• Alex Vikner

Takeaways from Coursera's "Learning How to Learn"

A few months ago I completed "Learning How to Learn" on Coursera. It's an excellent online course that gives you the chance to learn powerful mental tools from the academic experts Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski at the University of California, San Diego.

These are my personal takeaways from Coursera's "Learning How to Learn" that help me study more efficiently, learn new things faster and master tough subjects with greater ease.

"Diffuse" and "Focused" Thinking

The brain operates in focused mode when concentrating intently on something. This mode allows you to learn things in depth by using the short-term working memory.

The diffuse mode focuses on the breadth of thoughts. It's a relaxed state where the brain makes unconscious connections that allows you to understand the bigger picture.

Think of your brain as a pinball machine...

Both modes of thinking are crucial when learning. Push yourself to the edge of your current comprehension, then diffuse. Exercise and sleep are great ways of entering diffuse mode.


This is the idea of breaking down what you want to learn into small pieces that your brain can access. In that sense, chunks are like parts of a puzzlethey are linked together through meaning. You create chunks through focus, repetition and practice.

'The School of Athens' by Raphael

To master a concept, you need to know it but also know how it fits into the bigger picture. Hence, when studying, it helps to first skim through the material to understand the bigger picture, then look at an example or application and finally dig into the details.

Illusions of Knowledge

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge Stephen Hawking

Rereading notes and over-highlighting books are common yet ineffective studying techniques. You think that you are learning but you aren't really... Instead, only highlight key words and phrases and write brief notes that summarise key concepts (like what I'm doing in this post).

Doing exercises with the corrections on the side is a mistake. You think that you understand how to solve the exercise but it's just an illusion... Instead, do the exercises without corrections and only look at them if you are really stuck.


We procrastinate to temporarily escape discomfort. One way to avoid this is to use the Pomodoro technique: focus intensely for 25 min, then take a 5 min break and give yourself a small reward. Repeat this 4 times then take a 30 min break. Repeat the entire cycle.

Invented by Francesco Cirillo

Focus on process instead of product. Replace "I have to finish X" by "I'll spend 25 min on X".

Moreover, planning your day should be done the night before because sleeping helps the brain prepare. Make sure to plan the finishing time of studying.

Effective Learning Techniques

Use deliberate practice by focusing on the things you find the hardest. Combine this with the Pareto principle which states that you should do the hardest tasks first.

By jumping back and forth between problems or subjects you are interleaving. This enhances creativity and creates new connections between chunks.

Spaced repetition is an effective learning method where you repeat what you have learned over increasingly longer intervals. However, be careful of over-learning.

Make use of the powerful visual memory capabilities of the brain. The memory palace technique is useful. Also try to use metaphors and analogies to remember things better.

Testing yourself is one of the most effective ways to learn. This can be done by trying to explain the material to yourself, active recalling or taking mock exams. Learning what you don't know is crucial. Learn from your mistakes.

Final Words

It's been a few months now that I've been able to implement these methods and I have noticed significant improvements! I spend less time studying, yet my grades are increasing. I have also been able to take more online courses on the side and I feel like I remember more from them.

But I still have a lot left to improve on. So far, I have been experimenting a lot but I need to find a study habit that suits me and implement it well. I highly encourage you to take this course as well and implement these mental tools to learn better and faster :)