Coursera: Learning How to Learn


Week 1

Focused vs. Diffuse Thinking

The first concept introduced is ‘focused’ vs. ‘diffuse’ thinking modes. These seem to correspond to Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. Focused thinking is useful to analyze a class of problem you are familiar with, and diffuse (System 1, subconscious) is useful to juggle concepts you aren’t as familiar with.

Using Focused and Diffuse Modes

Both Dali and Edison would sometimes fall asleep in chairs, holding things they would drop as they fell asleep, waking them up. This is presented as using the two learning modes – thinking in Focused mode about a problem, then relaxing, drifting off to sleep even in Diffuse mode, then returning to Focused mode to refine the broad-spectrum thinking. Another analogy of weightlifting is used to point out how learning must be done on a relaxed schedule: you can’t become a weightlifter overnight.

What is Learning?

There are a lot of loosely related facts (and factoids?) here. He talks about areas of the brain active during day-to-day activities, compared to the regions active when calm and trying to relax (Default Mode Network). He talks about neuroplasticity, the number of neurons and synapses we have. He talks about how when we learn anything, many new connections are formed between adjacent neurons. At the end is a link to, and a quote from Macbeth:

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

The takeaway here is “death of each day’s life”, pointing out how as we sleep, we’re forming new connections, changing the structure of our brains.

Procrastination, Memory, and Sleep

Procrastination is introduced as a pain-avoidance mechanism. When we contemplate doing something that gives us a marginal amount of anxiety for any reason, we look for something lower-effort to occupy us. In most cases, if we would just get started on the thing we were avoiding, the pain/anxiety vanishes quickly.

The Pomodoro technique is a method to trick ourselves into getting over this speedbump of procrastination, by pre-committing to focusing on something for 25 minutes, then taking a short break.

Practice Makes Permanent

Segment opens with an anecdote about how it’s possible to learn things you think you’re bad at with practice.

Math and Science seem harder to learn than other things, because the concepts they deal with are entirely abstract. This is different from other abstract concepts in life, which normally relate to emotions, experiences, etc. – things we have circuitry to reason about already. With math, etc., we have to practice reasoning about entirely new abstractions.

When learning a new pattern, it’s useful to reinforce that learning over the course of multiple days. Solving a problem once will leave us with a faint imprint of the solution, but re-solving it will drill the pattern in in a much more permanent and stronger way.

Introduction to Memory

There are many ways to conceptualize memory, but this course will deal with Working Memory (or Short-Term Memory) and Long-Term Memory. For a long time, people have said our working memory has about 7 ‘slots’, but new research suggests it’s actually 4, but we’re good at Chunking information to optimize storage. Video talks about closing our eyes to block out other information, repeating a phone number to ourselves, and so on. Working memory is centralized in the pre-frontal cortex. Long-Term Memory is stabilized by repetition, especially spaced through time. The video introduces Spaced Repetition as a tool for forming long-term memories.

The Importance of Sleep in Learning

TL;DR: Sleep is good. Apparently when we sleep, our brain cells ‘shrink’, increasing the intercellular space, which allows the brain to flush out metabolic toxin that accumulate while we’re awake. Additional points are made about diffuse thinking, and reinforcing and purging memories.

Week 2


Our working memory has only ~4 slots, but each slot can reference a concept we already know. Essentially, by grouping bits of information into a larger chunk, we increase the apparent effectiveness of working memory, and other cognitive processes. This is a completely normal thing, but useful to give a name to.

When we’re stressed, angry, etc., the process that links working memory to long-term memory chunks doesn’t work as well.

How to Form a Chunk

Focussed attention, Understanding, and Practice

Skimming all the titles and pictures in a book before reading is a great way to build big-picture context in order to fit chunks in the right place while working through in a more detailed way.

Bottom-up and top-down learning are useful in combination. Top-down learning indicates the context-building breadth-first activities (picture walk, etc.), and bottom-up means reinforcing individual chunks through practice.

Illusions of Competence

It’s easy to imagine we’re more competent than we are after studying some material. One especially useful trick to improve long-term memory formation and to ensure you actually understand the concepts is to put down the source material periodically and try to recall the core ideas. This shows you where your understanding is deficient, and also encourages memory formation.

Recalling material in different physical locations can also be helpful, since it’s possible to encode memories that take cues from your environment at the time of study. These memories will be easier to access in the future if purged of their environmental connection.