Learning How to Learn

If you haven’t decided yet of what online course to choose as a new field of study then what would you say about attending one of the most attended online courses in the world – “Learning how to learn” on Coursera. In the blog post below you’ll find the key ideas of the course that cover illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination and the best practices in mastering tough subjects.

Two modes of thinking

Any person can be thinking in one of the two modes – the focused and the diffused.

The focused mode requires deliberate efforts with removing any external disturbances. Such mode can stimulate a “flow” state of useful thoughts and ideas as the brain follows consciously recognized patterns of neural connections. It uses all 4-7 working memory slots in the frontal lobe.

The diffused mode happens during non-focused periods of time such as sleep, exercise, driving, walking etc. In the diffused mode, the brain goes over new and old neural connections and finds new links between them, to strengthening understanding and allowing for creative solutions.

It’s really useful to be able to switch between the two modes. For example, you’re working on solving a complicated task from your project. The initial approach isn’t working; a couple of additional approaches are not working as well. You can feel that you don’t know where to move. But having some rest, such as a midday sleep or a walk in the park, can really help. A change of scenery can lead to a new unexpected solution.


In order to master learned material, it’s necessary to move chunks of information from short-term memory (or “working” memory) to the long-term memory in the brain. This is called chunking.

For example, try to remember the following sequence of characters:


Not so easy. But try to group these characters in the next order:


That’s much easier to remember 5 groups of characters than just 16 separate letters.

In order to chunk, the brain needs to repeat and examine new concepts and ideas from different perspectives, improving the ability to remember and retrieve these concepts when you need them.


Procrastination comes up when you’re going to do something you feel uncomfortable with. At this time the brain activates the areas responsible for pain. But this feeling passes as soon as you begin to work on the interesting task.

The effective way to deal with procrastination – is to focus on the process rather than on the final result. In this case it could be useful to use a technique that’s called “Pomodoro”. This entails taking 25 minutes to doing as much as you can regarding a certain task. Make sure that there are no interruptions and you give your 100% focus to the task. Once you have done all you can in the 25 minutes, reward yourself. It’s important to keep yourself motivated.


As we’ve already mentioned, memory is divided into two main categories: working memory and long-term memory.

Working memory relates to the part of the memory associated with what we’re consciously processing in the mind. It’s widely believed that the working memory has 4 slots of memory (4 slots meaning 4 items that can be processed at once).

In the course, long-term memory is described as a storage warehouse which covers a huge amount of space. Long term memories are stored in different parts of the brain. To put a thought or idea into long-term memory, it will require lots of time and repetition to allow it to be recalled at a later stage.

For more effective learning it’s better to follow the following recommendations:

  • Take notes;
  • Explain the material to someone else;
  • Test yourself – understanding moments doesn’t prove you’ve mastered it;
  • Use analogies and metaphors;
  • Draw vivid images to aid memory;
  • Use spaced repetition, practicing every day, then every few days;
  • Recall key points;
  • Exercise regularly – it’s helpful not only on improving memory, but also for the ability to learn;
  • Sleep well – new information is absorbed by the brain at night, so having a good sleep is incredibly important;
  • It’s better to study regularly with little parts of new material, than rarely with huge portions.