revisiting and practicing what you learn is important. Research shows that spaced repetition (repeating things after few days) is the best way to build and strengthen the synaptic connections.

Why is sleep so important to learning?

Your brain tidies up ideas and concepts you’re thinking about and learning. It also rehearses some of the tougher parts of whatever you’re trying to learn, straightening the neural patterns. It also clears the metabolic toxins in your brain that develop during our days activities. 

Exercise also help both improve our memory and ability to learn, so don’t sit all day learning, make sure you exercise!

You can learn more about brains here in http://www.brainfacts.org/

Some good readings for this lesson:

  1. Study strategies to boost learning
  2. Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins during sleep
  3. Note taking tools and tips

Week 2: Chunking

So what is a chunk?

Chunking is the mental leap that helps you unite bits of information together through meaning. This helps your brain run more efficiently. Chunks are pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, through bound together through meaning or use. Eg, once you understand a math formula, the problems will no longer need to take as much focus to solve it.

So how do we form chunks? See the steps below:

  1. Focus your undivided attention on the information you want to chunk
  2. Understand the basic idea you’re trying to chunk. Eg, math formula.(You’ll want to review it after you learn it!). Remember, just because you see it or even that you understand it, it doesn’t mean that you can actually do it. Only doing it yourself helps create the neural patterns that underlie true mastery. 
  3. Practice – Test yourself to make sure you are actually learning and not fooling yourself into learning. Mistakes are a good thing. They allow you to catch illusions of competence. Recall mentally without looking at the material. This is proven more effective than to simply rereading. Reread only after you try to recall and write down what was in the material. 

What if it’s too hard?

Turn off all distractions and let’s use our four slots in working memory. It will get easier. Just focus on whatever section you want to study, Once you put that first concept in your mental library, the next one will be easier, this concept is known as Transfer. Master the major concepts first, look at pictures, flow charts etc.

This is a reminder that just wanting to learn the material, and spending a lot of time with it, doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually learn it. A super helpful way to make sure you’re learning and not fooling yourself with illusions of competence, is to test yourself on whatever you’re learning.

Another quick tip: recalling material when you are outside your usual place of study can help strengthen your grasp of the material!

Also the law of serendipity. Lady luck favours those who tries.

Other useful tips

Continuing to study or practice after you’ve mastered what you can in the session is called overlearning. Overlearning can have its place. It can produce an automaticity that can be important when you’re executing a serve in tennis or a perfect piano concerto.

Deliberate practise – Focusing on more difficult material is the difference between a good student and a great student. 

Don’t always trust your initial intuition. Einstellung problem (a German word for Mindset). An idea or a neural pattern you developed might prevent a new better idea from being found. 

A big mistake is to blindly start working on an exercise without reading the textbook or attending the class. This is a recipe of disaster. Mix up the problems (Interleaving) from different chapters. This is helpful to create connections between your chunks. It can make your learning a bit more difficult, but it helps you learn more deeply. Interleaving is very important. It is where you leave the world of practice and repetition, and begin thinking more independently.

Some good readings for this lesson:

  1. The 30 second habit
  2. Be lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn
  3. The Interleaving Effect

Week 3: Procrastination and Memory


First things first, unlike procrastination which is easy to fall into, willpower is hard to come by. It uses a lot of neural resources. You shouldn’t waste willpower on fending off procrastination except when absolutely necessary.

Procrastination shares features with addiction. It offers temporary excitement and relief from sometimes boring reality. It’s easy to fool yourself, for example, into thinking that the best use of any given moment is surfing the web for information instead of actually reading the textbook or doing the assigned problems.

Chunking is related to habit. Habit is an energy saver for us. It allows us to free our mind for other types of activities. Habit comes in 4 parts:

  1. The cue – The trigger that launches you into zombie mode, the cue may be something as simple as seeing the first item in your to-do list.
  2. The routine – This is your zombie mode, the routine habitual response your brain is used to falling into when it receives the cue. Commit yourself to certain routines and tasks each day.
  3. The reward – Every habit develops and continues because it rewards us. It gives us an immediate little feeling of pleasure. Reward yourself after you finish a study session.
  4. The belief – Habits have power because of your belief in them. For example, you might feel you’ll never be able to change your habits of putting off your studies until late in the day. To change a habit, you’ll need to change your underlying belief.

So what can I do?

First, when it comes to learning in general, it’s perfectly normal to start with a few negative feelings about beginning a learning session. Learn to focus on process not product. Process means, the flow of time and the habits and actions associated with that flow of time. As in, I’m going to spend 20 minutes working. Product is an outcome, for example, a homework assignment that you need to finish. To prevent procrastination you want to avoid concentrating on product. Instead, your attention should be on building processes. Processes relate to simple habits, habits that coincidentally allow you to do the unpleasant tasks that need to be done.

A good way for you to keep perspective about what you’re trying to learn and accomplish is to once a week write a brief weekly list of key tasks in a planner journal. Then, each day on another page of your planner journal, write a list of the tasks that you can reasonably work on or accomplish. Try to write this daily task list the evening before. Why the evening before? Writing the list before you go to sleep enlists your zombies to help you accomplish the items on the list the next day. If you don’t write your tasks down on a list, they lurk at the edge of the four or so slots in your working memory, taking up valuable mental real estate. Try to work on a most important and most disliked task first. At least just one Pomodoro as soon as you wake up.


Part of the reason an image is so important to memory is that images connect directly to your right brain’s visual spacial centers. The image helps you encapsulate a seemingly humdrum and hard to remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities. 

Repetition’s important. Even when you make something memorable, repetition helps get that memorable item firmly lodged into long-term memory. Remember to repeat not a bunch of times in one day but sporadically over several days. Index cards can often be helpful. Writing and saying what you’re trying to learn seems to enhance retention.

Handwriting helps you to more deeply encode, that is convert into neural memory structures what you are trying to learn.

Long term memory

This is why it is more effective to space learning over time, rather than mass learning all at once. If you want to study something for an hour, you will retain it longer if you spend 10 minutes each month over a semester than an hour on one day. In contrast, if you wait until the day before an exam to cram the material, you may be able to retrieve for the next day on the exam but it will quickly fade from memory.

Tips on improving memory

  • Create meaningful groups and abbreviations.
  • To remember numbers, associate them to memorable events.
  • Create mnemonic phrases from first letters of the words you want to remember.
  • Memory Palace Technique: Use a familiar place (like the blueprint of your house) and associate visual images of things you want to remember with physical places. This is not easy. You’ll be very slow at first. But with practice, you’ll get better. The more you practice your “memory muscle” the easier you’ll remember.

Some good readings for this lesson:

  1. Poor health linked to memory complaints
  2. Studying abroad makes you smarter?

Week 4: Renaissance Learning and Unlocking your Potential

Tip number one, the best gift that you can give your brain is Physical Exercise.

Learning, Planning, Language, these are the skills that make us human. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in complex analysis in social behaviors, as well as decision making and planning.

One of the best things you can do to not only remember, but understand concepts, is to create a metaphor or analogy for them. Often the more visual the better.

Smooth repetition creates muscle memory, so your body knows what to do from a single thought. 

More brain facts

The right hemisphere serves as a sort of devil’s advocate to question the status quo and look for global inconsistencies. While the left hemisphere instead tries to cling tenaciously to the way things were.

Why are study groups effective?

By making it a point to do some of your studying with friends, you can more easily catch where your thinking has gone astray, thats why study groups can be powerfully effective for learning, but if study sessions turn into socialising occasions, all bets are off. Friends and teammates can serve as sort of ever questioning larger scale diffuse mode outside your brain that can catch what you missed, or what you just can’t see. And of course, explaining to friends helps build your own understanding. The importance of working with others doesn’t just relate to learning.

Back to Testing

Testing is itself an extraordinarily powerful learning experience. This means that the effort you put into test-taking, including the preliminary mini-test of your recall and your ability to problem solve during your preparation is of fundamental importance. If you compare how much you learn by spending one hour studying versus one hour taking a test on that same material, you’ll retain and learn far more as a result of the hour you spent taking a test. 

Here are the Test Checklist recommended in this course:

  • Did you make a serious effort to understand the text? If you had a study guide, did you go through it?
  • Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution?
  • Did you understand all your homework problems’ solutions? If not, did you ask for explanations?
  • Did you work with classmates on homework problems? checked your solutions?
  • Did you consult your instructor/teacher when you had a problem with something?
  • Did you sleep well the night before the test?

The Hard Start – Jump to easy Technique
(Try this strategy with homework problems first)

The classic way students are taught to approach tests is to tackle the easiest problems first. This is based on the idea that by the time you finish the relatively simple problems, you’ll be confident in handling the more difficult. This approach works for some people, mostly because, well, anything works for some people. Unfortunately, however for many people, it’s counterproductive.

So easy problems first or hard? Start with the hardest problem. Pull yourself out if you get stuck for over 2 minutes. Starting with a hard problem loads your focused mode first and then switches attention away from it. This allows the diffused mode to start its work. Then turn next to an easy problem. Solves what you can, then move back to a hard one. This allows the different part of your brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts


Being stressed before a test is normal. The body puts ups out chemicals when it’s under stress. How you interpret the body reaction to those chemicals makes all the difference.

Shift your thinking from “I am afraid of this test” to “I am excited to do my best”. If you are stressed during a test, turn your attention to breathing. Relax, put your hand on your stomach and slowly draw some deep breaths. 

Relax your brain on the last day before a test. Have a quick final look at the materials. Feeling guilty the last day is a natural reaction even if you prepared well. So relax. Good worry motivates you. Bad worry wastes your energy.

And finally, remember that not getting enough sleep the night before a test can negate any other preparation you’ve done. Also, even if you did end up failing or didn’t get the results you wanted, it is not the end of the world. I’ve failed many tests before and I didn’t let that define my future.

Some good readings from this lesson:

  1. How Successful People Stay Calm
  2. To really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test
  3. Feel like a fraud?


You can read the book a mind for numbers by Barbara Oakley alongside the course, this book goes into a lot more details on what Barbara teaches in this course. Really struggling in class and you want a copy but can’t afford it? Shoot me an email and I’ll buy you one!

Also I was inspired to create my project teachlearn.io after this course. Check it out! I am providing free class on various activities 🙂

Leave a Reply


Feel free to message me if you need tech help, have work opportunities, or if you want restaurant recommendation in Sydney! Contact Icon