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James Porter Learning how to learn course notes - Coursera

What is learning?

2 Types of thinking/learning:

  • Focused mode thinking which involves concentrated thoughts about a specific topic. Examples would be multiplying numbers. This is used to work out the finer details of an idea. It involves the prefrontal cortex in the brain.

  • Diffuse mode thinking is the use of relaxed, unfocused and unrelated thought patterns enabling connections between very different ideas within the brain. Often done when doing exercise, daydreaming or when you zone out.

When learning something it's best to make use of both modes, going back and forth between focused and diffuse mode thinking. This enables you to view the problem from all angles, often yielding the best results and making efficient use of your brain.

2 Types of memory:

  • Working memory (Short term) consists of 4 'slots' which can hold information. Like an inefficient blackboard.

  • Long term memory is like a storage warehouse, and can store almost unlimited amounts of information but practise is required to efficiently retrieve memories.


  • When we sleep the brain removes toxins which build up throughout the day

  • Concepts and ideas which we have memories are pruned, strengthened and cleaned up.

  • Often dreaming about a subject helps to improve understanding and strengthen memories.

  • Sleep is vital to success!

Improving your learning

Chunking is the process we use to create memorable chunks of information which the brain can easily access in one package. It can be described as mental leap to unite information through understanding. They do not require conscious thought to make use of the information they connect. Imagine a hyperlink to a page, you only need to click on the hyperlink to access the collection of information. You don't need to access all of the information separately on different pages.

  • An example of a chunk would be when going to drive and you pull out of your drive. You don't follow each individual step mentally, you just think, let's get onto the road and off you go. This is because the information has been formed into a chunk which your mind can access in one go.

  • Stress reduces the efficiency of chunking information.

  • To be creative you need to have solid conceptual chunks which you can combine.

  • Forming a chunk requires the use of the focused mode of thinking.

Steps to form a chunk:

  1. First you have to create mini chunks of information which you learn through practise and repetition and focused attention.

    • This requires undivided attention because all of the slots of your working memory are used to hold the mini chunks.
  2. Through the use of the focused mode coupled with bouts of diffuse mode thinking, you knit these mini chunks together into larger chunks which then form the chunk. Gradually less of your working memory is used by the information, until it is condensed down to 1 slot.

Tips to help with chunking:

  • If solving a problem, try not to focus on the overarching picture. Try to focus on the connections between steps. This is the downfall of using worked solutions! Mindless learning doesn't work! - This is an* illusion of competence*.

  • You can form a chunk without understanding but they are often pointless.

  • Also having the understanding without the chunks to back it up fades quickly - This is an illusion of competence.

  • To make the information context independent - practise recalling it in different ways, or try and do different styles of questions with it. The more connections to the information, the easier it will be to recall.

  • Also to making learning location independent, practise the material in different locations.

  • Handwriting notes seems to help us to more deeply encode information.

The value of a library of chunks:

  • Combing chunks in new and innovative ways underlines all creativity.

  • Your memory can be considered like a library of chunks.

    • The larger and better practised your library the easier problem solving becomes.
  • Previously stored chunks can help with new learning because the new information can be integrated more easily with other related stored information. This is known as* transfer* and uses the diffuse mode of thinking.

  • The more experience and practise you have chunking a specific form of information the easier it will become to form and ingrain new, complex information.

  • Your brain goes through periods of knowledge collapse where information which you have newly memorised doesn't make sense when previously it did. This is because your mind is restructuring the information. This is temporary and will pass. Often it will lead to a great leap in understanding.


Memory techniques help to create chunks and help you to learn concepts quicker. They deepen understanding and turn memorising into an exercise in creativity (especially metaphors and the memory palace). This helps you to develop your creativity!


Recalling the information means self-testing, checking and making sure the information in your memory is correct.

  • Do not reread! Recall! Recalling information has proven to be the most effective method of learning information.

  • The recall process is known to enhance deep learning and form solid chunks.

  • Helps to avoid illusions of competence due to the self-assessment of the knowledge you know.

  • In 1 hour of testing you often learn more than 1 hour of learning.

Deliberate Practise:

  • This is where you focus on learning the more difficult information which aids the understanding of more basic information.

Picture walkthrough:

  • This is where you go through the headings of a document, or the chapter titles in a book to get a general sense of the information before focusing and going into detail. This makes effective use of the focused and diffuse modes of the brain.


  • This is where you jump back and forth between different techniques or problems so as to build creativity and flexibility.

  • As well as knowing how to use a technique or chunk, you also need to know when to use it and interleaving builds up the knowledge of when to use the information.

Spaced Repetition:

  • This is where you review information over an increasing period of time.

  • A little work each time reinforces the information.

  • Your understanding could be thought of like a brick wall - you build it up brick by brick, but the mortar needs time to dry.

  • Can be used in conjunction with many other techniques.

  • Practise enables average brains to work at the level of brains with more natural gifts. Just like gaining muscle you can deepen and enlarge the mental patterns in your mind.

  • A good example is the use of flash cards. Using systems like Anki to space to repetition out.

    • Try this before bed to help maximise learning

    • Try to practise flash cards out loud so as to use make links with the sounds. The more links the better!

Metaphors & Analogies:

  • Very powerful for learning new concepts.

  • You can make a boring/unmemorable concept very memorable.

  • You can do this with a very key distinctive image.

  • This helps to build neural hooks.

  • Try it using imagining different senses.

  • Enables prior understanding of concepts to be applied to new information, improving memory efficiency and speed

  • Very useful for getting out of Einstellung.

Memory palaces:

  • This is where you use a location you are familiar with to help you to remember a list of unrelated items.

  • Imagine images or objects which represent the items placed within the location.

  • This technique becomes quicker to use with practise.

  • You can do mental walks to review and practice the information.

Other techniques:

  • Using acronyms can help to remember a list of words along with the use of a metaphorical image.

  • To remember numbers try to associate the numbers with a year or memory.

  • For lists of words you can also try to use memorable sentences - check online to see if someone has already come up with one.

  • Teaching others can be an effective way to aid your own understanding.

Problems to avoid


This is the initial thought or memory which is embedded in your brain that prevents a better idea from taking hold.

Some people say that "Science progresses one funeral at a time." This saying is just to illustrate the idea that we can easily get very entrenched in our ideas and it's often hard to make a significant change. Quite often the largest paradigm shifts in science have come from people who were initially trained in another subject.

The Imposter Syndrome:

This is an extremely common syndrome where a person feels like they are inadequate even in the face of information which proves otherwise. It can manifest as a chronic lack of confidence or self-doubt.


We have very good visual and spatial memory and so we need to tap into this to learn in the most efficient way.

Memory Consolidation and Reconsolidation:

  1. Information in the working memory (WM) is consolidated into memories in the long term memory (LTM) which then becomes inactive.

  2. The inactive memories in the LTM become reactivated by stimuli like spaced repetition and are moved to the WM again.

  3. The information in the WM is then reconsolidated using the new context and information which strengthens the memory, creating more connections to it and makes it easier to access in the future.

Reconsolidation is the reason why spaced repetition works!


  • Having a better short term/working memory makes it harder to be creative. This is because a better working memory is more likely to experience Einstellung as it will pick up new concepts very quickly.

  • A smaller working memory means you can generalise your learning into new, more creative, combinations. This is because you can get more inputs from the brain due to the memories being less tightly locked in. Also because your brain is used to being creative with the smaller amounts of memory it can work on at any period of time.

The Biology

Neuro-modulators are chemicals which influence neuron response.


  • This is used to form connections to the cortex.

  • Tends to be used in focused learning.

  • Activates the neuro-plasticity controllers helping to form new long term memories.


  • Controls the body's reward system which is vital to learning.

  • Dopamine levels are affected by predicted rewards which means we can influence them and make use of them in learning.

  • Drugs hijack this reward system.

  • We learn more effectively when we feel good and less effectively when we feel bad, so the reward system can be very important.


  • Affects your social life.

  • Criminals tend to have the lowest serotonin levels in society.

  • Has an effect on mood which affects motivation in learning.

Other tips:

  • Exercise is the greatest gift you can give your brain because it helps new neurons to survive.


When starting a task which we do not enjoy, the feeling of unease has a similar brain pattern to pain and so we swap to something more pleasant. This is called Procrastination.

Procrastination is especially important because to build solid neural chunks you need time and you cannot put it off until last minute.

Using willpower is one method people use to combat procrastination but willpower uses a lot of neural resources. You should avoid using it to fend off procrastination.

How procrastination works:

  1. We get an unhappy feeling and discomfort because of the task we are about to do.

  2. We move our attention onto a more pleasant or rewarding task.

  3. Temporarily we get a happy feeling due to dopamine reward.

  4. Over the long term we become less happy because we avoid the task.

Procrastination works in a way similar to addiction due to the reliance on short-term gain.

Habits and how they affect procrastination:

Habits are automatic actions or behaviours which we perform after a certain trigger occurs. Chunks can be considered a form of habit.

  1. The cue or trigger sets off the habit. This can be a number of things from an emotional state, to a location.

  2. The routine - this is the zombie-like automatic response.

  3. The reward - this is the moment when you feel good for following the habit and it is also what maintains the habit.

  4. The belief - most habits only have power over us because we believe in them.

It's perfectly normal to feel negative feelings when you start to study but the important thing is the manner in which you handle them. Studies show that people that don't procrastinate put their emotions aside and focus on the task at hand.

One of the main causes of procrastination is focusing on the product or outcome of the task you are committed to. When focusing on product you are imagining all of the work you need to do to finish that essay, whereas if you focus on process you only have to focus on the time going bye. This reduces the feeling of discomfort and helps with procrastination.

How to improve your habits:

  1. The cue

    • Try to avoid damaging cues!
  2. The routine

    • Actively focus on building healthier habits.

    • Try to build a new ritual.

    • It helps to have a plan! You need to persist and adjust.

  3. The reward

    • Can you substitute an emotional reward?

      • Internal bets are a good idea.
    • Add a new reward to overcome previous habits.

    • Mini deadlines may help.

  4. The belief

    • When things get stressful you may long to fall back into old habits and hanging out with friends who share the same philosophy as you can help you to maintain a course.

The Pomodoro Technique:

  • This is where you focus on process rather than product.

  • Often done using 25 minutes of hard work and focus, followed by a 5 minute break which is like a reward when you are finished.

**Illusions of competence **


  • Spending time rereading information is a very inefficient method of learning. Often people equate the time spent rereading to their overall knowledge when really it is very inefficient.

Worked Solutions:

  • Reading and understanding a solution does not equal learning the information or how to implement those steps. This is because you have not gone through the process to knit together chunks and understanding. You have to implement the solutions yourself.


  • Highlighting tends not to help because you can over highlight which makes you think you've done a lot of work whereas really you've hardly improved your understanding.

    • To make improvements, highlight just 1 sentence per paragraph and try to write a summarising sentence in the margin.


  • This is where you continue to practise even though you have already learnt the information and formed solid chunks.

  • Overlearning makes the process of using that information automatic and can help you with things like public speaking or other tasks.

  • Often overlearning can be bad because you can be wasting your time going over something which is very easy to you.

Mind maps/Concept maps:

  • These can be helpful but only once you have already formed the chunks. Using them beforehand however means you are trying to learn by understand alone which will fade quickly.

Techniques for exams

  • Make sure to check your work. By not doing so you are not using both the focused and diffuse modes of your brain and so are effectively only using half of your mind!

  • To help you prepare for an exam, use this checklist to know if you have fully engaged with the material:

    1. Did you make a serious effort to understand the information?

    2. Did you work with others on homework problems?

    3. Did you attempt to outline every homework problem's solution before working others?

    4. Did you participate actively in homework group discussions?

    5. Did you consult with the instructors?

    6. Did you understand all of your homework problem solutions?

    7. Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problems which you could not solve?

    8. Did you carefully check the study guide?

    9. Did you attempt to briefly outline all of the problems?

    10. Did you go over the study guide and problems with others and quiz one another?

    11. Did you attend the review/revision session?

    12. Did you get a reasonable night's sleep before the test? (Without this the others may be pointless.)

  • Hard start - Jump to easy:

    1. This is a technique where you start on hard problems and then pull away the moment you get stuck or lost, moving to an easy problem. This you then repeat.

    2. This works well because difficult problems often require the creativity of the diffuse mode of thinking and moving away to an easier problem enables this style of thinking to occur.

    3. This helps to avoid einstellung.

    4. The only problem is that it requires willpower and discipline to swap questions.

    5. Try this on homework questions first.

  • To manage stress in an exam:

    1. Try to shift your thinking from "this test worries me" to I'm excited to take this text".

    2. Focus on breathing when stressed. Put your hand on your stomach and take a deep breath. Your hand should move out. Focus on doing this for a minute or two, until you are calm.

    3. Face your fears of failure by having a plan b. This reduces the pressure on yourself to perform.

    4. Try to stop studying the day before the exam to give your brain a chance to rest.

    5. Try to use good worry that is helpful rather than bad worry which causes anxiety.

Finally some general tips to aid learning

  • A weekly list of tasks can help to keep you on track

    • This can be supplemented with a daily list. You should do the daily list the night before the day it is to be used. This will allow your subconscious mind and your diffuse mode thinking to process the information properly.
  • Having a finish time when working helps to focus you and it allows you to have leisure time which is very important.

  • Keep notes on which learning techniques work for you and which ones do not.

  • Healthy leisure time is extremely important, especially exercise..

  • Try to work on the most important and difficult tasks first as they can be very easy to procrastinate with.

  • Through targeted practise you can influence your brain to grow in certain ways. By practising certain thoughts you can make significant changes in your brain.

  • Perseverance is very important and be the biggest factor in success.

  • Teamwork and can be a very powerful tool. We are social animals and this can be used to our advantage. By working in a team we can check each other's work or understanding for errors, coving all blind-spots. Almost like an ever-questioning external diffuse mode. Also others can help to keep you on track when you start to lose focus.

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