In this post I will be making notes about coursera’s course - Learning how to learn.

Week 1

Focused versus Diffuse Thinking

Focused and diffused modes

  1. Focused mode of thinking: Good for familiar knowledge and work.
  2. Diffused mode of thinking: Deals with a state of neural resting. Good for new thoughts and idea which you haven’t thought before. This mode don’t give you the finest answer. It just gives you the start means it will help you find the new patter in the neuron.

The important point to note is at a time you can be only in one mode of thinking.

I can relate it to The puzzle of motivation video I watched recently.

Focused v/s diffused thinking

While leaning something new, you mind has to go back and forth between two learning modes. Little work everyday, gradually allowing yourself to grow neural scaffold to hang your thinking on.

What is learning

  1. What we learn over time is very difficult for computers to learn e.g. seeing, listening. But what we learn very fast like math and science is very easy for computer to do.
  2. Most of the complex situation in the brain are handled below the level of our consciousness. We don’t need to know these heavy lifting in order to survive.
  3. You are not the same person you were after a night’s sleep or even a nap.

Procrastination, Memory, and Sleep

A Procrastination Preview

  1. Procrastination occurs because if you don’t like something a little bit, you activate areas of your brain associated with pain and then brain, naturally enough, looks for ways to stop this feeling by taking your attention to something else.
  2. But research found that not long after people actually start working up what they didn’t like, the feeling goes away. This I used to call first step reluctance.
  3. The solution is to take your attention to something pleasant thing momentarily.

Pomodoro: 25 minutes, no interruption focus. Then take a break.

Practice Makes Permanent

It helps make neuron pattern strong. Use pomodoro daily for a brief period of time to do practice.

Introduction to Memory

  1. Long term memory: when you try to think something you learned or did in past
    1. Too much capacity to store stuff, but you have to keep revisiting the patterns so that you know where it exists else they will be burried under other items.
    2. Here you store fundamental concepts and techniques.
  2. Working memory: When you are trying to hold some ideas in mind to understand a concept or to solve a problem. What you immediately and consciously processing in your mind. Also called short term memory.
    1. Working memory can hold four chunks of information at a time. We tend to automatically group memory items into chunks so that it automatically seems that our working memory is bigger.
    2. Techniques to remember something new or to sustain something in working memory: Repetition (create more and new neurons) and Closing your eyes (to keep any other items intruding working memory).

To move something from working memory to long term memory you need time and practice. Use spaced repetition technique: M -> T -> W -> Not T -> F -> Not Sat -> Sun

The Importance of Sleep in Learning

  1. Just being awake creates toxic product in your brain. When you sleep, your brain cells sleep -> unblocking the stream so that fluid can flow.
  2. While sleeping, brain removes not so important patterns from the brain an strengthen important patterns more.
  3. During sleep, brain also rehearse some of the tougher parts of whatever we are trying to learn.
  4. Sleep is complete deactivation of conscious you in pre-frontal cortex, helps other areas of brain talking easily to one another.

Interview with Dr. Terrence Sejnowski

  1. Try to think of ideas while jogging.
  2. Learn context switching

Week 2

Chunking—The Essentials

What is a Chunk?

Analogy: Interlocking edges puzzle .

  1. Chunking is the mental leap which helps you unite bits of information together through meaning.
  2. The new logical whole makes it easier to remember and also makes it easier to fit the chunk in larger picture
  3. Using four chunks in working memory, one can make connection to information that is present in various part of the brain. This is different from random connection of the diffused mode.
  4. Focusing your connection to connect parts of the brain to tie together ideas is an important part of focused mode of learning. It also helps you get started in creating a chunk.
  5. When you are stressed these connections doesn’t work very well.
  6. Chunks are pieces of information that are bound together through meaning or use.
  7. These connected chunks, connecting abstract thoughts and ideas, are basis of science, literature and art.
  8. A chunk is network of neurons that are used to firing together.
  9. Focused practice and repetition helps you to create chunks. Step by step you can become the master by making small chunks big.
  10. Focused practice and repetition is not the only thing you need to become a truly creative master of the material you are learning.
  11. Once you chunk an idea, a concept or an action, you don’t need to remember all the little underlying details. Eg. getting dressed in the morning.

How to Form a Chunk - Part 1

  1. The best chunks are the ones that are so well ingrained, that you don’t even have to consciously think about connecting the neural pattern together.
  2. This is idea of moving complex ideas, movements or reactions into a single chunk.

How to Form a Chunk - Part 2

  1. Chunking steps in every fields are little bit different.
  2. Chunking of mental ideas (not physical body motions)
    1. Focus your undivided attention onto something you want learn. Because there are limited slots in working memory which you can use to reach other parts of brain to make ne patters as you are learning something new. In case non-complete focus some of the working memory chunks are not available, so you will be able to make less connections.
    2. Understand the basic idea you are trying to chunk. Synthesize the gist.
      • This can be done by taking turns of focused and diffused mode of thinking.
      • It creates broad encompassing traces in neuron which can link to other memory traces.
      • If you create a chunk, in case you don’t understand, then that chunk would be useless. It won’t relate to other material you are learning.
      • Just understanding doesn’t necessarily creates a chunk that you can easily call to mind later.
      • Reviewing or doing can help you do that. Closing everything and doing or solving what you understand.
    3. Gaining context so that you see not just how, but also when to use this chunk.
      • Context means going beyond the initial problem and seeing more broadly.
      • Repeating and practicing with both related and unrelated (so that you also know when not to use it) problems.
      • Practice
  3. There are two ways to learn bottom up and top down. Both are important to master any subject. Context is where bottom up and top down learning meets.

Illusions of Competence

  1. Recall just after reading is much more efficient then rereading the book.
  2. The retrieval process itself enhances deep learning and help us performing hunks.
  3. Building connections between chunks, before the basic chunks are embedded in the brain, does not works well.
  4. Using recall, mental retrieval of the key ideas, rather than passive re-reading, will make your study time more focused and effective.
  5. Re-reading is good only when its becomes exercise in spaced repetition.
  6. Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you know it yourself is one of the most common Illusion of competence in learning.
  7. You must have the information persisting in your memory, if you are to master the material well enough to think creatively with it.
  8. Be careful of highlighting too much. Notes and comments are very good idea. (Todo)
  9. Recall helps you test and testing is very important to deal with Illusions of competence.
  10. Recalling material when you are outside your usual place of study can also help you strengthen your grasp on the material.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

What Motivates You?

  1. Learning something you are interested in is easy because there are neuromodulators released which not only carry information about the content of the experience but its importance and value to your future.
  2. Some of neuromodulators:
    1. acetylcholine
      • important for focused learning.
      • lead to long term memory.
      • also have profound impact on your conscious mind.
    2. dopamine
      • controls motivation
      • part of large brain system that controls reward learning
      • Dopamine is released from neurons when we receive an unexpected reward.
      • have a very powerful impact on learning
      • also impact decision making and value of sensory inputs
      • also in business of predicting future rewards and not only immediate awards
      • Addictive drugs increase dopamine activity and fool your brain into thinking that something wonderful has just happened.
    3. serotonin
      • strongly affects your social life
      • its level is inversely related to risk taking behaviour.
  3. Emotion once thought to be separate from cognition but recent research has shown that emotions are intertwined with perception & attention and interact with learning & memory.

The Value of a Library of Chunks

  1. What people do to enhance their knowledge and gain expertise is to gradually build the number of chunks in their mind. Valuable bits of information they can piece together in new and creative ways.
  2. The bigger and more well practiced your chunked mental library, whatever the subject your are leaning, the more easily you will be able to solve problems and figure out solutions.
  3. Chunking isn’t all you need to develop creative flexibility in your learning.
  4. Chunks can also help you understand new concepts
    1. This is because when you grasp one chunk, you will find that this chunk is surprisingly related to many similar chunks, not only in that field but also in very different fields.
    2. This is called transfer.
  5. As you gain more experience in chunking in any particular subject, you will find that the chunks your are able to create are bigger (ribbons are longer and neural patters are darker).
  6. When you are trying to figure something out, if you have a good library of these chunks, you can more easily skip to the right solution by metaphorically speaking, listening to whispers from your diffused mode.
  7. In building a chunked library you are training you brain not only to recognize a specific concept but different types and classes of concepts so that you can automatically know how to solve quickly and handle whatever you encounter.
  8. You will start to see patterns that simplify problem solving for you and will soon find different solution techniques lurking of at the edge of your memory.
  9. There are two ways to figure something out or solve problems:
    1. Sequential step by step reasoning: Involves focused mode
    2. Holistic (global) intuition: Diffused mode linking of several focused mode thoughts.
  10. Diffused mode semi’s random way of making connection means that solution they provide should be very carefully verified using focused mode. Intuitive insights aren’t always correct.

Overlearning, Choking, Einstellung, and Interleaving

  1. When you are learning a new idea, you sometimes tend to practice it over and over again during the same study session. A little of this is useful and necessary, but continuing to study or practice after you have mastered what you can in the session is called overlearning.
    1. It can produce automaticity that can be important when you’re executing a seve in tennis or a perfect piano concerto.
    2. If you choke on tests or public speaking then overlearning can be especially valuable.
    3. Automaticity can indeed be helpful in times of nervousness, but be wary of repetitive overlearning during a single session.
    4. The reality is, once you got the basic idea down during a session, continuing to hammer away at it, during the same session doesn’t strengthen the kinds of long term memory connection you want to have strengthened. Worst yet, focusing at one technique is little like learning carpentry by only practicing with hammer.
    5. Using a subsequent learning session to repeat what you are trying to learn is is just fine and often valuable. Repeating something you already know is easy. It can also bring the Illusion of competence that you have mastered the full range of material when you’ve actually only mastered the easy stuff.
    6. Balance your study deliberately focusing on what you find more difficult. This focusing on more difficult material is called deliberate practice. (difference between a good student and great student).
  2. Einstellung (Mindset): In this phenomenon, your initial simple thought, an idea you already have in mind or a neural pattern you have already developed & strengthened, may prevent a better idea or solution from being found.
    1. Its really easy to do in sports and science.
    2. You have to unlearn your erroneous older ideas or approaches even while you are leaning new ones.
  3. Understanding how to obtain a real solution is important in learning and life. Jumping in water without knowing how to swim is a recipe for sinking.
  4. Mastering a new subject means learning not only the basic chunks, but also learning how to select and use different chunks.
    1. The best way to learn that is by practicing jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies. This is called Interleaving.
    2. Analysing why some problems call for one technique as opposed to other.
  5. Practice and repetition is important in helping build solid neural patterns to draw on, it’s interleaving that starts building flexibility and creativity.
  6. Research found that most paradigm shift in science are bought by young people or people who were originally trained in a different discipline. They are not so easily trapped by einstellung.

Week 3


Tackling Procrastination - It’s Easier, and More Valuable, Than You Think

  1. Arsenic eating example: gradually (but long term effects are not good)
  2. The lazy person approach to tackle procrastination
  3. Inner zombies: The routine, habitual responses your brain falls into as a result of specific cues. These responses are often focused on making the here and now better.
  4. Unlike procrastination which is easy to fall into, will power is hard to come by. It uses a lot of neural resources. You should not use will power on fending off procrastination except when absolutely necessary.
  5. We procrastinate about things which will make us a little bit uncomfortable/unhappy -> pain center of our brain light up -> focus attention on something more enjoyable.
    • This will make you feel better/happy temporarily. But long term effects of habitual avoidance can be nasty.
  6. Procrastination can be a single monumentally important keystone bad habit, a habit in other words that influences many important areas of your life.
    1. It shares features with addiction. It offers temporarily excitement and relief from something boring reality
    2. You start to tell yourself stories and reasons. You devise irrational excuses that sound superficially reasonable.

Zombies Everywhere

  1. Once you have chunked how to do something then your brain goes into sort of zombie mode, where it only semi-aware of a few key factors, instead being overwhelmed by all the data.
  2. Neuro scientifically: chunking is related to habit.
    1. Habit is an energy saver for us.
    2. We go into habitual zombie mode far more often then we think.
  3. Habits as four parts:
    1. The cue: The trigger which launches you into zombie mode. Its neither helpful or harmful.
    2. The routine: The zombie mode. The routine habitual response brain is used to falling into when it receives the cue. It can be useful, harmless or sometimes harmful.
    3. The reward: Every habit develops and continues because it rewards us. It gives us an immediate little feeling of pleasure.
      • Procrastination is an easy habit to develop because the reward, moving your mind to something more pleasant, happens so quickly and easily.
      • Finding ways to reward good habits is important for escaping procrastination.
    4. The belief: Habits have power because you believe in them.

Surf’s Up: Process Versus Product

Mental tips and tricks about learning.

  1. Its perfectly normal to start with a few negative feeling about beginning a learning session. Even if it is something you ordinary like. Its how you handle those feeling that matters.
    • Non-procrastinators put their negative feelings aside saying things to themselves like: Quit wasting time, get going, you will feel better soon.
  2. If any task make you feel uncomfortable, there is another helpful way to re-frame things: learn to focus on process not product.
    • Process: The flow of time and the habits & actions associated with that flow of time. Eg. I am going to spend 20 mins working.
    • Product: Its the outcome. Eg. homework assignment.
    • Processes relate to simple habits, which allow you to do unpleasant tasks that need to be done.
    • Product is what triggers the pain that cause you to procrastinate.
    • Easiest way to focus on process is Pomodoro.
    • The key is when a distraction arises, which inevitably will, you want to train yourself to just let is flow by.
    • By focusing on process rather than product, you allow yourself to back away from judging yourself: am I getting closer to finishing? Just decide the process, don’t decide the product: Don’t care of the product finishes or not.

Harnessing Your Zombies to Help You

Harnessing your zombie power of habit to help you avoid procrastination while minimizing your use of willpower.

  1. The trick to overriding a habit is to look to change your reaction to cue. To do that you have to apply willpower. Components of habits from procrastination’s perspective.
    • The cue: Recognize what launches you into your zombie procrastination mode. -Cue falls into four categories: 1. location 2. time 3. how you feel 4. reactions: either to other people or to something just happened
      • Procrastination is an automatic habit, therefore you are often unaware that you have begun to procrastinate.
      • To avoid this shut off cues during Promodoro sessions (be isolated)
    • The routine: Unhappy -> focusing on something comfortable.
      • Your brain wants to automatically go into this routine when you got your cue.
      • This is the reaction point where you must actively focus on rewiring your old habits.
      • This can be done with a plan eg. developing a new ritual. Try and try until the plan succeeds. Savor the victories when the plan works.
    • The reward: May need some investigation:
      • Why are you procrastinating?
      • Can you substitute an emotional payoff, may be a feeling of pride for accomplishing something, a sense of satisfaction?
      • Bet or contest
      • Some fun reward: like reading with latte, surfing, game without guilt
      • Bigger reward with bigger achievement: movie ticket, clothes etc.
    • The belief: The most important part of changing your procrastination habit is the belief that you can do it.
      • Develop a new community to strengthen your beliefs: Developing and encouraging culture with like minded friends.

Juggling Life and Learning

  1. Planning -> Weekly -> Daily. The day before so that you subconscious mind to grapple with tasks on the list.
  2. Balance tasks (focused and diffused mode)
  3. Do the most important and most dislike tasks first thing in the morning. At least one promodoro.
  4. If you don’t write tasks in a list, they can lurk at the edge of the four slots in your working memory, taking up valuable mental real estate.
  5. Write what works for you to overcome procrastination and what doesn’t.
  6. Broaden your passion instead of just following them.


Diving Deeper into Memory

  1. We have outstanding visual and spatial memory system which can help form part of our long term memory. Eg. Looking at new house. This is developed because our ancestors needed “where things are” and “how they look” memory more.
  2. To begin tapping into your visual memory system try making a very memorable visual image representing one key item you want to remember.
  3. The more neural hooks you can build by evoking the senses, the easier it will be for you recall the concept and what it means.
  4. Focusing your attention bring something into your temp. working memory, but to move it to long term memory two things should happen:
    • The idea should be memorable (The more it is memorable the more easy it is to recall)
    • It must be repeated
  5. Use index cards technique to relate and recall. (Name on front and solution on back)
  6. Before sleep summarize all day learning.

What is Long Term Memory?

  1. Hippocampus is important part of our brain system for learning and memory of facts and events.
  2. Without hippocampus it is not possible to store new long term memories into cortex, a process called memory consolidation.
  3. Whenever we recall a memory it changes, a process called reconsolidation.
  4. Astrocytes, a glial cell, provide nutrients to neurons. They also make extracellular ion balance. Also involved in repair after injury.
  5. Astrocytes might help in learning. Mice and Einstein example.

Creating Meaningful Groups and the Memory Palace Technique

  1. Creating meaningful group to simplify the learning: mnemonics (short form)
  2. Memory Palace technique
    1. Powerful way of grouping things you want to remember.
    2. You imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, coupled with shockingly memorable images of what you want to remember.
    3. Practice till you become fast in it.
  3. Memory tricks allow people to expand their working memory with access to long term memory.
  4. The memory process itself becomes an exercise in creativity. The more you memorize using these innovative techniques ,the more creative you become.

Week 4

Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential I

How to Become a Better Learner

  1. Physical exercise. New cells will be created in Hippocampus
  2. Practice can repair as well as train the brain. Also learning something new.
  3. Pre-frontal cortex influence complex analysis, social behavior, ability to make decisions, ability to plan.
  4. The visual cortex reaches maturation in childhood.
  5. The prefrontal cortex reaches maturation in early adulthood.

Introduction to Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

  1. Learning doesn’t progress logically, so that each day adds an additional neat packages to your knowledge shelf.
  2. Sometimes you hit a wall in constructing your understanding. Things that made sense before can suddenly seem confusing. This type of knowledge collapse seems to occur when your mind is restructuring its understanding, building a more solid foundation.
  3. It takes time to assimilate new knowledge. You’ll inevitably go through some periods when you seem to take and exasperating step backwards, in your understanding. This is natural phenomenon.
  4. When you emerge from these periods of temporary frustration, your knowledge base will take a surprising leap forward.

Create a Lively Visual Metaphor or Analogy

  1. On more sophisticated understanding of the topic, you can revise your metaphors or toss them away and create more meaningful one.
  2. Metaphors and analogies are useful for getting people out of Einstellung.

No Need for Genius Envy

  1. At some point self-consciously understanding why you do what you do, just slows you down and interrupts the flow resulting in worse decisions.
  2. Intelligence matters
    1. Being smarter often equates to having a larger working memory.
    2. You might chunk 9 things instead of four in STM which helps you learn fast. But it also makes it more difficult for you to be creative because of Einstellung.
  3. Those people who can’t hold a lot in mind at once, you loose focus and start daydreaming in lectures and have to get to some quiet place to focus so you can use your working memory.
    1. Welcome to the clan of creative.
    2. Smaller working memory means you can easily generalize your learning into new, more creative combinations. Because your working memory, which grows from the focusing abilities of the prerfontal cortex doesn’t lock everything up so tightly. You can easily get input from other part of your brains. You may have to work harder to understand what’s going on.
  4. The Imposter Syndrome: The feeling that you are an imposter. Imposter syndrome involves frequent feelings of inadequacy.

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

  1. People can enhance the development of their neuronal circuits by practicing thoughts that use those neurons. We can make significant changes in our brain by changing how we think.
  2. Approaching material with a goal of learning it on your own, can give you a unique path to mastery.
  3. People are as competitive as co-operative. Don’t empathize always.
  4. Try to have perseverance.

Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential II

The Value of Teamwork

  1. Right hemisphere help us step back and put our work into big picture perspective.Take a deep breadth and revisit to see what you have done does make sense or not.
  2. Left hemisphere interprets the world for us and will go to the great lengths to keep those interpretation unchanging. –> Can result in feeling of over-confidence.
  3. Let more interactions between the hemispheres.
  4. Feynman: “The first principal is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.
  5. Easy way to catch your errors is to Brainstorm with others who are also smartly focused on the topic.
  6. Friends and teammates can serve as sort of ever questioning large scale diffuse mode outside your brain that can catch what you missed.
  7. Explaining to others helps you build your own understanding.
  8. Study groups can be powerfully effective for learning, but if study sessions turns into socializing occasions, all bets are off.

A Test Checklist

  1. Test of recall and different problem solving techniques during preparation is of fundamental importance.
  2. Plan both studying and testing session.
  3. Testing is wonderful way of concentrating your mind.
  4. Checklist to see whether your preparation for test taking is on target (Richard Felder)
    1. Did you make a serious effort to understand the text?
    2. Did you work with classmates on homework problems or at least check your solutions with others?
    3. Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution before working with classmates?
    4. Did you participate actively in homework group discussion?
    5. Did you consult with the instructor or TA when you are having trouble?
    6. Did you understand all you homework problem solutions?
    7. Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren’t clear to you?
    8. Followed the study guide?
    9. Did you attempt to outline lot of problem solutions quickly?
    10. Did you go over the study guide and problems with classmates and quiz one another?
    11. Did you attend the review session and discussed your doubts?
    12. Did you get a reasonable night sleep before the test?

Hard Start - Jump to Easy

Empower test taking skills

  1. Classic way: Easy –> Hard (Solving simple will you give you the confidence to solve the hard ones)
  2. Better way: Hard –> Easy
    1. Hard problems need more time
    2. They might also need creative powers of diffuse mode. But to access diffuse mode, you need to not be focusing on what you so badly want to solve.
    3. Start with hard and quickly jump to easy problems.
    4. It can also help you avoid Einstellung.
    5. That’s why sometimes solutions pops up after walking out of the door.

Final Helpful Hints for Tests

  1. Body puts out chemicals such as cortisol when its under stress.
    1. This can cause sweaty palms, a racing heart, a knot on the pilt of your stomach
    2. But its how you interpret these symptoms makes all the difference. The story you tell yourself about why you are stressed.
    3. Turn your attention to something good (excitement of test than fear).
    4. Also momentarily turn your attention to your breathing. This counteracts the flight or flight response that fuels anxiety.
  2. Face your fears and always have a plan B.
  3. Divide your worries between good worries and bad worries. Write them down. Then try to ignore bad worries.
  4. Brain can trick you into thinking that what you have done is correct. Try to blink, take deep breath to try to shift you attention and then double check what you have done using big picture perspective asking yourself does this make sense.
  5. Try to have different perspective in learning and understanding. Like top-down & bottom-up.
  6. Try to define some rules to check what you have done is correct or not. Like checking units of both side of equation in maths.


Things I have to remind myself of doing or following. Usually I don’t do following.

  1. For things you don’t know plan to include diffused mode.
  2. Spaced repetition,
  3. Learn something in a way to form chunk efficiently.
  4. Try to think of ideas while jogging.
  5. Plan to learn context switching.
  6. Recall the material you learn.
  7. Deliberate practice
  8. Beware of illusions of competence and Einstellung
  9. Interleaving
  10. Procrastination:
    1. Habit
    2. Product not the process
    3. Rewards
    4. Write what works for you to overcome procrastination and what doesn’t.
  11. Broaden your passion instead of just following them.
  12. Before sleep summarize all day learning. (Blog)
  13. Create visual metaphor
  14. Change your thinking, change your life.
  15. Plan both studying and testing session.
  16. Beware of the story you tell yourself about why you are stressed.
  17. Face your fears and always have a plan B. (Todo life and startup)
  18. Divide your worries between good worries and bad worries.