Learning How to Learn - Coursera

2021, Dec 05

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects is an interesting course offered on Coursera. The instructors, Barb Oakley and Terry Sejnowski have put together a series of videos and reading material that are concise yet full of information. There are interview videos with experts with multiple backgrounds that are insightful. Here are some of my take aways from the course.

Focused vs Diffused mode of thinking

Focused mode of thinking is when you concentrate intently on something, like solving a math problem. While, diffused mode of thinking is a more relaxed kind of thinking. It is when you zoom out of the problem and see new connections, new patterns, and the bigger perspective. At any given point in time, you are either in focused mode of thinking or the diffused mode. It seems you can't be in both thinking modes at the same time.

An example cited in the course is that of Edison. What he used to do was, he'd sit and relax in in chair holding ball bearings in his hand. He would then let his mind run free. He found that his thoughts would circle back to what he was focusing on earlier. When Edison fell asleep, the ball bearings would drop to the floor and wake him up. He would then gather the ideas that crossed his mind in the diffused thinking and focus to build them further.


Chunking is the mental leap that helps you unite bits of information together. With practice, the bits of information, or the chunks, become bigger and more efficient.

For example, a child learning to add numbers at first will make use of their fingers to count. But with enough practice, they will be able to add numbers or do multiplication mentally without counting on fingers.

There is also the concept of "over-learning" that is quite detrimental. This happens when you practice a single method for too long that you try to use the same solution or expertise for every problem. An analogy could be a carpenter who is an expert in using hammer. This capenter might try to use the hammer to make all the furniture, which we know is not a good idea. The solution to over-learning is called Interleaving. Mastering a new subject does not mean learning only the basic chunks of the subject, but also to learn how to select and use these chunks in different situations.


Research says that when we try to do something we do not like, our brain experiences a pain. We natually try to put the task off to soothe the brain. This is procrastination. However, research also shows that, not long after you start doing the task the neuro-discomfort disappears. It seems that we just need to get over the initial hurdle.

Our brain is good at being in the zombie mode where it does not have to think too much. This is achieved through habits. Therefore, forming the right habits is the way to deal with procrastination. The instructor suggests to form habits for the process and not the product. If you have five assignments that you are procrastinating, then form the habit of working on assignments for half an hour everyday. Do not worry about finishing the five assignments. Instead worry about putting in the hours. It also helps to form study groups. These are the people can-do philosophy and will motivate you. It also helps to plan your day the previous evening and eat the frog first thing in the morning. (Do the most difficult task first).

Renaissance learning

Learning is not linear. The concepts you understand one day may not make sense the next. However, if you persist, you will find that your knowledge base will take a surprising leap foreward. While learning create lively visual metophors or build stories to memorise information. This helps your brain to retain the information. It takes persistence and modesty to be a great learner. You will find that people with higher IQ are sometimes set in their ways and might fail to see new opportunities or new applications. Thus a humble brain with a growth mindset achieves breakthroughs.

You will find that changing your thoughts can change your life. Understanding that learning is a skill that you can develop will open more doors for you. Everyone struggles with imposter symdrome. However, when you spend time with like-minded people and work as a team, you will learn and grow..

Change your thought, change your life.