I’ve just finished the Learning How to Learn course and I wanted to summarize some key ideas for myself and also encourage any reader to follow the course. If you’re a successful learner lots of the ideas will be familiar to you, no Coca-Cola formula disclosed but I think it will be valuable for you listening to them in a more elaborated way and you might also learn some new things. I really enjoyed this course.
- Focused versus diffused mode of thinking.
You’ll learn how you need to work both modes of thinking, both are important and key for success.
If you just try to learn in the focused mode you might have trouble trying to work creative ideas, link ideas to others that would seem unrelated at first and creativity in general.
When you’re in the focused mode it’s like distractions do not exist, all your CPU is dedicated to a single task, it let us focus on the information we’re working on being very efficient processing it and memorizing what we need. However, often you need to see a bigger picture as big as you might need, you start focused on a problem that seems to have no solution and you leave your mind fly and start touching related ideas, like zooming out from the problem, that’s when sometimes “magic” happens and you understand something relevant to the problem that you weren’t able to see just being focused on the problem. This is the diffused mode.
This is what happens when you manage to find a solution to a problem after having a walk, after sleeping, while you’re moving your chair around instead of keep staring at the code… I’ve seen this often in cases where you are trying to fix a bug and you’re in that moment where you think “This cannot be happening, it’s impossible”. Then is when you go to the kitchen or start looking at the sky or go home and keep thinking about the problem at the gym, and at some point, you realize that there’s something you had missed that could actually be the problem and it is!! I think this is also related to the rubber duck debugging as it lets you change to diffuse mode thinking while you explain the problem to a mate.
This a topic I’ve been interested in for some time. Some ideas I already knew are explained like trying to start with tasks you don’t like first so that you get an “energy boost”, trying to focus on process instead of product so that you enjoy with the routines and avoid thinking too much about long-term goal and trying techniques like Pomodoro.
It explains a nice analogy, saying that you do lots of things in zombie mode, and you usually don’t feel procrastinate doing them, you feel that you need to procrastinate when you know that you need some effort, even if it’s a task about something you want. Thinking about the product enforces procrastination. The good news as it’s said in the course is that once you start, the “pain” stops and you can try things like pomodoro in order to advance.
It’s explained how important practice is, the importance of testing yourself (like in an exam) and how productive it is versus just relearning the material. Actually, it talks about the risk of over-learning that you can avoid testing yourself soon so that you know whether you’re already ok with the subjects. Related to that there is an interesting concept called Einstellung.
It also explains the “interleaving technique”, something I already knew but never applied too well but might try to do better in the future: it’s about learning a subject and reviewing it like exponentially in time so that your brain saves the information in the “hard disk” instead of just “RAM” (or even L2 cache). As I’ve said I’ve typically studied a subject for some time and moved on to another instead of keeping reviewing the learned subject before the current one.
The course also talks about the importance of memorizing and practicing, understanding is not enough, it’s like the eureka moment is good but you need the practice to be able to work with the concepts and having there in your mind long term.
It also explains that sleeping is very important so that your brain can organize what you’ve learned and you can be in good shape the next day. It explains that there are some metabolic processes that block you’re learning and you need rest in order to control them. It also explains how important it is recalling for learning. This is something that my father did great, I remember how he asked me each lesson and that was key for learning, it was not that when being asked or being tested you’re only checking whether you’ve learned, you’re actually learning at that moment and enforcing consolidating concepts in your brain.
The course also explains the concept of “chunking“: you study some concept or idea, you understand it, practice and link it to other concepts, like a part of the puzzle. You can memorize a concept but it will be useless, it will be a variable that is GC collected as it’s linked to nothing. Those chunks are formed from small pieces to form bigger ones, and your diffuse mode of thinking can try to find new relations among all of them. That’s what experience is about when you’ve been working on lots of projects in different areas and you see how all of them in some way guide you to new decisions in next projects.
There are other interesting concepts shown related to learning like the “illusion of competence”: when you think you’ve learned something but you’ve just read a lot about it but you haven’t really learned it. They also talke about a related concept that is well known in our profession: The Impostor Syndrome.
It also mentions that some techniques like highlighting text can be worse than just writing some personal notes on the side of the book and writing a map of the ideas. E.g in you’re listening, instead of starting from the top of the paper, just start from the middle, write some ideas, link them…
Finally, it also mentions the importance of metaphors and how you replace some metaphors by better ones.
Practice, practice and practice:
In a world where all the information is on your smartphone, do we really need to memorize things or we just need to understand?
It happens you can’t learn without some level of memorization, and It has been studied that being able to memorize important things is also positive for creativity. It’s also related to practice, you’ll memorize those things that are important as part of your practice. The course mentions some techniques to help memorizing like the Memory Palace , mnemonics, acronyms…
- Tips for tests
It also explains some tips for tests. Apart from encouraging good sleep before exams it promotes checking first all the questions to see the whole picture and starting from a difficult exercise but jumping to an easier one if you’re blocked after one minute. This practice surprised me as I think I’ve always started doing the easy ones and then going for the trickiest ones but their explanation made sense as that way your brain is already working on the difficult ones at the same time you’re working on the easy ones, just encouraging your diffuse mode I guess…
- Some interesting resources
The course is also very good pointing to valuable resources, e.g:
- Class Central
- Brain facts
- “A Mind for Numbers” book.
- Big Think YT channel
- Talks at Google YT channel
- Better explained
- Study Blue