Monday, December 21, 2015

My Reflections on 'Learning How to Learn'

This year, I completed my third #MOOC course called 'Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects'. This course is offered by University of California, San Diego through Coursera and is taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Prof of Engineering at Oakland University and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Prof at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The course is geared towards anyone who wants to understand how the process of learning works and know more about some of the techniques to learn effectively. The course is organized around four main themes:

  • What is learning
  • Chunking
  • Procrastination and memory
  • Renaissance learning and unlocking your potential

Through this post, I want to reflect on my experience with the course and what I learned about learning. 

One of the highlights for me was the discussion around the use of the Pomodoro technique. I knew about this time management technique using a 25-minute timer but hadn't used it in a while. I really enjoyed applying the technique to some of the projects I was working on at the time and I am happy to report that I was able to work much more effectively. But this technique may not be for everyone. Try it to find out if it works for you.

My favorite theme from the course was 'What is learning' and within that learning how and when to use focused versus diffused modes of thinking. In the course, Dr. Oakley highlights how an interplay between these two modes is a crucial aspect of learning. 

  • Focused mode of thinking is where we purposely focus on and use our attention and concentration on what we are learning. I think of it as a strobe light highlighting only one character on the stage so all my brain energy is focused on that single character. 
  • Diffused mode of thinking is where we learn when our mind wanders. In this mode, there is nothing specific we are focusing on and our brain is in a relaxed state. I think of it as a situation when the stage lights are dim so I can't really see any particular actor or prop and my brain is free to think of something that's more big picture or something that's unrelated. In this state, my unconscious mind is connecting the dots that I did not connect previously. Working in the diffused mode is what explains how you have an answer to a problem you were struggling with, right when you wake up in the morning. Sleeping on it really works! 

This is how Dr. Oakley describes these modes using the pinball metaphor.

Although we need to work in both these modes to learn anything, you cannot be in the focused and diffused mode at the same time. However, you can move from one to another and bring some of the big picture thinking, problem-solving ideas and insights from the diffused mode into the focused mode. Here's how some creative people like Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison moved from one mode to the other. It is darn interesting to read about how they switched their attention! 

I am still working on the best technique for me to move from one mode to the other. I have found that during my morning walks, I am more or less in a diffused mode and I do tend to get some great ideas on how to solve problems. I don't necessarily carry a notepad to write the ideas down! So, I am now trying to record small audio snippets of some of the brightest moments and will see how that goes. Happy learning!


  1. Taruna, thanks so much for sharing your insight on this course. I am starting the course tomorrow. Your reflection on your experience is really helpful. Good luck with the audio notes!

    1. Thanks for your comment Latasha. I am glad to know that my post peaked your interest in the course. I hope you enjoy it! Happy learning!

  2. I also completed the course. Its amazing. Wrote about it here . Now I'm trying to apply the lessons to learn programming in my spare time

    1. Thanks for your comment Tafadzwa. You cracked up a nice title for your post :) The course was fun and just like you, I also enjoyed the 'process versus product focus' discussion. Keep us posted on how the application goes. Good luck!

  3. A very good analogy of the focused mode and diffused mode. Focused mode as a strobe light highlighting only one character on the stage and a diffused mode compared to dim stage lights where we can't really see any particular actor or prop and our brain is free to think of something that's more big picture or something that's unrelated.

    1. Thanks Shobana. Glad to know you liked the analogy I used and enjoyed this post!

  4. Thanks Taruna for this !
    I finished this course in last December, but I can tell you it's a good piece of work to share this with all of you! As I'm french, I had to translate carefully some parts of the course to understand more easily.