This post is the second of two assignments for the UC, San Diego ‘Learning How To Learn ‘ MOOC on Coursera presented with skill and enthusiasm by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terence Sejnowski.

If you are here as a peer assessor, be gentle with me.

If you are a casual reader, you are one of my target audience and I hope you learn something about learning how to learn from this post.

Learning to Learn

On the sound principle that you learn best by doing, and sharing, the task is to present three of the main points as if teaching them to others.

TOPIC A : Focused and diffuse thinking.

The course identified the key distinction between these two modes of thinking. In the focused mode, we look at individual ‘chunks’ of information and these can and should build into larger chunks. The diffuse mode is the more random, creative thinking needed to apply what we have learnt.

chocolate-barA metaphor of a pinball machine was used in the study videos but I prefer to think about candy! Think of the difference between separate chocolate pieces and a large bar with connected squares representing the moment when all these chunks pieced together to form a whole. One advantage of this metaphor is that you have the positive thought that both the process and the product taste sweet!

A key approach to the focused thinking was that of The ‘Pomodoro’ technique®. This is basically a simple method of using a timer (possibly but not necessarily in the shape of a tomato) to establish defined periods of learning. The name of this technique derives from an Italian word, presumably on the basis that it sounds more exotic and less weird than saying : “Now, I’m going to do a tomato!”

The suggestion was to work for 25 minutes but the period you set depends on how long, or how short, your level of concentration may be. Anything much less than 25 minutes is probably not very worthwhile.

Before beginning these dedicated study sessions, the strong recommendation is to eliminate or temporarily disable all common sources of distraction like the TV, mobile phones or the internet.

By allocating time like this, it could be easy to fool yourself that you are learning when you are simply going through the motions.

This video, not from the course but from the time management website, offers good advice on how to use the time fruitfully, or should that be ‘vegetably’?:

Topic 2 – Sleep and mental breaks

brainhurtsAll this focused learning can make your brain hurt.

I was pleased that the professors endorsed the scientific findings that brain neurons need regular rest periods to function effectively.

Taking mental breaks help the mind process information more effectively so is a key part of learning how to learn.

Regular exercise helps too but there are many ways to switch off. John Lennon once sang “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” and, similarly, it seems that creative thinking is what happens when you are doing something else.

Big-fish-little-fishFilm director, David Lynch talks about nurturing ideas in terms of catching big fish. He uses transcendental meditation to help get into a more diffused way of thinking but many, myself included, find ‘power naps’ equally effective.

Google this on the net and you will find numerous scientific, and anecdotal, accounts on how napping can boost memory and cognitive skills (here’s one I found at random).

If all goes to plan, returning to a problem or work/study task after this ‘time off’ enables you to see the problem afresh. Even if this doesn’t work, at least you should feel more relaxed!

On a more general note, getting a good night’s rest is considered essential for the health of the brain and the ability to thrive in examinations. This leads to the third and final topic:

Topic 3 – Test Taking Tips

Exams suck but they are a fact of life. For better or worse, intelligence is measured on test results and careers can rise or fall on the strength of them.

I suspect that a large proportion of those taking the Learning How to Learn course, would be equally attracted by a MOOC entitled ‘Learning How to Pass Tests’.

Here is a summary of the main dos and don’ts advocated by the professors and expert guests:




zombie student

Be motivated Be a zombie
Be focused Be distracted
Eat frogs (i.e. do hard tasks first) Do easy tasks first.
Be calm – learn from mistakes. Despair when you make mistakes
Take naps and exercise. Study when you are tired
Study bite sized chunks Cram at the last minute
The ‘pomodoro’ Work for long periods.

Summing up – what have I learnt?

I did this course as a lifelong learner and a university teacher. These two ‘caps’ enable me to see the content from two sides.

The main thing the course confirmed is that thinking outside the box (in a diffused mode) is not only useful but essential unless you are happy to go through life on auto pilot.

There is a little zombie in us all telling us to do mindless tasks instead of working with purpose and passion. Doing hard tasks (‘eating frogs’) requires perseverance and self belief.

I like the notion that sometimes it’s good to study tough subjects we think we are bad at and to change the thought so that problems are seen as challenges.

Above all, I have come away with an even stronger belief that ‘practice makes permanent’ and with the recognition that we all need to feed our neurons: the brain gets hungry!

Useful links: