Review of Learning How to Learn

Learning How to Learn Techniques

By Pat Bowden, published September 26, 2017.

If you are thinking of doing further study, whether online or on-campus, “Learning How to Learn” is an excellent course to do beforehand. It will teach you plenty of techniques to make your learning journey easier.

“Learning How to Learn” is available on the Coursera platform. It holds the world record for the most students enrolled in a single MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with over 1.9 million to date. Released in 2014, it still consistently makes Top 50 and Top 10 MOOC lists. Reviews by learners include comments on how useful the course has been in their everyday lives, not just while learning. It is also available in fully translated Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese versions, as well as having subtitles in several other languages.

Upcoming World Record

I have mentioned this MOOC in other posts, but if you haven’t tried it yet, perhaps this discussion will pique your interest. You will also have the opportunity to be part of an upcoming new world record, when “Learning How to Learn” exceeds the two million participants milestone, most likely before the end of 2017.

You may have guessed by now that I‘m a big fan of this course. In fact, I repeated it in order to earn a Verified Certificate from Coursera. The course format has four modules spread over four weeks, but with Coursera’s current learning platform you can power ahead if you like. It can be completed in less than ten hours, with about three hours of videos, three hours of exercises and three hours of optional material such as interviews with experts in memory improvement, learning languages, mathematics concepts, and even how to improve your writing. There are also some optional readings and the opportunity to create a video or two and submit them to receive feedback from your peers. Participating fully in everything will probably take well over the ten hours, but it’s definitely time well spent.

Instructors and Presentation

“Learning How to Learn” is presented by the University of California with eminent instructors Professor Barbara Oakley and Professor Terrence Sejnowski. The instructional videos are dynamic, with plenty of movement and innovative graphics. There’s even a useful glossary of terms used in the course. Optional references are included each week, divided into “Worthwhile Additional Popular Works” and “Heavier Duty References”. These are provided for those who are keen to delve more deeply into the subject.

Focused and Diffuse Modes

The course starts with a discussion of the focused and diffuse modes of learning. You may not have known about the brain having two different modes of thinking, but Professor Oakley explains them clearly. Throughout the course, she employs useful metaphors to make sometimes complex concepts easy to understand and remember.

The focused mode is when you are concentrating hard on something. When you allow the brain freedom to meander as it likes, it is in the diffuse mode. It’s important to give the brain time in the diffuse mode so it can connect new material to previous thoughts and knowledge. This is often best achieved by having a break from concentrated focus and doing something else, such as going for a walk, taking a shower, daydreaming about nothing in particular or even going to sleep. Later you might realise that you understand a concept that previously eluded you, or make a connection between different concepts.

Exercise and Sleep

Many people swear by the importance of exercise while learning. As well as improving the blood flow to the brain, physical activity promotes the growth and connections (synapses) of new brain cells which in turn allows us to create new thoughts. Professor Sejnowski runs frequently which helps keep his body and brain fit. If running is too daunting for you, try walking.

Sleep is also addressed in this course. We learn that during sleep, the brain cells actually shrink slightly so toxins can be cleared away easily. Sleep also allows our thoughts to wander freely, often automatically making connections that can be hard to make when we are thinking deeply. How often do you wake up in the morning with the answer to a problem that was stubbornly unsolvable the day before?

Many Useful Learning Techniques

“Learning How to Learn” concisely covers many useful learning techniques such as interleaving, chunking, dealing with illusions of competence, improving memory, and how to overcome procrastination. As well as explaining these, it teaches us how to turn them to our advantage. Take the course for a full explanation of these methods. From my point of view, learning how to overcome procrastination has been invaluable. We are shown why thinking about having to do difficult or tedious tasks feels painful, and why putting them off makes us feel better for a little while. The trouble is, eventually we have to face the task anyway, usually with more stress because now we have only a short time to complete it. We are introduced to the Pomodoro technique to overcome procrastination and make the most of our focused thinking time.

This course also explains why these various learning tools and techniques work. Knowing why something happens helps me remember it much better than simply being told that it works.

Self-Testing and Formal Testing

Testing is also covered comprehensively in this course. We find out exactly how self-testing is such a formidable tool in our study arsenal. How often do we read and re-read a study resource, and believe that we know the material, only to discover that our mind is blank when we try to recall it? Simply trying to explain the material to ourselves, a mirror, a pet or a friend can help the learning process. Techniques to improve memory are also included. Yes, I’ve tried most of these out, and they work surprisingly well.

Several videos are devoted to tests and taking them. If you have already utilized the techniques and done some self-testing along the way, you will find quizzes, tests, and exams much less daunting than if you are unprepared. A really useful technique discussed is “hard start–jump to easy” where you read through the test paper, try tricky questions briefly, then quickly tackle an easy one if you get stuck. Then go back and spend another minute or two on the hard question until you get stuck again, then you jump to the next easy question. Your brain can go into the diffuse mode and think about answers to the hard questions while you are zooming through the easy ones. It’s a slight but effective variation on the “do the easy questions first” strategy advocated by many educators.

A Final Thought

No matter what your age or education level, try this course and share your learning experience in the Comments section below.

2 thoughts on “Review of Learning How to Learn

  1. Ali Lafi Al-Rikabi

    I had joined the first version of, if I can say it, “Learn How to Learn”. Now I am giving advice about “How to Learn” to my students, but I feel I have forgotten some aspects of the subject and also want to learn more about the topic- I am following up all about Great Barbs activities >

    1. patbowden Post author

      Well, done, Ali! A great thing about most MOOCs is that you can often revisit the course pages and revise the work. You can usually download particularly helpful videos to your own device so they are available anywhere, anytime.
      If you did “Learning How to Learn” on the old Coursera platform, you can access all the materials by enrolling again on the current platform.

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