Notes: Learning how to learn - Coursera

These are notes from the Coursera course Learning how to learn. I suspect you will not make out much of it, but give it a try if you'd like!

Delivered by:
Dr. Terrence Sejnowski,
Dr. Barbara Oakley

Modes of thinking


The focused mode is perfect for being productive and solving problems which are familiar. It is an effective way of doing quality work within a strict field. Good focused thinking is made from practice; when you do focus, there will be quality (but you will not break barriers beyond your own training).


The diffuse mode is perfect for approaching unfamiliar terrain. You allow the thoughts to wander, to see if an abstract correlation might be the solution to your problem. Quantity is the important part here; have a lot of thoughts, as the first one might not provide the best solution.

For good diffuse thinking and problem solving, knowledge within different fields is good.

The brain

  • We know jack shit about the brain. It is complex as fuck.
  • The brain is very expensive, energy-wise.
  • Brain connectivity is dynamic, and even so after it is matured.
  • When you sleep, your brain changes.

More information about the brain, thinking, and neuroscience


The pomodoro technique:

  • Remove all distractions
  • Full focus for 25 mintues
  • 5 minute break
  • a little reward (candy, surfing etc.)

Practice makes permanent

By doing a little bit of work every day, you end up with a solid foundation, as it reinforces your neural pathways. ´
If you do all your training the day before a test, you are set up with a bad foundation. You will most likely have forgotten all about it in a couple of months.


Working memory / Short term memory

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • 4 chunks
  • Metabolic vampires

Long term memory

  • Revisit the memory to enhance
  • Can store A LOT
  • Spaced repetition - repeat over a number of days

Sleep learning

  • Sleeping removes metabolic toxin in the brain.
  • Sleep deprivation is BAD
  • Important part of memory and learning process
    • Repeats the neural patterns
    • Understanding is processed
  • High probability of dreaming about what you are studying by rehearsing before bed
  • To think that you want to dream about it increases the probability



  • New concepts are abstract and messed up.
  • Chunking cleans up the mess and forms a logical structure
  • Provides context, how it relates to other stuff
  • Focus is how you connect the diffuse mode to the focus mode by creating chunks
  • When stressed, angry or afraid your attention have problems creating the new connections
  • Chunk is combined in meaning of use
    • Abbreviations
    • The Feynman Technique
  • Anchor concepts with people, smiles etc. (Example: learning language) (DM). It will reinforce the neural pathways. Constant repetition is for learning the specifics. (FM)
  • Step 1: connect conceptual chunks before going deeper. Form relations: logical structure, visual structure, emotional relation. How does this relate to all the other stuff?
  • No need for knowing the underlying details - You just kinda know what it is about - not the specifics

How to make a chunk

  • Make a huge chunk by taking small chunks first
  • Best chunks are what we call intuition - we need not think about how to access the information
  • Maths and science learned in the same method
  • Start to work through example - it displays the underlying principles
  • Understand why each step is taken!!! Not why the step works, but rather how it connects to everything else.
  • Chunking is different depending on subject

Chunking of mental ideas

  1. Focus your undivided attention on the information you want to chunk. No phone, television, or computer.
  2. Understand the basic idea. How does it connect with other stuff? How does it work? Creates broad intense neural connections. A good chunk. Review it to enhance the idea! Test to see if you can solve the problem by the understanding.
  3. Gaining context. Repeat. Practice. When do I use the chunk? When do I not use it? Try to apply it and see where it works.
    • Bottom-up learning - enhancing chunks
    • Top-down learning - seeing the big picture and where the chunks connect This creates context - when do use it.

Get the big picture by reviewing overhead material beforehand (Good lecture, images in the book etc.)

Illusions of competence in learning


  • After you have read the material - recall what you just read
  • The key ideas are important. Learn at a much deeper level compared to re-reading or concept maps
  • Retrieval process is important when learning new stuff'
  • Recall is good when building new chunks

  • Do not use a book as a reference when studying. It fools you! Constantly test yourself instead!

  • You can take in subliminal cues from the environment when studying, so try to vary the places where you study.

Do not glance at a solution and think you have solved it. You have not created the neural pathways yourself. Try to solve the issue several times before looking at an explanation.
Highlighting and underlining can be damaging, as it fools you to think that you have understood the concept. Do little highlighting and write in the margins instead.

What motivates you?

  • Acetylcholine - Focused learning, long-term memory.
  • Dopamine - This is motivation. Acts in the brain stem. Predicting future rewards. Long term motivation. Anhedonia - lack of dopamine. Unconscious system - when you promise to reward yourself after work, this is what triggers it.
  • Serotonin - Social life. Alpha male has high levels of serotonin. Higher risk taking with low levels of serotonin

Emotions are intertwined with perception and thinking. Amygdala is another magic place in the brain! See

The Value of a Library of Chunks

Combine chunks creates innovation. Gradually build chunks to access many common patterns within your field.

Classify chunks like a library - Train and remind yourself of chunks.


Internalized intuition - quick access to chunks. Train


Possible to find similarities between different chunks/subjects. Ex. Problem solving skills translates between physics and business.



  • Sequential - Step by step solving
  • Holistic - Intuitive, jumps between steps via unconscious connections between chunks. Makes a unique solution. Semi-random, DON'T FORGET TO VERIFY AS THIS IS PROVIDED BY THE DIFFUSE MODE OF THINKING!

The Law of Serendipity

Lady Luck favors the one who tries. When you have overcome the first barrier, it will be easier to take in the following steps.


Practice over and over again - Too much practice is overlearning.

Continuing hammering a concept during the same session is dangerous. Spread it out - don't do it in the same session. Is it easy? It is an illusion of mastery.

  • Deliberate practice - practicing the things which you do not know


Overlearning can be valuable if you choke on a test or want to do things "automatically". Ex. practicing 70 hours for a 20 minute TED talk. Nervousness won't affect you - you know everything by heart.

Einstellung Effect

How a previous idea can block a new idea. previous concepts, facts or methods might be perceived as the "truth" - therefore you must open your mind (Enter diffuse mode) to reach those expanded conclusions.

Ex. Newton was correct - but Einstein was even more correct.

  • Unlearn older ideas and approaches to open your mind for new ones


Dangerous to just jump into huge problems right away. Focus on certain parts - see where to apply each chunk, then combine all those chunks together to solve bigger more complex problems.

Try to attack a problem with different methods - and switch between these. Do not necessarily solve one type of problem at a time (complete these sections-wise). By switching between methods, you enable the brain to easier connect different chunks via the diffuse mode.

Question why you use a technique. Can another technique be used?

  • Skip around between sections of problems - makes the learning harder, but creates better intuition. Creates creativity.
  • Practice is always important
  • Specializing leaps a higher risk of locking up to familiar ideas

  • Thomas S. Kuhn says that the reason why innovative people are either young or have been working with a previous discipline is that they are not locked up in their way of thinking.

Learning does not come from teachers. Learning comes from everyday problem solving - fixing leaking faucets, packing bags etc.

Mike Rowe - learning new disciplines
Richard Feynman - Watching people eat spaghetti (amongst other things)


  • Chunks - pieces of information, a combination of neurons placeable in working memory.
  • Recall - Trying to recall the information you have learned creates hooks for the chunks. Does not come from reading texts over and over. Change places when recalling, to remove false positive dendrites.
  • Transfer - Chunks can be applied to multiple areas
  • Interleave - Practice multiple techniques in the same section
  • Illusions of competence in learning
    • Test yourself
    • Have you stalled (always get the correct answer)?
    • Practice deliberate learning
    • Make mistakes!!!
  • Einstellung - A previously learned idea prevents the possibility of a new original solution
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