Learning how to learn

I’m very fortunate to have some spare capacity at the moment to do some self-directed learning. There are a few topics that I’m interested in doing a bit of a deep dive into, as well as the general learning about new places, languages and cultures that comes with travelling.

With that in mind, I signed up for Coursera’s most popular online course: “Learning how to learn.” I found the four week course to be fascinating, informative and very well structured and taught. Essentially it’s a meta-look at how the brain learns and is filled with practical tips and tricks to improve the way you learn. Some of those tips and tricks formed the impetus for me to start writing more.

I’ve taken some notes on some of the areas I found most interesting or useful:

Focussed and Diffuse Modes of Thinking

The brain can only operate in one mode of thinking at a time. Focussed thinking follows well established neural pathways, where you are thinking about things that may be difficult but you’ve done before or know how to do.

Diffuse thinking is more freestyle, big picture or blue sky thinking. It’s letting your brain wander and create new neural pathways and connections to solve a novel problem.

It is important to create time for both modes of thinking. I often find I get a lot of ideas while in the shower, riding my bike or doing other random activities. I now understand this is my brain working in the diffuse mode!

The importance of sleep and exercise

The course really opened my eyes to the rhythms of the brain, which is always changing and generating new neurons. Your brain needs time to rest, to work away in the background, to clean up toxins and to deepen neural pathways. Both sleep and essential in this maintenance work.

Recruit dopamine and work on the process to help you focus

You can recruit neuro-modulators to help you beat procrastination. For example, dopamine is in the business of predicting future rewards and helps regulate your motivation. Scheduling rewards at the completion of the task can train your brain to maintain motivation.

Procrastination is your minds way of switching focus away from something that causes your anxiety. Process is the framework you can set up to minimise procrastination and maximise focus while completing difficult tasks or learning hard-to-grasp concepts. Using the Pomodoro Technique and ensuring your environment is distraction free (no phone in sight, no push notifications) are great ways to set yourself up for success.

How to bed things down in long term memory

Long term memory is important because it is where your brain stores fundamental concepts and models. There are some techniques you can use to ensure that the concepts you learn are stored properly in your long term memory and that you can access them easily.

Spaced repetition, recall and self-testing are fantastic ways to ensure you are really learning a concept, and also to practice retrieving that concept from your long term memory. Writing down or explaining to others are also techniques that help you retain information.


I felt like a lot of the concepts taught in the course are things I know intuitively, but perhaps couldn’t explicitly explain. It’s great to understand more about the science and neurobiology behind learning, as well as the cues to recognise what is happening when I feel like procrastinating. The practical techniques are really useful and I’m looking forward to learning more effectively.

I highly recommend this course for anyone studying, working or interesting in learning something new. I think it would be fantastic to teach at a high-school level – a lot of these tips would have been great when I was studying back then!


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