Learning how to Learn, a MOOC course

I really enjoy doing online courses.  Not only because a new course will stretch my brain, but also because of the freedom of an online course.  It suits my lifestyle, I am not bound to certain hours in which I have to go to class or have to study, I can totally work it around my day-to-day tasks.  Currently I am finishing a MOOC course on the website www.coursera.org called Learning How to Learn : Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski.

The book A mind for Numbers : How to excel in Math and Science by Barbara Oakley, is referred to during this course.  And no, the course is definitely not specifically focused on maths and science.  I personally wouldn’t have taken the course if it was only intended for maths and science students.

The course teaches you how to engage your brain while learning, chunking ideas, procrastination and how to prevent it, memory tips, learning and many more learning ideas!

The brain has always fascinated me, not only because it is such a wonderful creation, but it can contain so much information – recent and much older information.  The course starts off telling you about the brain in focus mode versus diffuse mode and how these modes are important for learning and creating.  Apparently everyone frequently switches between these modes in their normal day-to-day activities.

The focused mode of your brain would be exactly that – focused on something specific. The diffuse mode would be a wider perspective and would be useful when learning something new.  One of the examples given in the course of creative people who tapped into the diffuse mode refers to the artist Salvador Dalí, originally from Figueres, Spain.  It tells of how he would have used the diffused mode to create some of his masterpieces.  Dalí was well-known for his surrealistic art.  According to the Free Dictionary online surrealism ‘is a 20th century literary and artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious and is characterised by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition (absurd combination) of subject matter’.

So a technique Dalí (and others) used to tap into the diffuse mode of the brain, and which is also explained in this course (and written about in the book) is how he would put a tin plate on the floor and then take a nap holding an object over the plate.  The moment he started falling asleep the object would clatter in the tin plate and he would wake up ready to tap into his diffuse mode (subconscious) and create surreal images.  On a recent holiday to Spain we actually saw his museum in Figueres where you can view many curiosities of Dalí’s amazing imagination.



Of his museum he said:  “I want the museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object.  It will be a totally theatrical museum.  The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.”  Not sure if it was like a theatrical dream when we visited, but it certainly was surreal.


The face of Mae West when viewed from a certain spot in the museum.

So as I understand your diffuse mode (or the unconscious) is constantly at work in the background of your brain, even if you struggle with something hard, it will keep working.

Ideas how to stimulate your diffuse mode according to A Mind for Numbers is to go to the gym, swim, dance, draw, take a bath, listen to music (especially without words), pray, sleep and many more.  Sleep apparently is the most effective in allowing your diffuse mode to tackle a difficult problem.  But it is not only using the diffuse mode that gets your thoughts going, it is the back and forth between the two modes that eventually helps you.  I suppose it comes down to this.  The two modes cannot work successfully on their own.  When your brain is in the focused mode, so if you are focusing on something intently, you do need to relax your brain (thus diffuse mode) after a while for the ultimate benefit.  Especially when learning new or tricky things.  It is therefore extremely necessary to use both the focused and diffuse modes and teach yourself to work between the two modes.

Another aspect of the course I was intrigued by is the chunking of information or to create chunks.  This is the grouping together of words/ideas so that they are seen as one.  In this course Dr Oakley talks about chunks as being ‘pieces of information that are bound together through meaning’.

So once you have chunked an idea or concept, you don’t need to remember all the little underlying details because you have got the main idea, or the chunk, and that is enough.  It is like getting dressed in the morning.  You usually have one thought – I’ll get dressed.  But there are numerous actions and activities that need to take place by this simple thought.

The course goes into a lot of detail how to take certain steps in how to chunk effectively.  Personally I think it boils down to first of all understanding the problem and then keep recalling it until you know the fact/problem/solution so well that it is set into your memory and you can just use this ‘chunk’ of information in different situations as you need it and it doesn’t take up lots of brainpower to recall.

Memory and tips for learning was another part of the course which I found extremely interesting.  I suppose as you get older you don’t just accept memory as part of life, but you focus on memory a bit more, because like your body needs physical exercise to stay healthy, your brain also needs exercise.

Now I realise in the course the focus is on students who need to learn material, but you can apply it in normal life as well.  For instance if you want to remember things like somebody’s name or telephone number you can use the same techniques.  Repeat the name/number, do something else and repeat again.  After a day or so try to repeat it again and see how much you can still remember.  Or if it is something really hard or longer to remember, built a memory palace.  The palace part is a place you know well, like the lay-out of your house.  Use the letters of whatever it is you need to remember and built a story in the place you know well.  Walk the story through the rooms of your house.  The more weird and wonderful the more chance of you remembering it.

And yes it sounds like a great deal of trouble to go through for something to remember, but seriously you will remember this far longer than when you just repeat it a few times.   You have to build a knowledge base over time, steadily, and with plenty of practise to make it to your warehouse of long-term memory where your neural pattern can easily access it when you need it.

I found it a fascinating course!