Learning How to Learn / Att lära hur man lära sig


Det här inlägg är lite olika eftersom det är en uppgift till en kurs vid Coursera och University of California san Diego om ”Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” av Dr. Terrence Sejnowski och Dr. Barbara Oakley. Uppenbarligen är post på engelska men jag planerar att inlägga en svensk framställning snart.


This post is little different from the rest of the blog because it was written to fulfil a requirement of the Coursera / UCSD course ”Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” by Dr. Terrence Sejnowski och Dr. Barbara Oakley. See note A below for details of the book related to the course. Obviously this post is in English but I will post a Swedish version in the future.

There have been schools for systematic teaching and learning for at least 2,000 years and you might expect the processes of trial and error and reinforcement of success to result in pretty good systems for teaching and learning. You might also expect a number of myths to become embedded in the culture, especially in today’s University system, which by combining teaching, research, and credentialisation tends to damp any feedback on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of teaching and learning methods.

Modern neuroscience can come to our aid in helping us scientifically identify at least some of the key factors in memory and retention of knowledge, which we can use to shape how we study – for instance when learning a foreign language – and how we teach. This course was devised and presented by an educator (engineering professor) and a research neuroscientist working together to promote science-based effective study strategies. My goals with this post are:

1. To fulfil the course requirements and get a passing grade

2. To communicate to readers some of the key points I have learned from the course.

3. By the very act of compiling this post to reinforce my own learning.

Some key concepts from the course:

”Spaced repetition” is the practice of studying something multiple times at intervals. The same amount of study time on the same topic is more effective if performed in several pieces separated in time than if the study time is spent in one single session.

”Long Term versus Short Term memory” describes the difference between those things we remember for months or years and those we remember for a few hours or even just a few seconds. Most of us will recall the names of our close school friends from years ago, but the name of that stranger we were introduced to yesterday ? Probably not. That went into short term memory and was discarded when something else needed remembering briefly. If we are to be able to use what we have studied months and years into the future, we have to have it in our long-term memory.

”Sleep” is when much of memory is built. Sleep is still rather mysterious but neuroscience shows that the connections between braincells associated with long-term memories arise during sleep. Lack of sleep, then, undermines our success with study, and conversely we can use the time just before sleep to bring to mind what we want to remember from the day’s studies.

”Chunking” is the practice of taking on knowledge in logical pieces which are largely interdependent and coherent, thereby self-reinforcing, as well as being relatively constrained in term s of connections to other knowledge. A school or university curriculum ought to be ready chunked for you, but in independent studies you often need to design and build your own chunks.

”Interleaving” is the practise of switching from one mode or topic or technique to another. It is ineffective to continue too long on one thing. Interleaving will enable unconscious processes to deal with the previous topic while you make progress on something else.

”Recall”. When we have just learnt something, if we then try to recall it, it will make it more likely to get into long-term memory. You can , for example, read a key passage in your textbook, and then close the book and try to recall the gist of what you just read. You can also use recall by making a brief note of the key points from yesterdays session when you start today’s studies.

”Deliberate Practise”

Often we can master quickly about 90% of what we are working on, but that last 10% is more difficult. For example, in learning English we have to master the ‘strong’ verbs, but the three verbs to (tell a ) lie, to lie (down) and to lay are especially tricky because they have overlapping inflected forms. In order to know what someone means when they say ‘lay’ you have to master the forms of each of these verbs.

LHTL10A good way to do this is deliberate practice of the three forms of the three verbs, until they are firmly committed to memory.



The habit of putting off starting is obviously very damaging to effective study. In the Ancient Greek paradox of the heap, you start with one stone, add another, and so on until you have a heap. The paradox is that there was no single stone, which when you added it to the other stones, suddenly made it into a heap. Procrastination works just like that, but the other way round. You delay starting a minute, an hour, a day, another day and another taking one stone after another from the heap and suddenly you haven’t got enough time left and no heap of stones, either. How did that happen ?LHTL21

Maybe you don’t really like the result of what you’re supposed to do: fill in the tax form; hand in an essay which you know will be criticised; apply for the job and odds-on get a rejection or worse, be rejected without a notification.

In this type of case you can focus yourself on the process not the outcome:

”They say you have to apply for 50 jobs to get one offer in today’s economy, so the sooner I get all those applications out the better. Let’s get on with it and send out number twenty-nine today”.

”I’m not going to fill in my tax return right now, I’m just going to compile a spreadsheet of my income from employment, investment and freelance working”.

”I’ll just jot down some ideas which which apply to the theme of this essay”.

Maybe you’re fine thinking about what you need to do and ‘working in your head’, but instead of committing your thoughts to writing your attention strays towards that top score on Fruit ninja or what your favourite bloggers have to say today. In this case I prescribe (lots of ) tomato. I mean ”Pomodoro”.

Pomodoro is the Italian word for ‘tomato’. Apparently you can buy a clockwork timer in the shape of a tomato (mine is in the shape of an egg Il mio pomodoro è un uovo). LHTL08 The way you use the Pomodoro technique is to commit yourself to start work, set the timer for a time such as 25 minutes, and start work and do not stop until the timer goes (see Note B). The theory is that having an end point to your work session undermines your reluctance to begin. There is a kind of symmetry between the procrastinator’s creed ”i won’t start and then I will never stop” and the pomodoro tifoso’s ” I am going to stop in 25 minutes (or 15, or 50, whatever) so I am going to START RIGHT NOW!”LHTL23

Of course you don’t have to stop when the bell rings, you just have your own permission to do so. If you are in ‘Flow’ (note C) it makes sense to carry on until it ends naturally.

One other technique is to set yourself a hard deadline for the end of the working day. For example at 5pm I am going to stop studying pack up my books so that I can get the 17:10 bus home. Setting this as your firm intention at the beginning of the day, and better still doing it so often it becomes a habit – that is what you do without really thinking about it – engages an unconscious sense of urgency ”C’mon, if we’re going to stop at 5pm we need to get a move on. Stop slacking !”. You don’t know why, but you stop looking out of the window and get back to the task in hand.

OK, we have stopped procrastinating and have made a start so our next in-depth topic is:


I’m going to illustrate Chunking in one of my favourite subjects, maths (sorry to all math-phobes). Maths was developed historically both by organic growth, where one area of knowledge was extended round the core concepts, and by big leaps when new core concepts were discovered or invented and growth began around a new centre. Of course at the highest levels the different centres tend to converge, so that almost everywhere in Maths is related to almost everywhere else (That was a measure theory joke for those who know about Lebesgue integration).

Geometry was pretty much invented and hugely refined by the Ancient Greeks so much that the classic textbook was written in 300 BC. We begin the study of geometry with learning the basic elements: points, lines, angles, parallel, perpendicular, areas. Next we learn about triangles, sum of angles, area, similar triangles and other properties, which are all related to each other and which all depend on the basics. Then we learn about right-angled triangles and the associated elements: Pythagoras’s Theorem, sine, cosine and tangent functions. Again, this learning is all interrelated and depends on the triangle material and on the basics. Next up there are a series of elegant formulas, the Sine Rule, Cosine Rule, and Hero’s formula. For each one of these we learn the formula itself, the proof of the formula – or rather a proof, the situations in which the formula is useful, and if we are wise, the ‘trick’ which is the key to the proof.LHTL03LHTL05

So there we have Triangle geometry for 15 – 17 year-olds, set into a series of logically coherent pieces with limited dependencies on other pieces. These are good ‘chunks’. If you are following a well-planned curriculum or textbook, the Chunks should be there, in the section and chapter structure. LHTL11If your studies are self-directed, you will need to work out for yourself what your chunks are and where to draw their boundaries, on the basis of: What you have to learn together (for example, if you’re learning the proof of the Sine rule you clearly need to know the Sine rule itself) ? What other knowledge belongs in the same cluster of logical interdependencies ? Is this chunk too big so that I need to break it down into smaller chunks ? Is this chunk too small so that I ought to fold it into a chunk with other related material ?LHTL13

OK that chunk is now big enough and it’s time to move on to my third topic, Memory.


Our modern world has a strong requirement for us to be able to store knowledge in long-term memory for tasks such as: mastering a new language in adulthood; knowing or at least being aware of all the laws and regulations we are supposed to comply with as individuals, as employees and as officers of institutions; working with the different syntaxes of computer languages; understanding the principles, results and methods of sciences which embody hundreds of years of effort on the part of hundreds, even thousands of top researchers.

At the same time our organism is parsimonious: resources are only applied to uses which need them. If you want stronger arms and shoulders, it’s no good making a wish, you have to lift heavy weights above your head and tire your muscles so that unconscious processes will perceive the need to shift resources from other areas towards strengthening the upper body. Similarly, if you want information to be moved into long-term memory, you have to convince your unconscious gatekeepers that this information is indeed worth the trouble of storing. How can we do this ?LHTL15

– Make sure we get plenty of sleep. The processes which build long-term memory take place when we are asleep,. Insufficient sleep is clearly likely to reduce our ability to form those memories

– Practise recall. When we have read a piece of study material, close the book and try to recall what you just read. The object isn’t so much to actually recall the material as to demonstrate to your unconscious that this information is in demand and therefore a good candidate for long-term storage.

– Spaced repetition. By going over material again, after a delay of anything from half a day to a couple of weeks, not only can you increase the likelihood of getting it into to long-term memory but also improve the odds of it being reinforced and retained longer.

– Focus. Distraction while studying will undermine your effort to prioritise the memory-building you want

– Multi-media. Our memory has a very strong visual / spatial aspect – quite likely part of our ancient hunter-gatherer legacy, when knowing what grew where when, and being able to recognise the route back to camp were both essential survival traits – so it is worth harnessing this. Make notes in different coloured inks, don’t stick to text, make little drawings. Strong emotions make for powerful memories and long retention and you can get some of this effect by use of humour – the sillier the better in your memorising. For instance I remember an psychologist talking on a news program about how to memorise the Spanish word for ‘onion’ cebolla (pronounced something like theybollya) He said: ”There are are two onions sitting in a saucepan and one says to the other ‘I don’t like it here, they boil you'” The sound of ‘they boil you mimics the pronunciation of cebolla and the silly image is very well retained – for me at least I still recall it after 15 years.LHTL19

– Mnemonics. many people have to memorise lists of arbitrary words, for example doctors must know the names of the nerves in the face: temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, cervical. ”Three Zebras Bought Me Coffee” is a silly sentence which is memorable because it is silly and by prompting the initial letters helps the trainee doctor to fix the list in memory

– Memory Palace. We can also harness our visual / spatial capabilities in a memory technique that goes back to the orators of Ancient Rome, for whom the difference between a well-recalled speech to the Senate or the mob and a bungled performance could literally be a matter of life and death. In this case you take an imaginary walk around a place well-known to you, a ‘place’ a phrase or an idea in a specific location. You have to repeat a few times until each idea is firmly associated with its location. Then, in performance you take you imaginary tour through the place, and the ideas pop up in the sequence in which you pass through the locations.

In a sense the highest skill is skill in learning. It opens the door to all the world’s knowledge, which thanks to the wonders of computers, fibre-optics, and the internet protocol are accessible in your home 24 hours a day. The constraint is what you personally can do with those vast resources. A little effort invested in learning about learning will pay off richly.

Note A

Dr Oakley has written a book which forms the basis of the course: ”A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra”) by Barbara Oakley , 2014

Note B

A full exposition of the method is to be found in ”The Pomodoro Technique” by Francesco Cirillo, 2013

Note C

The state of Flow is characterised by focus, relaxation, and very high productivity. See ”Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
, 1990

Photographs and artwork - Author's own 


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