Learning to learn

When was the last time you thought about how you should be learning? Like many, I realized I went through formal education immersed in different kinds of learning methods but remained oblivious to reasons for using them. This has always bothered me because I enjoy learning, a lot and quickening the speed of it whilst reaping all the benefits, is the ultimate goal. With that motive in mind, I decided to enroll in the free course: Learning to learn by Terrence Sejnowski and Barbara Oakley on Coursera. This blog post will outline some of the insights I have found helpful.

Different ways of thinking

According to research, there are two different ways of thinking. I grew up playing chess and the “focused” way of thinking is very much akin to a chess player’s focus when either preparing, analyzing or playing a game. As a chess player you thrive on silence so your brain can “lock in” and help you recall familiar moves and strategies. This method of thinking is aptly named: focused thinking. We often engage in this way of thinking when we are mustering all our powers of focus to help our brain grasp something, or work out a problem. When it comes to programming/coding you will find many coders cracking their head to figure out a solution. Often times people believe this is the ONLY way to get to the best solution or work out a bottleneck. If you do not appear to be working at all, it seems you are not actually working. That’s not entirely correct.

The focused way of thinking is great, but there is also the diffuse mode of thinking. Great artists and thinkers often figure out answers to complex problems when they are relaxing! Beethoven would take long walks with a sheet of pencil & paper. Some would play the piano in-between work sessions to get their mind to rest before a Eureka moment, for example, it’s known Einsten in particular preferred to play the violin as a way to free up his mind. Great chess players are wont to get up and take a walk to - it appears to be cockiness / arrogance but it creates a way for the mind to loosen up and make very useful combinations in this state. Focused thinking is definitely great at getting the ball rolling but a mixture of focused and diffuse thinking is what will take the trophy. I can attest to spending a long time trying to figure a solution then eventually giving up. In the midst of something totally unrelated, my mind can have an unexpected “spark of brilliance” that I have to rush to my computer and get to work. Some people have mastered this kind of technique of cracking away at a problem, but also kicking back and relaxing which ultimately helps in their quest, I am just not sure if they are conscious of both methods though. What I have been employing with good results is the Pomodoro technique though which fits in well with coding but taking frequent breaks.


By its definition chunking is the activity of grouping of related ideas in a way that you understand. This is best demonstrated by the way in which we learn a new language. We learn different words and sounds, and find a way to memorize them at first according to some rules we already understand. So if we are learning English for example, we may memorize a sound in the newer language that contrasts to one we already associate it with and we stick that to memory. The more we expose ourselves to natural / native English speakers the bigger our repertoire/diction becomes. We will begin to stitch together even more words and before long, we can be at a point of combining two words or more to form a sentence! Chunking is very useful and is achieved via the focused mode of learning and sometimes lots of repetition so the idea sticks. What is most important though about creating a chunking is making sure that you have understood the underlying idea about what you are studying. It is absolutely no use cramming or telling yourself that you now understand something because the teacher showed you or you saw a demonstration. Chunking often needs one to see the premise of something in their own way. Repetition in this instance does not mean an unending banging of your head until you cram something, but revisiting material you are learning at regular but reasonably spaced intervals, maybe days or weeks.

The natural question I found myself asking concerning chunking is how do I “understand” something before I deeply understand it? How do I move with confidence past a section in a chapter because I now understand it? Well, for chunking to work it helps to go through the material one is studying by skim reading the entire thing first, be it chapter notes, titles, headings etc. This helps in connecting the dots together as one is reading about a topic by creating a much bigger context the little tidbits you come across can fit into.

The importance of sleep and exercise

In addition to the ideas above, sleep is essential to learning. When we sleep, we give our brain the ability to make connections about the stuff we are learning and attaching to memory. A relaxed brain neuroscientifically is able to draw on a vast memory base and make good connections between sometimes seemingly disparate ideas on the surface. It’s scientifically proven that you are not the same person you were before a nap because your brain continues to function even when you are asleep. Some neurons die, some are born and connections are made stronger / weaker. From a research done with rats as model, it was discovered that rats that grew up in an enriched environment had stronger neurons in the hippocampus (the section of the brain responsible for learning and memory). To keep growing and learning we need to be in an enriched environment that keeps that part of our brain engaged. In the absence of such however, exercise has been shown to be a great fix that creates strong connections and new neurons in the hippocampus as well.


Lastly, the issue of procrastinating is one of the major blockers to learning or getting something done. Some of the ways one can counter procrastinating is deciding what they want to do tomorrow morning. Just having a checklist of what is on your schedule is an important step towards taking action. Again, sleep is essential in preparing your brain for what is to come tomorrow and clearing your mind. What causes procrastination is the fear of some discomfort attached to the attainment of some result. The result might be positive but there’s an association with pain related to its attainment. The way to change your brain and get yourself to take action is to focus on the process to getting there rather than the result. Whenever you catch yourself dreading to take action to accomplish something, focus on the work to be done and not necessarily the product. The work in this instance are the habits and thoughts you need to have to get the process rolling. Sometimes when the cue hits you that there’s something more pleasurable than what you are about to do, quickly set yourself up to engage in the work rather than get distracted. Even peak perfomers do not always get excited to do what they are so good at but they are able to condition their minds to get on with it and after a while it becomes a cue that jolts them into action. The more you practice a certain thing, the more it becomes a habit.