Coursera's Learning How to Learn

10/29/20197 Min Read — In Productivity, Learning


I just finished Cousera's Learning How to Learn and I learned a lot. I recommend it for anyone in web development. My personal key learnings can be found below. If you want to read all of my notes, they are under the key learnings section. A user on reddit did something similar as well.


Cousera's Learning How to Learn whose title describes exactly what it is. It's a course that teaches you to learn faster and retain what you learn. There were lots of concepts that I realized I had done when in undergrad, which attributed to my success then. However, since then, I have lost those habits and this course was cure. I have already started using the techniques I have learned and have had success both in learning and habit adoption.

If you're looking to step up your rate of learning, which in the web development world is a must, then I strongly recommend taking the course. If you're feeling rushed, you can speed up the playback speed.

Key Learnings

  • Pomodoro Technique (work for 25min, take a 5min break) is incredibly helpful for productivity
  • By focusing on Process instead of the Product, the pain that causes procrastination subsides
  • Deliberate Practice, or when you intentionally practice on strengthening your weaknesses, is the most effective way to learn
  • Deliberate Practice also makes you smarter on other, unrelated subjects
  • Exercise and sleep are the two most important habits for learning
  • Proper breathing (into your belly) before learning significantly helps
  • First understand the basic idea, gist, or concept
  • See the big picture by reading through book/course table of contents, chapter headings, and subheadings
  • The more often you recall your learning, the more you'll soldify it
  • When memorizing a poem/speech, visualize each line -- our brains are wired to remember visuals

All Notes

What is Learning?

  • Memories are stored in synapses in your brain
  • You have a million billion synapses
  • Learning changes the physical structure of your brain
  • When you can recall or solve something on your own without your notes

Two Thinking Modes: Focused Thinking vs Diffuse Thinking

  • Focused Thinking: when you're concentrated on a single task; conscious learning one task; small picture focus
  • Diffuse Thinking: when you're more relaxed and your brain is subconsciously solving problems; critical for understanding new, complex concepts; big picture focus
  • Focused Thinking is like lifting weights whereas Diffuse Thinking is like recovery. Both are critical for sucess
  • You want to bounce back and forth between Focused Thinking and Diffuse Thinking often
  • One technique for bouncing back and forth and for fighting procrastination is to use the Pomodoro Technique -- work for 25min, take a 5min break
  • Another technique is to study for 25min, then clean something, then study for 25min, then go for a short walk
  • Because learning and alternating between Thinking Modes takes time, you're much better off starting to study early
  • Focused Thinking is significantly weakened by stress, anger, and fear. Properly breathing for 2min will eliminate these feelings
  • Focused Thinking creates chunks while Diffuse Thinking connects them


  • Procrastination has been studied and it is actual feeling of pain/discomfort in the brain
  • You can fight procrastination and minimize the need for willpower by forcing yourself just to do one Pomodoro
  • Product: getting something done; ex. reading an article, writing a chapter, learning a song, lifting 20 lbs 10 times for 3 sets
  • Process: dedicating time; ex. reading as much as you can in 30min, writing as much as you can in 30min, playing guitar for 30min, exercising for 30min
  • Procrastination often happens because we focus on the product rather than the process
  • Product focus causes pain and resentment; "I didn't accomplish what I wanted"
  • Process removes all expectations and stress; "I did what I wanted for X minutes"
  • Minimize the use of willpower when possible
  • Procrastination is an addiction; it's a temporary good feeling
  • When starting a good habit, everyone feels a mild sense of reluctance/procrastination. Use willpower to push through those feelings
  • Planning your "fun time" and/or "finishing time" in advance helps increase focus and remove procrastination

Practice Makes Permanent

  • The more abstract a concept, the more practice that's required
  • Ideal practice includes not looking at the solution (which can lead to Illusion of Competence)
  • Deliberate Practice: intentionally practicing what you find difficult
  • Deliberate Practice improves your learning significantly more than practicing easy topics
  • As a beginner guitar player, Deliberate Practice woudl intentionally practicing going back and forth between the two chords you find hardest, rather than occassionally practicing them or practicing the easy ones
  • Recalling builds strong neural connections, especially when done in new physical locations


  • Working Memory: the chunks of information you can temporarily store and can concentrate on; you have 4 "slots" of working memory that each hold one "chunk" of information; think of it like a blackboard with chalk -- not very suitable for long term storage
  • Long-Term Memory: the chunks on information you store for a long time; think of it like a storage warehouse -- it's always there, you just need to recall it
  • Recalling from Long-Term Memory helps strengthen it
  • Spaced Repetition helps move chunks to Long-Term Memory
  • With learning a new topic, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right." --Henry Ford
  • Writing out todos frees up slots of working memory, improving problem solving
  • Visual-spacial memory techniques are incredibly powerful; our brain is wired to remember visual things
  • The weirder visual-spacial memory the more memorable
  • To remember to buy milk at the store, imagine a giant gallon of milk in your living room
  • To remember what four ingredients scare off vampires, imagine a vampire running away from a GRaHaM cracker (GRHM: garlic, rosemary, hawthorne, mustard)
  • Although visual-special memory techniques are the strongest, if you can use your hearing, sense of smell, and feelings in a memory, it will be much stronger
  • Intelligent people may have 9 slots of working memory, but these people are often found to be the least creative (which happens in diffuse mode)

How to Form Chunks

  • Chunk: united bits of concepts; network of thoughts; synthesis of related ideas
  • Chunks are formed through repetition, focused thinking, and deliberate practice
  • Focus on the connection between steps rather than the mindless step-by-step procedure. Understand why the next step is necessary
  • Focus your undivided attention. Distractions take away slots of working memory, significantly weakening the ability to chunk information
  • First understand the basic idea, gist, or concept. This way you have a mental model of where to put new information
  • Close your book/computer and recall as many ideas as possible
  • Do the item that you're trying to learn yourself
  • Gather context from both related and unrelated concepts
  • Knowing when to use one technique over another is crucial for seeing the big picture
  • Focus on the big picture at first, not the small details
  • Context: when top-down, big picture learning meetings bottom-up, chunked learning
  • Get the big picture by reading the book's table of contents, chapter titles, subheadings


  • Being awake creates metabolic toxins in your brain
  • When you're asleep, the brain shrinks, giving space for the toxins to be cleaned out
  • Low sleep over time has serious health consequences. James Clear's article on sleep is superb! He summarizes the affects of poor sleep on decision making (and our failure to realize our own mistakes)
  • If you want to better understand a complex topic, study it before going to sleep. You'll think about it during your sleep
  • Planning your day the night before helps your brain process your todos while you sleep. You will need far less willpower to do your todos

Test Taking

  • Start on the hard problems first. Switch to easy ones after 2min of being stuck. Your brain will subconsciously work it out while in Diffuse Mode
  • Overlearning: studying/practicing what you have already mastered
  • If you're feeling anxious, try overlearning to build confidence
  • Test prep checklist
    • Did you make a serious effort to understand the material?
    • Did you work with classmates to understand the homework problems?
    • Did you attempt to outline every problem prior to working with classmates?
    • Did you participate in group discussions?
    • Did you consult with the teacher when you were struggling?
    • Did you understand all the homework problems?
    • Did you ask questions when something was unclear?
    • Did you create and review a study guide?
    • Did you outline lots of problems quickly?
    • Did you quiz one another?
    • Did you go to the review session?
    • Most important one which can negate all the others if answered incorrectly: Did you get a good night's rest the night before?

Knowledge Collapse

  • Knowledge Collapse: that feeling that something that you typically know very well seems foreign
  • Knowledge Collapse happens when the diffuse mode is restructuring your understanding
  • Your understanding will be much stronger after coming out of a Knowledge Collapse


  • Our brains do not multi-task. Do not trick yourself into thinking you can. You will do both things poorly
  • It's now known that your hippocampus creates more neurons
  • Actively exercising or being in a rich, stimulating are critical for strengthening neural connections
  • Because our brains are physically malleable as we learning, persistence trumps intelligence
  • Fluent in 3 Months seems really cool and has good reviews
  • Transfer: when a chunk is used in a seemingly unrelated field; this usually happens in Diffuse Mode
  • Einstellung: when your original understanding puts you in a rut that prevents you from finding a new solution; mental roadblock
  • Interleaving: jumping back and forther between different problems that require different techniques
  • Interleaving will help you understand when to use specific techniques; critical for flexibility and mastery
  • Metaphors/Analogies are incredibly powerful for learning a new concept (by connecting to what you already understand) and getting out of Einstellung
  • Believing that you can learn something will physically change your brain structure -- thoughts matter
  • The story you tell yourself on why you're stressed changes your body reacts to stress. "I'm afraid of this test" => "I'm excited for this test."
  • There is a lot of fear that comes with an "all or nothing" mindset. Have a career backup plan to minimize the stress


Recall is one of the best ways to optimize learning.

  1. What is the difference between Focused Thinking and Diffuse Thinking?
  2. What is the Pomodoro Technique? Why is it useful?
  3. What are three key ingredients for maximizing learning?
  4. What is the main strategy for minimizing procrastination?
  5. What are some examples of how the story we tell ourselves changes our bodies?

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