Learning How To Learn

Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

After having heard this course recommended for so long, I finally started it.

“Learning How to Learn” provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

The course has been taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera.

This is a collection of notes updated as I progress.

Week 1: What is Learning?

Brain Facts:

Why do we procrastinate (scientifically):


Learning a new thing or doing something you would rather not do can be stressing. This can cause anxiety at first. This activates the area associated with pain in the brain.

Your brain looks for a way to stop that negative feeling by switching your attention to something else more pleasant.


The trick is to just start. Researchers discovered that not long after people start actually working out what they didn’t like, that neuro-discomfort disappeared.

Remember that the better you get at something, the more enjoyable it can become.

Consider using the pomodoro technique.

Learning hard and abstract things:

The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice to create and strengthen neural connections to bring the abstract ideas to reality for you.

Ex: You should practice a lot with the math vocabulary to understand it and recall it easier. [∫∞ex dx, k!(n-k)!]

Summary of what I learnt:

  1. There are two modes of thinking:

    1. Focused mode: Concentrating on things that are usually familiar.

    2. Diffused mode: A relaxed mode of thinking “your thoughts are free to wander”.

  2. When you don’t desire doing/learning something, go through it and just start. The discomfort goes away and, in the long term, this will lead to satisfaction.

  3. When you learn something new, make sure to take time to rest, then come back to it and recall what you learnt.

    • This is very important. Don’t cram information in one day. This leads to inefficient learning. It’s like building a wall without letting it dry.

    • Revisiting and practicing what you learn is important. Research shows that spaced repetition(repeating things after few days) is the best way to build and strengthen the synaptic connections.

  4. Sleep is very important. It clears the metabolic toxins from the brain after a day of “brain use”. It is best to sleep directly after learning new things.

  5. It was shown that exercising and/or being in a rich social environment helps your brain produce new neurons. Don’t lock yourself in your room. Stay active and spare time for exercise (including general physical activities) and friends daily.

Week 2: Chunking


Pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, bond together through use and meaning. They can get bigger and more complex, but at the same time, they are single easy to access items that can fit into the slot of the working memory.

Chunking is the act of grouping concepts into compact packages of information that are easier for the mind to access.

Turn off distractions

You want to use all the four slots of your working memory when studying. Learning will be inefficient if some of those slots are connected to something else.

You have to solve the problem yourself

Just because you see it, or even understand it, doesn’t mean that you will be able to solve it (Illusion of competence). It is always easier to look at the material, even if you think it’s easy, then doing it yourself.

It gets easier

When you think that a chapter or a book has too much information and that there’s no way to go through them all; just focus on whatever section you’re studying. You’ll find that once you put that first concept in your mental library, the following one will be easier.

This concept is called Transfer; a chunk you have mastered in one area can often help you much more easily learn other chunks of information in different areas. Master the major idea and then start getting deeper. However, make sure not to get stuck in some details before having a general idea. Practice to help yourself gain mastery and sense of the big picture context. Try taking a “picture walk” before you dig through the material, this means, look briefly at the pictures, chapter titles, formulas used… before diving into details.

Recall mentally without looking at the material. This is proven more effective than to simply rereading. Reread only after you try to recall and write down what was in the material.

Consider recalling when you are in different places to become independent of the cues from any giving location. This will help you when taking a test in the class.

Test yourself to make sure you are actually learning and not fooling yourself into learning. Mistakes are a good thing. They allow you to catch illusions of competence.

Don’t always trust your initial intuition. Einstellung problem (a German word for Mindset). An idea or a neural pattern you developed might prevent a new better idea from being found. Sometimes your initial intuition on what you need to be doing is misleading.You’ve to unlearn old ideas and approaches as you are learning new ones.

Mix up the problems (Interleaving) from different chapters. This is helpful to create connections between your chunks. It can make your learning a bit more difficult, but it helps you learn more deeply. Interleaving is very important. It is where you leave the world of practice and repetition, and begin thinking more independently.


Week 3: Procrastination and Memory


First time learning something:


Habits Parts:

  1. The cue: The trigger that launches you into zombie mode (habitual routine).

    1. Recognize what launches you in zombie procrastination mode:

      i. Location. Time. Feelings. Reaction to people or events…

    2. Consider shutting your phone/internet for brief periods of time to prevent most cues.

  2. The routine: Routine you do in reaction to the cue.

    1. You only need to use your willpower to change your reaction to the cues.

    2. Actively focus on rewiring your old habits.

    3. You need a plan. You need some willpower.

  3. The reward: Habits exist because they reward us.

    1. Give yourself bigger rewards for bigger achievements. But after you finish them.

    2. Example: If I study for 4 hours today, I’ll watch a movie, guilt free, at night.

    3. Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.

    4. Only once your brain starts expecting a reward will the important rewiring takes place that will allow you to create new habits.

  4. The belief: To change your habits, you need to change your underlying belief.

    1. Example: You might feel like you’ll never be able to change the habit of studying late. This is not true. You can actually rewire your brain

    2. Joining a student community helps, either online or in real life.

    3. Trust your system. You have to feel happy and worry-free when you are resting.

Weekly/Daily list:

Focus on Process:

You should realize that it’s perfectly normal to start a learning session with a negative feeling even if you like the subject. It’s how you handle those feelings that matters.

Solution: Focus on the process, not the product. The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate. Instead of saying “I will solve this task today”, put your best effort for a period of time continuously over the days


Week 4: Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

You should know:



Right hemisphere:

Left hemisphere:

Best practices:

Test Checklist:

Test Taking Technique:

Hard Start - Jump to easy: (Try this strategy with homework problems first)

  1. Take a quick look at the test when it’s handed to you to get a sense of what it involves.

  2. Start with the hardest problem. Pull yourself out if you get stuck for over 2 minutes. Starting with a hard problem loads your focused mode first and then switches attention away from it. This allows the diffused mode to start its work.

  3. Turn next to an easy problem. Solves what you can, then move back to a hard one. This allows the different part of your brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts.

Taking Test Tips: