Learning How to Learn

Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects

Learning How to Learn is an online class offered by The University of California, San Diego and hosted on Coursera.org.

The class is taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.


Learning How to Learn is a fun introductory course to many different topics including: how to study effectively, introductory neuroscience, forming and breaking habits, and how to improve memory, among many others.

For more information on my class notes, click here.

What is Learning?

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Two Modes of Thinking:

  • Focused - Deliberate and intense concentration on something you're trying to learn.
  • Diffuse - A passive and relaxed mode when the brain is processing information behind the scenes.

When studying or reading you're using your focused mode.

When you have an "Aha! Moment," an out-of-nowhere solution to a problem or realization, that's the diffuse mode working.

The two states can not be used at the same time but they are equally important. This is why taking breaks is essential for efficient learning. You focus intensely on something using one part of your brain and then take a break and let the second, passive part of your brain take over to try to make new connections with the material.

It’s like preparing for a weightlifting competition. You work out hard but you also rest, gradually building muscles.

The Pomodoro Method:

Uninterrupted focus with timed breaks is a great way to learn and review new material. A popular and efficient example of this is the Pomodoro Method, created by Francesco Cirillo. It involves two steps:

  • The Focus - Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus with no interruptions.
  • The Break - Reward yourself with a few minutes of web surfing, a cup of coffee, or a bite of chocolate. Then repeat.

The Importance of Sleep in Learning:

Simply being awake creates toxic products in your brain throughout the day. Sleeping flushes out those toxic chemicals. 

Again, there are similarities to weightlifting. When building muscles you need to rest to clear out lactic acid buildup.

Working without sleep is working with metabolic toxins in your brain. Sleep deprivation in the short term causes cognitive impairment, but in the long-term it can be associated with all sorts of nasty conditions.

Sleep does more than wash away toxins. It tidies up ideas and concepts you're thinking and learning about. It filters out less important areas and strengthens important memories.

Thinking about something just before you go to sleep increases the likelihood that you’ll dream about it, increasing the chances for the diffuse mode to form new connections. This effect is multiplied if you're thinking about the material and deliberately set it in mind that you want to dream about it. 

Further Reading:

  • For more on the importance of sleep and how to improve your sleep, read The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington.
  • For more on focused learning and productivity, read Deep Work by Cal Newport.

When recalling a memory you’re activating parts of your brain associated with long-term memory. However, when working on a problem or trying to connect a few ideas together you’re using your working memory.

Working memory and long-term memory are related and connected.

  • If something is practiced enough in your working memory it will move into the long-term memory.
  • Also, you can bring something from your long-term memory into your working memory.

Working memory is the part of memory that has to do with what you’re immediately and consciously processing in your mind. This is centered in the prefrontal cortex but has connections to other parts of the brain.

It is now believed that the working memory can only hold about four chunks of information at one time. If I give you an 8 digit number to remember you will not be able to think about many other things at the same time because this new number is taking up space in your working memory.

The brain has natural dissipating processes. Again, if I give you an 8 digit number to repeat back to me in five minutes you can probably do it. But you likely won't be able to do it in a few hours. That's good! Your brain recognizes that it's not a crucial piece of information to remember so it disappears naturally, especially during sleep.

Repetition is needed so that the brain’s natural dissipation processes don’t delete memories. Different kinds of long term memory are stored in different parts of the brain. The long-term memory area of the brain is so large that it can sometimes be hard to retrieve information unless you practice and repeat retrieval at least a few times.

It takes time and repetition to move something from your working memory to long-term memory. Use spaced repetition. Spread studying out over several days. Cramming doesn’t work nearly as well. You need time for the synaptic connections to form and strengthen.

Chunks are compact packages of information that your mind can easily access. Chunks can be created with deliberate practice and can be used to increase understanding and creativity with material.

Chunks are pieces of information that are bound together though meaning or use and help perform actions smoothly and efficiently.

Why Chunks Help

When you’re starting to learn something new, a chunk takes up all four slots of your working memory and the points are connected in a mad tangle. As you begin to chunk the concept, it will connect more smoothly and easily in your mind.

Once a concept is chunked, it takes up only slot in your working memory, thereby increasing the amount of space in your working memory. It’s as if that one slot in your working memory is now a hyperlink that’s been connected to a great big web page, in this case your long term memory.

Chunking Examples

Think about backing out of a driveway in a car. When first learning to drive, backing out can be overwhelming for your working memory. You're trying to remember to change gears, check your mirrors, look for cars, control your speed, and be aware of several other variables. As you become practiced, the whole motion of backing out of your driveway becomes one chunk. So instead of taking up your entire working memory, it now takes up only one slot. Now, after many years of driving, backing out of the driveway is effortless. You can back out of your driveway while also thinking about something else or holding a conversation. 

How to Form Chunks

Chunks are built: 

  1. with focused attention,
  2. with an understanding of the basic idea, and
  3. deliberate practice to help you gain mastery.

More information on the steps:

1. Focus your undivided attention on the information you want to chunk. You only have so many slots in your working memory, don’t allow them to be preoccupied with TV or your phone.

2. You need to understand what it is you're about to learn. What is it? How will it fit with what you already know? What other information can you connect to this information?

3. Close the book and test yourself frequently. It will speed up the learning process. This process reminds me of The Feynman Technique, the technique I use when writing book summaries

The Value of A Library of Chunks

The ability to combine chunks in new and original ways underlies much historical innovation.

Many great thinkers and leaders set aside extended week-long reading periods so that they can hold many and varied ideas in mind during one time. This helps generate their own innovative thinking by allowing fresh-in-mind ideas to network amongst themselves.

To enhance your knowledge or expertise in something you need to build the number of chunks in your mind. Chess masters, for example, can easily access thousands of different chess patterns. Musicians, linguists and scientists can each access similar chunks of knowledge in their own disciplines. The bigger and more well practiced your chunked mental library, whatever the subject you're learning, the more easily you'll be able to solve problems and create solutions.

Transfer of Chunks:

Chunks help you understand new topics. When you understand one chunk you’ll find that it relates, in surprising ways, to similar chunks, not only in that field but also in very different fields. This idea is called transfer.

Again, a chunk is a way of compressing information much more compactly. So, as you gain more experience in chunking in any particular subject, you’ll be able to create bigger chunks. A few pieces of information together can form a chunk. With practice, you can turn multiple smaller chunks into a single larger chunk, exponentially increasing the amount of information you can hold in your working memory. 

Further Reading:

  • For more on The Feynman Technique, I wrote a piece on it here.

Illusions of Competence

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In many cases the best way to learn something is by reading and recalling.

Read and recall is very simple. After reading a section or a chapter of something, put the book down and try to remember as much as you can from what you just read. 

Students practicing recall learned more and understood the material at a deeper level than they did with any other study method.

The retrieval process enhances deep learning and helps us to begin forming chunks.


Re-reading is a very common form of studying but it’s not very effective unless it's performed with spaced repetition.

Reading the same chapter over and over for hours will not be nearly as effective as reading the chapter once per day for a week.

Highlighting and Underlining

Highlighting and underlining must be done very carefully. Bad highlighting can not only be ineffective but it can be misleading about the amount of information you've learned. Making a lot of motions with your hand can fool your brain into thinking you’ve learned the material.

Tips for Highlighting:

  • Look for main ideas before making any marks.
  • Keep underlining to a minimum, one sentence or less per paragraph.
  • Write words or notes in the margins that synthesize key concepts.

Further Reading:

  • For an efficient process of read and recall, read about The Feynman Technique.
  • For techniques on how to get the most of your reading, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Alder.

Obstacles to Learning

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Continuing to study or practice after you've mastered what you can is called overlearning. In general, be wary of repetitive overlearning during a single study session.

Once you've got the basic idea down continuing to hammer away at it won't facilitate long-term memory development. It's better to practice spaced repetition, as mentioned above with re-reading. Practicing the material for an hour every day for a week is much better than one all-day study session.

To be fair, overlearning isn't always bad. Overlearning can produce an automaticity that can be important or helpful in times of nervousness.


In the example of studying for a multi-chapter test, it can be very easy to spend a lot of time on the chapters you already know the best.

It's easy to focus on the kinds of problems you already understand. Many of us do this without even realizing it. Unfortunately, this can bring the illusion of competence that you've mastered the full range of material, when you've actually only mastered the easy stuff.

The best way to learn is by jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies. This is called interleaving. Interleaving is the practice of studying different parts of a book and problems of different difficulties at once. 

You want to balance your studies by deliberately focusing on what you find more difficult. This focusing on the more difficult material is called deliberate practice. This can make learning more difficult but it helps you learn more deeply. 


Einstellung, from the German for "mindset," is essentially a neural roadblock. A thought or an idea, a neural pattern you've already developed, may prevent you from finding a better idea or solution.

In other words, the way you initially looked at something may prevent you from seeing it in a new way later. We all experience the feeling of trying to recall or guess an answer but we can't get our initial thoughts out of mind. A very simple example is within the game Pictionary. Whatever your first impression is of the drawing, it's often very hard to see anything but that.

Your initial intuition can be misleading. You have to unlearn your erroneous older ideas or approaches if you want to learn new ones.

The Birth of Innovation:

To innovate effectively, as stated above, it's essential to have a wide variety of chunks from all different disciplines.

Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, discovered that most major shifts in science are brought about by either young people or people who were originally trained in a different discipline. This is because these people were not so easily trapped by einstellung, blocked thoughts due to their previous training.

And of course there's the old saying that science progresses one funeral at a time. Science advances as people entrenched in their old ways die off.

Further Reading:

  • For more on innovation by insiders and outsiders, read Inventology by Pagan Kennedy. 


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Learning is a process and difficult subjects are learned bit-by-bit.

Procrastination, for example delaying studying, causes you to try to learn the same amount of material in a shorter period of time. Cramming doesn't build solid neural structures. Without a solid foundation you're more likely to choke when asked to recall the information in the future.

Procrastination is the mind's way of avoiding things that make us uncomfortable. When you think about something you don't particularly like the pain centers of your brain light up. That is, when we think about something we don't want to do, our brain treats it the same way as if we're thinking about being in physical pain.

Procrastination is the body's way to refocus on something more enjoyable which makes us feel better.. temporarily. 

In this way, procrastination shares features with various forms of addiction. It offers temporary excitement and relief from a sometimes boring reality.

Further Reading:

  • For more on willpower, read The ONE Thing by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan.
  • For more on how our brain treats pain, read Social by Matthew D. Lieberman.

Chunking is similar to habit forming, it’s an energy saver for us.

Habits allow us the freedom and autonomy to complete a learned task without focusing intensely on it. By conserving energy and saving slots in our working memory we can simultaneously do other things. As many of us know, habits can be beneficial or harmful.

Habits have four parts:

  1. Cue:
    • This is the trigger that launches you into the routine. A cue by itself is neither helpful or harmful.
  2. The routine:
    • The routine is what we do in reaction to a cue.  
  3. The reward:
    • Every habit develops and continues because it rewards us. It gives us an immediate little feeling of pleasure.
  4. The belief:
    • Habits have power because of your belief in them. To change a habit, you'll need to change your underlying belief.

How to Overcome Procrastination:

It's perfectly normal to start with a few negative feelings about starting a study session. Non-procrastinators feel the same feelings, but are able to reframe their negative thinking.

Habits feed on reward. It's therefore essential to reward your good habits. Rewarding good study habits is important for escaping procrastination. 

  1. Cue:
    • Recognize what launches you into procrastination mode. Cues usually fall into one of the four following categories. Location, time, how you feel and reactions, either to other people or to something that just happened.
  2. The routine:
    • Actively focus on rewiring your old habit. The key to rewiring is to have a plan.
  3. The reward:
    • Why are you procrastinating? Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.

  4. The belief:
    • The most important part of changing your procrastination habit is the belief that you can do it.

Developing and encouraging culture with like-minded friends can help us remember the values that, in moments of weakness. We tend to forget.

Focus on Process not Product

Process means the flow of time and the habits and actions that occur in that time. Example: I'm going to spend 20 minutes working. 

Product is an outcome. Example: a homework assignment that you need to finish.

To prevent procrastination you want to avoid concentrating on product. Instead, your attention should be on building processes. One of the easiest ways to focus on process is to focus on doing a Pomodoro. You're focusing on a 25 minute timed work session, not on completing a task.

By focusing on process rather than product, you allow yourself to back away from judging yourself, am I getting closer to finishing? And instead you allow yourself to relax into the flow of the work.

Choosing Priorities and Staying on Task:

To keep perspective about what you're trying to learn and accomplish, once per week write a brief list of key tasks to complete that week. 

Then each day, on another page of your planner journal, write a list of the tasks that you can reasonably work on or accomplish.

Over time, as you gain experience, you'll get much better at gauging how long it takes to do any given task.

Make notes in your planner journal about which techniques and strategies work and which don't.

Our willpower declines throughout the day. Try to work on your most important and most disliked task first. Try to complete at least one Pomodoro as soon as you wake up. 

Further Reading:

  • For more on habits, creating them and rewiring them, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
  • For tips on getting your most important thing done early, read Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy.

Memorization Tricks

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Memory is only one part of learning but it's often an important part. 

Purists might say that using oddball memorization gimmicks isn't really learning but researchers have shown that students who use memorization tricks repeatedly outperform those who don’t.

Memory Palace:

Humans are visual and spatial learners. This is a very natural and intuitive way that we interpret information.

If you entered a room you had never been in before, your mind would retain thousands of new pieces of information about the location. Weeks or months later you'd still be able to recognize that location. Human are wired to retain this kind of information about a place.

The memory palace technique capitalizes on our natural hardwiring. It involves calling to mind a familiar place and using it as a sort of a visual notepad where you can list the items that you want to remember.

It is a powerful way of grouping things you want to remember. 

The memory palace technique is a powerful way for grouping things you want to remember, and is particularly useful for remembering unrelated items, such as a grocery list of milk, bread, and eggs. 

How to Use:

To start, call to mind the place you're familiar with: your home, your route to school, or your favorite restaurant. This becomes the location that you'll use as your notepad. 

If you use this technique to remember a grocery list by picturing your apartment for example, you might imagine a gigantic bottle of milk just inside your front door. The bread plopped on the couch and a cracked egg dribbling off the edge of the coffee table. In other words, you'd imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, coupled with shockingly memorable images of what you want to remember. The funnier and more evocative the images, the better.

If your memory palace is your walk to school or work, place the items you want to remember at various stops on the mental walk. Then, at the grocery store, retrace those mental steps, or recall the location and the images. 

Memory tricks allow people to expand their working memory with easy access to long term memory. 

What's more, the memory process itself becomes an exercise in creativity. The more you memorize using these innovative techniques, the more creative you become. This is because you're building these wild, unexpected possibilities for future connections early on. Even as you're first internalizing the ideas, the more you practice this type of memory muscle so to speak, the more easily you'll be able to remember.

Further Reading:

  • For more on memory and the Memory Palace Technique, read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Or, watch his TED Talk on the subject.

Renassaince Learning

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Recent neuroscience research has shown that a person's amount of neurons is not fixed. In a few areas of the brain new neurons are born every day. 

One of these areas is the hippocampus, a critical area for learning. As we learn new tasks, new neurons are formed in the hippocampus, as we repeat the task the neurons are strengthened, but without use they will die off.


Exercise is crucial when learning as it helps new neurons survive. Living an active lifestyle is far more effective than any drug on the market today to help you learn better. 

Hitting Road Blocks:

Learning doesn't always progress logically. You may have several consecutive days or weeks of successful learning and then you hit a wall in your understanding.

Something that made sense before can not be confusing. This seems to happen when your brain is trying to condense or restructure a lot of information to build a more solid foundation. 

This is a natural phenomenon. It means that your mind is wrestling deeply with the material. You'll emerge from these periods with a surprising leap in your knowledge base.

Using Metaphors and Analogies:

Humans are naturally visual creatures, so by making information more visual you increase your chances of remembering it.

A metaphor is just a way of realizing that one thing is somehow similar to another. Metaphors can be used with very simple information initially. When learning geography you might remember than Italy is the one that looks like a boot. Or when learning about electrical currents you might compare the flow of electricity to the flow of water, and electrical voltage can feel like pressure pushing. 

As you learn more information and develop your competencies you can revise your metaphors or toss them away and create more meaningful ones. 

Metaphors are never perfect. But in science generally, all models are just metaphors which means they break down at some point. So don't feel that metaphors need to be perfect, they simply need to help you understand and remember something. 

Metaphors help glue an idea into your mind because they make a connection to neural structures that are already there. 

The Power and Difference of the Right and Left Hemispheres of the Brain:

We need to be careful about overstating the research of the two hemispheres of the brain because unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation out there. At the same time, there has been significant and worthwhile research on the two hemispheres of the brain that we shouldn't ignore.

There's a great deal of evidence from research that the right hemisphere helps us step back and put our work into big picture perspective. People with damage to the right hemisphere are often unable to gain "ah-ha" insights. The right hemisphere, as it turns out, is vitally important in getting into the right mindset and doing reality checks. 

As leading neuroscientist Vilayanur S Ramachandran has noted, the right hemisphere serves as a sort of devil's advocate to question the status quo and look for global inconsistencies. While the left hemisphere instead tries to cling tenaciously to the way things were. This echos the pioneering work of psychologist Michael Gazzaniga who posited that the left hemisphere interprets the world for us and will go to great lengths to keep those interpretations unchanging. 

When you work in the focus mode, it's easy to make minor mistakes in your assumptions or calculations. If you go off track early on, it doesn't matter if the rest of your work is correct. Your answer is still wrong. 

When you step back and recheck, you're allowing for more interaction between the hemispheres, taking advantage of the special perspectives and abilities of each.

By making it a point to do some of your studying with friends, you can more easily catch where your thinking has gone astray. Friends and teammates can serve as sort of ever questioning larger scale diffuse mode outside your brain that can catch what you missed, or what you just can't see. And of course, explaining to friends helps build your own understanding.

Test Taking

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Picking a Good Study Group:

Study groups can be powerfully effective for learning and that's why it's essential that studying sessions are just that, not socializing occasions.

During meeting time, keep small talk to a minimum. Get on track and finish what you have to do.

If meetings are constantly starting late, members haven't read the material, and the conversation consistently veers off topic, you're best off to find another group.

Testing Yourself:

Testing yourself is an extraordinarily powerful, learning experience. Testing, it seems, has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. 

Richard Felder, a legendary educator, developing a test-taking checklist. It will help you see whether your preparation for test taking is on target. 

How should you prepare for a test? Be able to answer yes to most of these questions:

  • Did you make a serious effort to understand the text? Just hunting for relevant worked-out examples doesn't count.
  • Did you work with classmates on homework problems or at least check your solutions with others? 
  • Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution before working with classmates?
  • Did you participate actively in homework group discussions contributing ideas and asking questions? 
  • Did you consult with the instructor or teaching assistants when you were having trouble with something?
  • Did you understand all your homework problem solutions when they were handed in? 
  • Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren't clear to you? 
  • If you had a study guide, did you carefully go through it before the test and convince yourself you could do everything on it? 
  • Did you attempt to outline lots of problem solutions quickly without spending time on the Algebra in calculations?
  • Did you go over the study guide and problems with class mates and quiz one another? 
  • If there was a review session before the test, did you attended and asked questions about anything you weren't sure about?
  • And lastly, did you get a reasonable night's sleep before the test? If your answer is no, your answers to all the preceding questions may not matter.

Taking a test is serious business. Going through your own test preparation checklist can vastly improve your chances of success.

Start with the Hard Problems:

The classic way students are taught to approach tests is to tackle the easiest problems first. This is based on the idea that by the time you finish the relatively simple problems, you'll be confident in handling the more difficult. Unfortunately, for many people this is counterproductive. Tough problems often need lots of time, meaning you'd want to start on them first thing on the test. Difficult problems can also scream for the creative powers of the diffuse mode. But to access the diffuse mode, you need to not be focusing on what you so badly want to solve.

So the best strategy: Start with the hard problems but quickly jump to the easy ones. 

When the test is first handed out to you, first take a quick look to get a sense of what it involves. Then, when you start working the problems, start first with what appears to be the hardest problem. But prepare yourself to pull away within the first minute or two, if you get stuck or you get a sense that you might not be on the right track. 

Starting hard loads the first most difficult problem in mind and then switches attention away from it. Both these activities are what allow the diffuse mode to begin its work. 

If your initial work on the first hard problem has unsettled you, turn next to an easy problem. And complete or do as much as you can. Then move to another difficult looking problem and try to make a bit of progress. Again, change to something easier as soon as you feel yourself getting bogged down or stuck.

When you return to the more difficult problems, you'll often be pleased that the next step or steps in the problem will seem to be more obvious to you. You may not be able to get all the way to the end immediately, but at least you can get further before you switch to something else of which you can make progress. 

This technique makes more efficient use of your brain by allowing different parts of the brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts. It's also a valuable technique for helping you avoid Einstellung, getting stuck on the wrong approach - because you have a chance to look at the problem from differing perspectives. 

The only trick with this approach is that you must have the self discipline to pull yourself off a problem once you find yourself stuck for a minute or two. For most students it's easy, for others it takes discipline and willpower. This may be why test takers sometimes find that the solution pops to mind right as they walk out the door. When they give up, their attention switched, allowing the diffuse mode the tiny bit of traction it needed to go to work and return the solution. 

Dealing With Stress Through Breathing:

The body produces cortisol when it's under stress. This may manifest through sweaty palms, a racing heart, or a knot in your stomach. 

Experiencing these feelings is completely normal. You don't need to stop feeling them, but rather change how you interpret these feelings. The story you tell yourself about why you're stressed makes all the difference. 

Another good tip for dealing with stress is to momentarily turn your attention to your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, paying attention to the rising and falling of your stomach or chest. 

Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight response that fuels anxiety, calming you down.

What Else You'll Learn

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Take the course on Coursera.org. You can audit the class for free or upgrade to a paid certificate.

There is a lot of material in the course. I've summarized some of the most meaningful or memorable for me, but there here are some of the other things you will learn:

  • 10 Rules for good and bad studying
  • The anatomy of your brain

  • The neurochemicals involved with learning

  • Creating "Plan B's" to deal with fear and stress

  • Preparing for tests

  • Test taking tips

  • And much, much more!

Interviews with:

  • Dr. Terrence Sejnowski,
  • Benny the Irish Polyglot,

  • Dr. Robert Bilder,

  • Dr. Norman Fortenberry,

  • Scott Young,

  • Amy Alkon,

  • Nelson Dellis,

  • Dr. Robert Gamache,

  • Keith Delvin,

  • Dr. Richard Felder and Dr. Rebecca Brent,

  • John Maguire, and

  • William Craig Rice