Learning how to Learn - Course Review


I work in software industry. Most of the technology I work in were not even invented 10 years back. Now the technology evolves so rapidly.

Only consistent is constant learning. It also makes my job very exciting. As Henry Ford said - “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young”.

I’ve made it my life priority to continue to learn and grow. So when I read an article on NYTimes about a course on learning, I knew it would be time well spent to understand deeper on the learning aspects.

Course Structure

The course is available on Coursera. The course is free to study (they call it free to audit). The completion certificate, if you want one, costs $49.

The course is divided in in 4 modules, one to be done per week as suggested. It took me average 3-4 hours per week. So, it is not a massive time commitment. And of course, the return on time investment is amazing.

Week 1 - What is Learning?

Week 1 Theme

The focus of this week is to explain what is learning and how do we learn. Barbara shares her own learning journey. She was an average student and believed she will be an average student. But by right way of learning, she transformed herself. It is a fantastic journey. Also, some of the key takeaways from this week:

Focused vs Diffused Mode

  • Focused Mode: Where concentration is at highest level ; you are focused on the problem at hand. Eg Programming, Puzzle Solving, Learning a new topic, Memorizing.
  • Diffused Mode: instead is a state that does not require any attention to the brain, usually you get when you relax or you are not focusing on any problem / task.
  • Both the states are important for learning.



  • When doing something uncomfortable, “pain” part of brain gets triggered, and it naturally wants to do something else to avoid the pain.
  • But usually if you start the activity, the feeling of pain goes away.
  • Strategy of dealing with this is deploying Pomodoro technique. By this, 25min of focused work is done, followed by 5-10 min of relaxation.
  • Many of us deal with Procrastination challenge. I’ve found using Pomodoro Technique very effective - it breaks down the work in smaller chunks and it doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

Practice Makes Permanent

  • As we repeatedly practice, neuromuscular connection becomes more solid, and with repetition, they become ingrained.

Working Memory vs Long Term Memory

  • Working Memory is short term memory, to process and learn new stuff. It is equivalent to RAM in computer.
  • In brain, the area of working memory is Prefrontal Cortex. This is also where we operate in Focused mode
  • At any time, only 4 chunks of items can be in working memory.
  • Long Term Memory is like hard disk storage in the brain. It is more permanent.
  • The way to go from Working Memory to long term memory is by doing spaced repetition.


Importance of Sleep in learning

  • Sleeping helps brain to reduce the metabolic toxin generated through the day, and convert short term memory to long term memory.

  • Sleep is very under-rated, but a critical component for learning as well as performing to optimum level in the day.

Week 2 - Chunking

Week 2 Theme

This week is about chunks. Chunks are compact packages of information that your mind can easily access. This week focus on how you can form chunks and how you can use them to improve your understanding and creativity with the material


  • Chunking is breaking down learning into small part, which can be learnt independently, and helps to understand overall picture.
  • Focus of chunk should not only to break down the learning into smaller chunk, but also understand the inter-connectivity between chunks
  • Chunks are built with Focused Attention, Understanding, Practice.

Chunk 1



  • Recall helps to understand and grasp the learning material better. When one is reading, the topic looks obvious. But recall helps to solidify the knowledge and expose the gap.
  • Recall is better than re-reading, as it is active participation in learning, rather than passive participation of reading.

Motivation and Neurons

  • There are three key neurons which have important role in the learning process. They are Acetylcholine Neurons, Dopamine and Serotonin.
  • Acetylcholine Neurons
    • They forms neuromodulator connections to the cortex that are particularly important for focused learning when you are paying close attention.
    • Acetylcholine is chemical which function as neurotransmitter connecting nerve cell to send signal to other cells - neurons, muscle cells etc
  • Dopamine neurons
    • They are part of a large brain system that controls reward learning. It is released when we receive unexpected reward. It generates pleasurable feeling.
    • Companies design app with focus on having periodic notification (award), so our body release dopamine and we seek pleasure and get addicted to these apps.
    • If dopamine is used in smart ways, we reward ourselves post doing any activity which we are making a habit, it tries to make that activity more rewarding and hence we will do it regularly. Eg cookie post workout,
    • Dopamine is in the business of predicting future rewards and not just the immediate reward. This can motivate you to do something that may not be rewarding right now, but will lead to a much better reward in the future.
  • Serotonin
    • Serotonin is a third diffuse neuromodulatory system that strongly affects your social life. In monkey troops, the Alpha male has the highest level of serotonin activity, and the lowest ranking male has the lowest levels.
    • Prozac, which is prescribed for clinical depression, raises the level of serotonin activity.
    • The level of serotonin is also closely linked to risk-taking behaviour, with higher risk in lower serotonin monkeys. Inmates in jail for violent crimes have some of the lowest levels of serotonin activity in society.
    • Finally, your emotions strongly affect learning as you are well aware.




  • Overlearning is repeating same topic again with min benefit. It also gives the illusion of competency.
  • Instead of continuing to learn in the same session even beyond point of exhaustion, periodic spaced repetition should be used.


  • In this phenomenon, your initial simple thought, an idea you already have in mind or a neural pattern you’ve already developed and strengthened, may prevent a better idea or solution from being found.
  • This kind of wrong approach is especially easy to do in sports and science, not to mention other disciplines, because sometimes your initial intuition about what’s happening or what you need to be doing is misleading. You have to unlearn your erroneous older ideas or approaches even while you’re learning new ones.
  • Daniel Kahneman has won Noble Prize on research on this phenomenon and published this in utter fascinating book “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow”

Week 3 - Procrastination and Memory

Week 3 Theme

This week digs deeper into two seemingly unrelated ideas - Long Term Memory and Procrastination. They are linked for learning, as it is time consuming process to solidify learning in long term memory so it is easily available in short term memory. You do not want to procrastinate on this.


  • Procrastination is easier than using will power. Will power uses lot of neural resources. So relying on willpower to handle procrastination is not a very solid strategy.
  • When you procrastinate, you feel better–but only temporarily. In this, procrastination shares common features with addiction. Procrastination efforts feels small, but over time it builds up and causes harm.

Habit Forming

  1. The cue: The event happened. The cue are usually
  2. Location: You do something
    1. Time: You do something
    2. How you feel: Low energy, grab bar
    3. Reactions: Text message came, check phone, check instagram
  3. The routine: The action that has to be taken.
  4. The reward: Give reward to link activity to pleasure.
  5. The belief: The mindset to believe that you can change.


Process vs Product

  • If we focus too much in end product, the challenge looks too big and mind wants to procrastinate.

  • Focussing on process is a better strategy. Break down the task, and focus on the immediate step at hand.

Visual Memory

  • Humans are evolved with great visual recall power. This has helped to navigate the world, and return back home after days of hunting.
  • We should lean more on the visual cortex of learning often.
  • Make stuff memorable, and then repeat often to solidify this in our long term memory.

Long Term Memory

  • Hippocampus is important part of brain to learn new memories

  • Without the hippocampus and its inputs, it is not possible to store new memories in the cortex, a process called memory consolidation that can take many years.

  • In the example given for the patient HM, hippocampus was removed from the brain. Long term memory stopped forming.

  • Practice and repeat regularly (spaced repetition) to solidifies memory to long term memory.

  • Reconsolidation

    • Whenever you recall a memory, it changes, a process called, reconsolidation.
    • It is even possible to implant false memories, which are indistinguishable from real ones by simply suggesting and imagining, especially in children who have vivid imaginations.
    • The green process of consolidation takes the brain state in active memory and stores it in long term memory by modifying synapses on the dendrites of neurons.
    • These long term memories can remain dormant for a long time until the memory is retrieved and reinstated, by the red process, in short term working memory.
    • The reinstated memory is in a new context, which can itself be transferred to long term memory, thereby, altering the old memory though reconsolidation.
    • Our memories are intertwined with each other. As we learn new things, our old memories also change. Like consolidation, reconsolidation also occurs during sleep.


  • Astrocyte

    • The astrocyte is the most abundant glial cell in the human brain.

    • Astrocytes provide nutrients to neurons, maintain extra cellular ion balance, and are involved with repair following injury.

    • Interestingly, when Einstein’s brain was examined to find out what made him so awesomely creative, the only difference that could be found was that he had many more astrocytes than the average human.

    • A synapse is made of two brain cells – and an astrocyte.

Memory Palace

  • Mnemonic - Like “My very educated mother just showed us nine planets” to remember all nine planets name and order
  • The memory palace technique is a particularly powerful way of grouping things you want to remember.
  • It involves calling to mind a familiar place like the layout of your house and using it as a visual notepad where you can deposit the concept images that you want to remember.
  • All you have to do is call to mind the place you’re familiar with; your home, your route to school, or your favorite restaurant, and voila in the blink of an imaginative eye, this becomes the memory palace that you’ll use as your notepad.

Memory Palace

Summary of Week 3

  • To defeat procrastination, focus more on the process. Have regular rewards and break task in smaller chunks so it is not overwhelming.

  • Spaced repetition is important to make a concept part of permanent memory. Anki is a powerful tool for that.

  • Humans have far stronger visual memory than other memory. Utilize this.

  • Mnemonics is a good trick to learn group of unrelated objects together

  • Memory Palace builds on power of visual memory to use familiar place like layout of the house to place objects and retrieve. This was also main concept behind book “Moonlighting with Einstein”

Week 4 - Advanced Learning and Unlocking the potential

This week theme is learning tips


  • Try to create a visual metaphor, to retain the concept.

  • Sillier the image, easier it is to recollect it later.

Imposter Syndrome:

  • Feeling that you are not really smart, and high score or achievement is a fluke

  • Important to understand that this feeling is very common

Test Taking

  • Check hard questions first, if stuck go to easy. This let diffused mode take over while easy tests are done

  • Deep breathing helps to relax and maintain attention

Importance of Thought

  • How can changing your thoughts change your life? They actually change the neural connection in the brain

Final Thoughts on the Course

It is a great course, well explaining how we learn and also giving tips on how to approach learning. Few of the things I am going to implement from this:

  1. Pomodoro Technique: I’m already doing this for some time, and now my belief is re-affirmed in this. 25min of Focus, 5 min of break. Attempt to get 6-8 good Pomodoro done in one working day.

  2. Spaced Repetition: I’ve started to use Anki as the software based flash cards. Anki deploys spaced repetition method to learn. You can make your flashcards. It tests you on the flashcards. Cards where you guessed wrong answer are repeated more frequently than cards where you guessed right answer. After hearing about it for years, I’ve started to use it now. Infact, there are many pre-created flash cards on Anki (shared by community users). I’m very excited about this software now.

  3. Memory Palace: To be applied

  4. Habit Forming: Already aware of most of it, thanks to BJ Foggs and James Clear work on habit forming.

  5. Importance of Sleep: Importance of sleep keeps on coming up in all aspects, be it be learning, or sports performance. If one has to perform at optimum level, sleep has to be given the right priority it deserves.


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