Header image Learning How to Learn

My 10 key takeaways from taking the world’s most popular MOOC: Coursera’s Learning how to Learn

Understanding the way we learn is super handy to learn more effectively in the future. Here are my 10 key learnings from the world’s most popular MOOC: Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.

1. There are two modes of thinking and you need both ways to learn new things.
In the focused mode, you deliberately read, highlight, and look up new concepts about the topic you’re trying to learn. In the diffuse mode, your brain makes random neural connections, allowing you to understand a concept you didn’t grasp before, as your brain can be busy figuring things out when you have no conscious awareness of it. You’re in diffuse mode when sleeping, relaxing, reading, when going for a walk or taking a shower. You plant the seed for your diffuse mode by first doing focused mode work. For example, in focused mode you watch various videos of Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course, and hit a roadblock when he’s explaining the cost function (= a way to determine how well your machine learning model has performed given different values of each parameter). You take a walk (diffuse mode), and suddenly understand how it works!

2. Practise makes perfect.
Learning something new takes time, because neurons become linked together through repeated use (via spaced repetition). It takes time for neural processing to take place and build new neural structure. Through practice and repeated use we can strengthen neural structures.

3. Use the Pomodoro method to fight procrastination.
You need 25 minutes of full focus, without any interruptions or distractions. Then you take a 5 minute pause and reward yourself. During 5 minutes of seeling relaxation, brain’s diffuse mode has chance to work in the backend and help with conceptual understanding.

4. Sleep is important for learning in various ways.

  • It’s your brain’s way of keeping itself clean and healthy. When you sleep, brain cells shrink. This causes increase in space between brain cells, allowing fluid to flow past these cells and wash the toxins out.
  • Sleep tidies up ideas and concepts. It erases the less important parts of memories and strengthens areas that you want to remember.
  • During sleep, brain rehearses some of the tougher parts you’re trying to learn
  • Sleep increases the ability to figure out difficult problems and understand what you’re trying to learn. You’re not the same person after a nap, your brain will have grown. Dreaming about what you’re learning can substantially enhance the ability to understand, as it consolidates into easier to grasp chunks.

5. Exercise is better than any drug to learn new things: it improves our memory and our ability to learn. It will increase the number of new neurons that are being born, and helps new neurons survive.

6. Creating chunks allows you to store information in containers that are easily retrievable from memory.
Chunk = pieces of information bound together through use and meaning. Chunking = a way of compressing info much more compactly.
You form a new chunk by:

  • Step 1. Focused attention on info you’re trying to chunk.
  • Step 2. Understand the basics of the idea. Eg when learning kendo, the basics are about respecting your opponent, and scoring points by either hitting the head, the stomach, or the wrist
  • Step 3. Practice. You have to do it yourself to create neural pattern that underlies true mastery.

7. Learning happens in two ways: top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down learning involves seeing how a chunk fits into the bigger picture. You need to gather context. Bottom-up is about creating chunks from pieces of information.

8. The bigger and more well-practices your chunked mental library is, the more easily you’ll be able to solve problems and figure out solutions.
As you gain experience, the chunkcs are greather, the neurons are darker, the strings are longer, and you’ll develop a library of neural patterns.You can increase your mental library by:

  • Practicing recall = see what you can recall after having read some material.
  • Apply transfer learning = linking one chunk to another chunk in different fields. Eg learning kendo is like learning programming. You first have to determine your strategy (in kendo: deciding where to hit opponent, in programming: in comments, write out step by step plan), then state what you’re going to do (in kendo: shouting ‘kote’ when hitting the wrist, in programming: defining the function) and then do it (in kendo: hit the wrist, in programming: call the function.
  • Deliberate practice = focus on things you don’t know that well
  • Interleaving = mix up your learning (ask questions to fellow students, read a text, look up something online, ask the teacher). Helps build flexibility and creativity. Important: interleaving is different from repetition, which helps build solid neural patterns.
  • Learning from mistakes

9. Focus on the process rather than the product.
As long as you’re dedicated to achieving something, and you work towards achieving that, you’re on the right track. For example, when learning a new algorithm, focus on the process of understanding bit by bit what parts underly this algorithm, rather than understanding the concept front to back in one day.

10. Try to use images and metaphors when learning new things.
Images connect to brain’s visual memory system. The image helps to encapsulate a seemingly hard to remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities. Try to see, feel, hear, or even be the thing you want to learn. Eg. when trying to understand gradient descent, pretend it’s winter and you’re sleighing down a mountainous region until you hit the bottom. At the point where you can’t go down any further (the slope = 0), your cost function is optimised.

I highly recommend this course to anyone who is continuously learning new things. I know that from now on, using these tips, I will learn better.

Happy learning!