Course Notes - Learning How to Learn

I recently completed the course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects on Coursera. As an exercise in applying the techniques I learned in the course and for the benefit of future learners I have compiled some notes.

Note: these notes should not be used as a substitute for taking the course, but as a supplement while you take the course. In fact, I highly recommend taking it! They are also not comprehensive, but only the concepts and ideas I found most useful and interesting.

Focused vs. diffuse learning modes

There are multiple ways to categorize types of learning. This course focuses on two modes of learning: focused and diffuse.

Focused mode

When you concentrate intently on the task at hand.

Diffuse mode

When you step back and look at the big picture.

When you let your mind relax and wander.

The Pinball Machine Analogy

Analogy is one of the effective techniques for learning taught in the course. I suggest you watch the course videos to gain a full understanding of this analogy but I will do my best to describe it purely in words (the course videos provide nice diagrams).

The focused mode of learning likens your brain to a pinball machine with many rubber bumpers packed tightly in a grid. A familiar neural pattern is a well defined, localized path of the pinball as it bounces between adjacent bumpers. You have many familiar neural patterns spread out in the grid but is is hard for the pinball to move from one neural pattern to another, as there are many tightly packed bumpers in the way.

The diffuse mode of learning likens your brain to a pinball machine with only a sparse number of rubber bumpers. The pinball is able to move from one area of the brain to the next (think of these areas as starting points for familiar neural patterns in the focused mode) without restrain.

An effective learner and problem solver can enter the focused mode to work on a specific task. When they get stuck they can step back into the diffuse mode and “move the pinball” to another familiar neural pattern, or even begin a new one. Once they’ve arrived at a suitable neural pattern they can re-enter the focused mode and hone in on it.

The Flashlight Analogy

Another (in my opinion less effective) analogy for understanding the focused and diffuse learning modes describes each mode as a flashlight.

Think of the focused mode as a flashlight that casts a narrow but intense light that greatly illuminates a small area. The diffuse mode is like a flashlight that casts a broad but less intense light, illuminating a much wider area with much less intensity.

Using your diffuse flashlight even though you cannot see any one thing particularly clearly you can use it to make connections between disparate things and then switch to your focused flashlight to take a deep dive into your chosen thing(s).

Vignette of Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali had an interesting technique for switching between the focused and diffuse modes. He would sit in his chair with a set of keys in his hand and fall asleep. Just as he begin to slip into unconsciousness, the keys would fall out of his hand and he would awake from the clatter. He then would take the imagery, thoughts, and ideas presently in his mind and use them for his art. In this vignette, Dali was in the diffuse mode as he dozed off and would switch to the focused mode when he awoke.

Vignette of Thomas Edison

This is literally the exact same story as Dali’s except Thomas Edison would sit at his desk and hold ball bearings in his hand.

Personal reflections on the Dali and Edison vignettes

The fact that two unrelated but astonishingly creative historical figures employed the same techniques to bolster their creativity certainly adds credence to the theory of the focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Practice makes permanent and the brick and mortar analogy

As you’ve probably been told by your parents, your teachers, and anyone interested in your success as an individual, practice makes permanent or perfect. Since there’s often no definition of “perfect” for what you’re working on I believe the course made the right choice in substitution it for “permanent”.

What you may not know is that it isn’t just ANY practice that makes permanent. Deliberate practice and spaced repetition are key to mastery. I will not attempt to explain deliberate practice as there is no shortage of articles, blog posts, and literature around the concept. I will relay an analogy for spaced repetition that I learned in the course:

Building strong neural patterns is akin to building a tall brick wall. If you attempt to do it all at once without giving time for the cement to dry the wall will collapse under its own weight. It must be done slowly, adding bricks layer by layer and giving time for the cement to dry before adding the next layer. Think of each layer as a practice session and the cement drying as the space between practice sessions.

Sleep and Learning

If your desire is to be a highly effective learner the importance of sleep CANNOT be ignored. There are numerous reasons for this.

Metabolic toxins accumulate in your brain during your waking hours. Your neurons shrink during sleep, increasing extracellular volume. The increased extracellular volume increase fluid flow and allows your body to flush away metabolic toxins. So just remember this. If you are chronically sleep deprived you are literally accumulating toxic substances in your brain! Not Good. If Donald Trump saying “not good” repeatedly isn’t enough for you, chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with heart disease, diabetes, and lower life expectancy.

Your brain uses sleep to tidy up ideas and concepts. It eliminates the unimportant parts of ideas while simultaneously strengthening the critical parts. Wow!

Taking Advantage of Sleep

Reviewing the concepts you are learning immediately before sleep increases the likelihood of dreaming about them. Furthermore, simply expressing the WANT to dream about those concepts will also increase your chances of dreaming about them. When you are dreaming about these ideas the brain can work its magic. So right before you go to sleep say to yourself:

Golly gee, I can’t wait to dream about the fundamental theorem of calculus!


What is a chunk? A chunk is a collection of ideas or thoughts in your brain linked by meaning and context. I like to think of a chunk as a completed jigsaw puzzle and the chunked ideas as the individual puzzle pieces.

Once you chunk ideas you no longer have to allocate brain power to the individual pieces. For example, many things happen simultaneously when you back a car out of a parking lot. You put the car in reverse, release the break, look for oncoming cars, and more, all without devoting conscious mental effort to these individual actions. In fact, you “chunk” them together and consider it a single action.

Forming Chunks

The course enumerates several techniques to help you chunk concepts.

Spaced Repetition

This has already been mentioned. Recall the brick wall analogy.


Practicing several connected but not identical problems proves to be more effective than honing in on one, mastering it, and then moving on to another. Take the example of doing a set of math practice problems where some require you to solve algebraic equations and others require you to plot an equation as a graph. If you alternate between equation-solving and graphing you’ll learn more effectively.

In general, interleaving adds CONTEXT to what you’re doing. It’s not only important to have tools that help you do things. You also need to know when to use them. You need both the how and the when.

Top-Down vs Bottom-Up Learning

Bottom-Up learning is when you form individual chunks. Top-Down learning is when you provide context for your chunks and combine your chunks into larger, more complex chunks.

Three key ideas for building chunks

  1. Focused attention - a prerequisite to learning something is devoting your undivided attention to it.
  2. Understanding (duh) - you must understand what it is you’re learning. Simply memorizing a problem-solving technique will still form a chunk, but a relatively useless one you can’t make connections to.
  3. Practice and repetition - even after doing the first two steps, you may be surprised this is required. Have your ever followed a lecture attentively and fully understood what was being said but found yourself lost when reviewing the material later? This is where practice and repetition comes in. Understanding something the first time doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand it later.

The illusion of competency

Thinking you understand something when you don’t is all too common. Some study techniques may lead you to believe in your competency while not actually MAKING you competent whatsoever.

Avoid convincing yourself you can solve a problem by following along to someone else’s solution to it (the most common illusion of competency), re-reading, and excessively highlighting material, as these are the most common useless study techniques.

Instead, test yourself, try and recall what you read without looking back at the text, attempt practice problems without aid, and explain your ideas to others.


Motivation is a complex concept that merits its own course. The course briefly touches upon several hormones either directly or indirectly related to motivation.


A subtance intimately related to your ability to engage in focused learning.


A hormone released when you receive a “reward” to reinforce the reward-generating behavior. More on this when we review procrastination.


A substance associated with risk-taking behavior. The higher your seratonin levels, the more inclined you are to take risks. Interestingly, when analyzing seratonin levels in primate social circles, the alpha male tends to have the highest levels of seratonin while the male on the lowest rung of the social ladder has the lowest levels of seratonin.

Food for thought: think about the most sociable, extroverted people you know. Are they also the most risk-inclined people you know?

I’ll have to observe my friends and acquaintences more carefully to answer this question.

The Law of Serendipity

As the course puts it, lady luck favors those who try, or as I like to put it, the harder you work the luckier you become.


A German word literally meaning mindset. Einstellung is when ideas you already have in mind prevent you from arriving at new and better ideas. This is well-known in science as the famous phrase science progresses one funeral at a time.

Aside on the German language

German’s have interesting words that don’t have an equivalent in English. One other that comes to mind is schadenfreude. It literally translates to harm-joy but means to take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Ha.


Once you’ve mastered a concept during a single study session it serves you little to continue to hammer away at it. More repetition after it becomes easy does not improve its retention in long term memory. When this happens it’s a good time to employ the technique of interleaving and study something different but related.


Why do we do it? Thinking about starting a task we don’t want to do causes literal physical discomfort. Naturally we seek activities that will relieve this discomfort by providing an immediate reward, like a dopamine hit while scrolling through your facebook news feed. It turns out that all you have to do to get rid of this discomfort is START the task at hand. That’s it. You start that oh so scart task and it goes away. Just get over that initial hump. Do this enough times and starting laborious and arduous endeavors will cease to scare you away. In fact, you’ll start taking pleasure in them. At least I do.


The course divides habit into four components.

  1. The cue - something that triggers the habit. The cue is further divided into four categories:
    • time
    • location
    • how you feel
    • reaction

    A cue can be a time of day, like right before going to sleep. It can also be a location, like your desk chair. It can be how you are feeling. Certain emotions may trigger a specific action. Many people have a (often bad) habit that is triggered in response to feeling stressed. Lastly, a habit can be triggered as a reaction to external stimuli like something you see or hear.

  2. The routine - the action you execute in response to the trigger. You are often in a zombie-like state here, doing things subcosciously. I personally have found myself using Instragram on my cellphone without realizing how I got there.
  3. The reward - the reward after the routine. This is usually a release of dopamine that reinforces the habit.
  4. The belief - the course claims that a habit has power over you partly because of your belief in it. In order to break a bad habit or establish a good one you must believe you can.

Juggling Life and Learning

At the start of each week write down in your planner journal the key tasks or goals you want to accomplish. Each night, write down tomorrow’s todo list. Why the night before?

Writing down tomorrow’s tasks tonight give your subconscious mind time to medidate on them. Furhtermore if the tasks are written down rather than kept inside your head it frees up important mental real estate.

“Eat your frogs first”

You should tackle the largest, most difficult tasks first. Not only will this get you closer to your weekly goals, but it will make the smaller tasks seem trivial by comparison.

The virute of the less brilliant

Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a delinquent turned Nobel prize winner and “father of modern neuroscience”. He attributed his success to his perseverance, which he called the virtue of the less brilliant.

Personal Conclusion

I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in being an effective learner and becoming a life-long learner. In my industry as well as many others, learning is expected and key to remaining ahead. I also have several personal hobbies that are very important to me, and I hope to apply the learnings from this course in both my professional and personal development. In fact, I have been using some of the techniques taught in the course without recognizing them by name or understanding their greater significance.

Not having enough time is the most common excuse for not learning the things you want to learn. Using the techniques in this course you may still not have enough time to learn the things you want to learn (if you set unreasonable goals and expect more of yourself than is realistically achieveable), but it will certainly diminish the time required by a signifcant amount.

Thanks for reading.

Written on November 24, 2019