Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects

These are my notes from the free Coursera course, Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.


Two thinking modes:

  1. Focused mode – type of thinking for solving familiar problems. (e.g., solving a multiplication problem).rational, sequential, analytical approaches
  2. Diffuse mode – type of thinking for solving new problems. Creativity is involved.

You can’t be in both thinking modes at the same time. Only one at a time.

When learning something new, the mind has to go back and forth between focused and diffuse mode.

© Kevin Mendez

Truth about learning something

To learn, you need to build neural structures. Hence, you have to learn and practice every day. It has a similar concept to working out at the gym to build muscles.

Learning something difficult takes time. You need to practice on it every day. Spaced repetition.

Exercise is better than any drug in becoming a better learner.

Practice can repair, as well as train the brain. But learning takes much longer past the critical period – when we were younger.

Learning does not progress logically. It takes time to acquire knowledge. It could be frustrating at times.

People learn by trying to make sense of the information they perceive. People rarely learn anything complex simply by having someone else explain it to them.

Intelligence matters because it makes it easier to learn. But intelligence makes it difficult to be creative because of Einstellung.

Deliberate practice lifts average brains into the realm of those who are naturally gifted.

We can make significant changes in the brain by changing how we think. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, known as the father of modern neuroscience, felt that the key to his success was his perseverance, which he called “the virtue of the less brilliant.”

Taking responsibility for your own learning is one of the most important things you can do because it opens you to other ideas rather than relying on a single teacher or resource.

Learning with friends is a good way to get un-stuck with ideas or methods that you thought was correct. Friends see things from a different perspective.


When you don’t want to work on something, a sense of neural discomfort arises. The neural discomfort activates the insular cortex which is associated with physical pain.

However, researchers have found that not long after people start working on something that they find unpleasant, the neural discomfort disappears. So an important aspect of tackling procrastination is to just get yourself through that initial period of discomfort.

Shares common features with addiction (i.e. procrastination provides temporary relief from boring reality.)

When you procrastinate, you have a shaky foundation of knowledge. This is not a good long-term strategy to master something.

How to tackle procrastination?

a. Pomodoro Technique

25 minutes of focused work. After 25 minutes, give yourself a reward (i.e. coffee break, chocolate, surfing the web, etc.).

b. Focus on the process, not the product

For example, when you have a homework that has 10 questions, don’t focus on finishing all 10 questions at once. Focus on doing a few questions per sitting.


Habits are shortcuts that allow you to think less when performing a task. Think about the time when you first learned to drive and 5 years after that event. When you first learned to drive, you thought hard about what to do. After 5 years, driving becomes a habit that you think less of it compared to your first driving experience.

4 parts:

  1. Cue – the trigger that launches you to a habitual response. This could include location, time, how you feel, reactions.
  2. Routine – the actions you perform that are habitual
  3. Reward of the habit
  4. Belief of the habit

The best way to tackle a bad habit is not to change the bad habit all at once. This takes a lot of willpower. Instead, focus on rewiring a part of that bad habit. Remember there are 4 parts of a habit.

So to tackle a bad habit, you can start by recognizing the cue that launches you to the bad habit. You can change then change the reaction to the cue.


  1. Write a weekly task and a daily task.
  2. Write the daily task the night before. Why? So that your memory won’t be filled with tasks that you want to be done tomorrow. When you have a list, your mind is free. You can sleep well.

Planning your quitting time is important as planning your starting time.

Start the hard task in the morning.

  1. Keep a planner journal
  2. Commit yourself to certain routines and tasks each day.
  3. Delay rewards until you finish the task
  4. Watch for procrastination cues
  5. Gain trust in your new system
  6. Have a backup plan when you still procrastinate


Your brain forms new synapses (connections) when you sleep:

Sleep has been shown to make a remarkable difference in your ability to figure out difficult problems and to understand what you are trying to learn.

Taking a test without getting enough sleep means you are operating with a brain that’s got metabolic toxins floating around in it—poisons that hinder you from thinking clearly.



Diffuse thinking is activated. You are more creative.

Allows you to disconnect from what you have been concentrating on previously — this can allow your diffuse mode to kick in.



Chunking – uniting bits of information together through meaning or use. The new logical whole makes the chunk easier to remember.

Best way to learn a language?

Incorporate structured practice (repetition and focused mode)  + diffuse mode with native speakers.

How to form a chunk?

Chunking (bottom-up learning)

Create mini-chunks to create big chunks.


How to learn a language:

Practice saying a few words with proper intonation. Eventually, you can speak a sentence. This then turns into a paragraph, etc.

How to solve a math problem.

Know the elements of the problem.

Understand the step-by-step solution. Under each element of the steps on why it was the step. And then you will understand the big picture.

If you focus on the step-by-step solution, you might focus too much on individual steps but not on the connections between steps. This is why you have to see the big picture. The big chunk.

Summary on how to form a chunk:

  1. Focus on the individual information (use focused thinking). No distractions.
  2. Understand the basic idea of what you are trying to chunk. (Alternate the focused and diffuse mode of thinking to figure out what’s going on). If you don’t review what you understand, you won’t remember it.
  3. Practice. Repeat and practice related and unrelated problems. Practicing unrelated problems help you see the big picture, which adds to your learning.

Illusions of Competence:

Spending a lot of time on a text does not mean you have learned it.

Rereading and highlighting too much are illusions of competence.

How to remember?

  1. Recall – recall outside the place where you studied. There might be cues in the place where you originally learned the material, which does not help in learning.
  2. Testing (mistakes correct your thinking).

Rereading is not effective in remembering a material.

Using recall – mental retrieval of key ideas – make studying more effective.

Recalling and retrieval are more effective in learning and remembering material than concept mapping.

Highlight only the important concepts of a text. Highlighting too much can fool your brain that you are learning the material when you have not.

Writing notes of the main ideas in a book’s margin is very helpful.



Behaviors that the prefrontal cortex influence:

  1. People’s ability to do complex analysis.
  2. Human social behavior.
  3. People’s ability to make decisions.
  4. People’s ability to plan.

Acetylcholine – important for focusing

Motivation is controlled by dopamine.

Alpha male has the highest level of serotonin activity. Lowest ranking male has the lowest level of serotonin activity.


2 ways to solve a problem:

  1. Sequential thinking
  2. Holistic (global) thinking



Once you got the basic idea in one study session, constantly re-learning the concepts in that session does not necessarily strengthen the learning. The key to learning is spaced repetition – multiple days in a week.

Repeating something you already mastered know is a waste of time.

Interleaving – once you learn the basic idea, practice different methods/techniques. Mix up your learning!

If you are a master in one field, you might develop Einstellung – the unwillingness to accept new ideas



Our brains have outstanding visual and spatial systems. Use them.

It will be easier to recall if you relate something to an image. Make the image funny and evocative. Relate a concept and idea to an image. Spaced Repetition is also key. Writing and saying will help you remember.

Handwriting deepens the neural networks of memory.

Using index cards helps you remember.

Memory palace technique – use a place you are very familiar with. And put in that place, the things you want to remember. You can be creative here.

Create lively visual metaphor or analogy

© Kevin Mendez


Test taking is a skill that you can build.

Test checklist. The answers should be yes.

  1. Did you make a serious effort to understand the text?
  2. Did you work with classmates on homework problems?
  3. Did you attempt to outline each homework question before discussing it with classmates?
  4. Did you participate actively in homework group discussions?
  5. Did you consult with the instructor?
  6. Did you understand ALL of your homework problem solutions?
  7. Did you ask in class for explanations of homework problem solutions that weren’t clear to you?
  8. Did you carefully go through your study guide?
  9. Did you go over the study guide and problems with classmates and quiz one another?
  10. Was there a review sessions?
  11. Did you get a reasonable night’s sleep?

Other tips:

Start by browsing through the questions quickly.

Start with a difficult problem first and then quickly switch to the easier problems when you get stuck on the difficult problem. When you work on the easier problems after getting stuck on the difficult problem, your diffuse mode thinking works so that an idea that relates to the difficult problem somewhat comes into your head This does not work for everybody, however. A good analogy would be a chef and how he multitasks in the kitchen.

When a question gets really hard, step away from it, relax your mind. Once you get back, a new perspective and the bigger picture seems to set in.