Learning how to learn

Last updated Jun 7, 2022 Published Aug 10, 2020

Learning how to learn [1] is a course made by Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Senowski published by Coursera, which aims to give people an understanding in how we as humans learn. The course is science based and dives on how we can benefit of knowing how our brain works, to make learning an approachable task.

Here you will find a resume of what was my findings on my journey as a course student and the insight that I had. Even though it is based on the learning how to learn course, I will relate others resources that I found useful for me to build up my learning power ups.

Focused and Diffused mode

The first week focus on the two modes on which we use for learning, the focused mode and the diffused mode. Focused mode, is what most of the students do and think about learning, it is the act of writing something or reading. In other words, you focus on a single activity.

Diffused mode, is the counter part, is the mode in which we do not focus, usually it is more general, we want to see the big picture instead of focusing on the bits.

Focused and diffused mode - image extracted from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT5Afh6V6i4

As a programmer I often relate to the diffused mode when I am struggling in solving a problem. I remember often having issues to fix a bug or implement a new feature all day long, after leaving the office, and going back on the next day, I had it done in less than one hour.

[1] says that we alternate between those two modes, and both are needed for learning. I mentioned that I felt this switch on a work life basis, but it is possible to short this cycle and keep repeat it many times a day1.

The pomodoro technique is a methodology that helps to time frame this mode changes. The rule is simple, focus for 25 minutes and diffuse for 5, and repeat.

Chunking

Chunking is the building blocks of learning new things, it is known as the bits that are needed in order to connect them and learn. I relate to this technique with Test Driven Development (TDD) [2].

Following TDD is the art of start small and evolve the code, piece by piece, using small units. There is no way to know big concepts without the small pieces that make it up. [3] also mentions how the chunk technique is used by expert chess player to recall information when trying to memorize the chess board arrangement, such technique allowed them to remove a slot from the short term memory which is limited, and keep moving those things to the long term memory, allowing the memory to work with other things.

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is the act of focusing on a specific task with a clear objective in order to improve the understanding of the desired subject. For example, the following list are examples of those tasks:

  • Study new algorithm
  • Study a new framework
  • Studying math solving problems

It’s important to mention that deliberate practice should have some structure in order to achieve the desired goal. For example, learning a new algorithm may require other areas to master before diving into that. Also, the exposure to what you do with that new information is part of the deliberate practice. For example, after understanding the algorithm, giving a talk, discussing that with someone are ways to practice deliberately. Besides that, Felienne Hermans on her book also mention the need for practicing:

The biggest takeaway from this section is that the best way science knows to prevent forgetting is to practice regularly. Each repetition strengthens your memory.

The Programmer’s Brain by Felienne Hermans, pg 40 [3]

She also mentions that if you forget something when you were learning in high school, that’s probably the reason behind that: the lack of practice.

Final considerations

Learning is a continuous process that starts when are born, even since that moment we start learning everything about our surroundings, light, wind, taste, people and much more.

As the life goes by, the learning approach changes as we already master all those, we might start leveling up our game. In the college, it might be that math classes, in the university it might be any subject related to the area you want to master.

The key idea from all the course, at least for me, is to understand how we think, use memory, procrastinate, make new connections in the brain and much more, to use that in our favor, seeking the balance between learning new thinks and mastering what we might already have.

References

  1. [1]B. Oakley and D. T. Sejnowski, “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects,” 2021 [Online]. Available at: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn. [Accessed: 25-Jul-2021]
  2. [2]K. Beck, TDD by example. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2000.
  3. [3]F. Hermans, The programmer’s brain. Manning, 2021.

Appendix

  1. This post was created inspired by the course and the talk I gave to share what I learned in the course.

Edit: Oct 4, 2021

Added The programmer’s brain as a reference in the section chunking

Footnotes

  1. As a side note, the guest in the podcast changelog also talked about the way he takes to solve problem, in some way, he describes without noticing the diffused mode and the focused mode.