I recently completed a course on Coursera called Learning How to Learn. It provides some useful insight into how the brain stores memories and how we can exploit that to learn better. Instead of giving a broad summary of the course, I wanted to share some key insights that I personally found useful.

Tips for Learning

Repeat the things you’re learning over a number of days, instead of trying to cram it into a single sitting. I try to allocate a about an hour each day to something new I’d like to learn, which helps me space things over the week.

Practice makes permanent, especially with more abstract concepts. This is one of the reasons why I favour top-down approaches in learning as it gives you the ability to experiment with things, and slowly discover how they work for yourself. It’s also important to try tackling more difficult problems, rather than just focusing on simple or toy problems.

One of the things I’ve always done is to go back and re-reading material that I’ve forgotten. This is not particularly useful for really learning the subject. It’s important to try to recall the information by yourself, and maybe even try recalling it in different environments.

It’s also worth mentioning the more obvious things: sleep and exercise are really important!

Tackling Procrastination

The course breaks down the habits into four parts: the cue, the routine, the reward and the belief. It is important to understand each of these parts in order to tackle a change a particular habit. For example, limiting the cues that make you procrastinate, like turning off your phone.

A key insight that I got from this course is focusing on the process rather than the product. This is helpful in combination with the Pomodoro technique where you can make progress on a particular task for 25 minutes, then take a break (or get a reward). This is instead of focusing on aspect of completing the task, i.e. the end result.

It’s also useful to plan your week by creating a list, then break this down into daily lists that you can create the evening before. This can be done either using a piece of paper, or using an application. Although todo or checklist apps can be useful, I found myself focusing too much on perfecting my list and messing around with the timers rather than just simply write that I want to do X, Y and Z.

Things to Avoid

There are a few things mentioned in the course that I realised I occasionally did, which can lead to an illusion of competence. This includes highlighting too much, which makes you think that you “get it” as you highlight when you really don’t. In addition to that, focusing easy things or things you’ve already learned, makes you think that you’ve mastered the full material.

This is why it’s important to balance your study and deliberately practice more difficult problems to ensure that you really get it.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the course and there was a lot more useful information that I’ve not mentioned here about memory and learning, so it’s worth checking out. You can also take a look at this nicely organised summary.

Resources

  • Brain Facts
  • Anki: software for creating and managing your flash cards
    • I recommend the these flash cards by Chris Albon if you’re interested in machine learning
  • Focus for Mac: a simple productivity app that blocks distracting websites and apps during an allocated time
    • It supports the Pomodoro technique which includes breaks. It’s default timer is 10 minutes, but you can set a custom timer (e.g. 25 minutes)
  • Forest App: a simple application with an interesting premise to keep you focused. You plant a tree, and it grows during the specified time and if you quit the app, it will kill your tree.
    • I typically use this on my phone, while using Focus on my computer, to avoid getting distracted by phone.