Learning How to Learn Effectively

Human brains have always been a fascinating topic for me. I have always wondered (well, still I do) how is it possible that our brains can learn so many things in a short period, process so much of information at a given time and also help us to take countless major decisions throughout our lifetimes. As a part of this search, recently I came across an online course on coursera titled “Learning how to learn” taught by two distinguished professors Dr.Barbara Oakley and Dr.Terry Sejnowski from UC San Diego. I am extremely glad that I took that course as it did answer a lot of my important queries.

The course was very well structured from the beginning. Both the instructors started from scratch and gradually built up advanced ideas in layers. I was easily able to grasp some of the basic concepts about learning new things, memory management, chunking or procrastination.In order to add more flavor to it, they were also several complementary short interviews of successful people like Benny the Irish Polygot, Stanfod’s Keith Devlin, Scott YoungKalid Azad and so on who talked about their strategy to gain success and learn more in their lives.

Okay, so the course was divided into four parts as discussed below:

1. Focused vs Diffused Thinking:

Here, we got to learn about two main thinking modes of human brain i.e Focused and Diffused. Focused mode is more like a ‘concentrated’ mode that uses all of our working memory (which is usually able to store 4-7 different items at once) and helps us to create new neural pattern. On the other hand, diffused mode is more of a ‘relaxed’ mode of thinking which works even when we are dreaming, taking a shower or a nap. Dr. Oakley gave us examples of Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison who used to use diffused mode of thinking more often than focused mode in order to get creative ideas. When we are learning something new, we should go back and forth between these two modes to embed those ideas in our mind for a long period of time. Also, revisiting previously learned concepts periodically is a very good way of forming strong and permanent neural pattern.

2. Chunking:

Chunking involves creating something more meaningful—and therefore memorable—from seemingly random bits of information. Chunks can become bigger and more complex as the time passes. However, it eventually becomes easy to access that particular piece of memory as its more relevant to us. We need focused attention, a good understanding of the concept and frequent practice to make the neural pattern fixed in our memory for a longer period of time. Recalling a particular idea without seeing the book and sitting outside our usual study environment also boost up the chunking process. And most importantly, making mistakes are always a good thing in the process of learning.

3. Procrastination and Memory:

I was extremely interested particularly in this particular section as I had found myself, in many occasions procrastinating on many important stuff and I wanted to rectify it badly. Some of the tactics that were discussed to handle procrastination are:
– keeping a planner journal that list out all the tasks
– committing ourselves to certain routine and tasks each day
– rewarding ourselves whenever a particular job is done in order to relish that momentarily feeling of success
– watching out for the cues that force us to procrastinate something
– finishing up the most heavy and important work first in the day
– using the pomodoro technique i.e 25mins of focused attention followed by a short break.

This section also discussed about memories in our brains  i.e long term and short term/working memory. We can not build any long term memory over night. It needs frequent practice to set that particular neural pattern in our brain. But working memory is a volatile one and can not hold much of information together for a longer period of time.

4. Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential:

This part was a concluding section of the course. It talked about how we can change our lives by changing our thoughts, how we can get rid of genius envy and impostor syndrome, the value of teamwork and lastly, some helpful tips on how to take the tests.

That would be all for the time being.
Thank you professors and also coursera for taking us to this beautiful learning adventure of knowing a bit of what is actually going on inside our neural-hood. I am definitely looking forward to more of these courses. Happy learning..:)

Fellas, the registration for the next offering of this course is now open. Please go ahead and sign up. It would definitely be a fun ride. However, In my next post, I will share some of the important resources about learning that I got to explore during this course period. I believe those would be extremely beneficial to many of you.

I just found out Dr. Barb speaking at TED here.


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I am a Software Engineer by profession. I'm ever curious to find the latest technology in the field and put it to good use. Quite a bit of my free time goes to learn different tools and technology.I enjoy development for Linux, building/leading teams, and contributing to different open source projects. Even though I have a very wide range of interests when it comes to build software, my current focus is on Frontend development. I am thrilled to work with HTML,CSS,JS, JQuery and Ajax like concepts. I also love to read, write, travel and cook.

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