Notes on learning in general and how they can help to learn how to code

(These are random notes from the Coursera class “Learning how to learn” by Dr. Barbara Oakley)

Two learning modes:

  • Focused
  • Diffused

When learning something new and difficult your mind needs to go back and forth between the two different learning modes. That’s what helps you learn effectively. (Analogue to building muscular structure, a little bit every day, giving time to grow a neural scaffold for learning.)

Metaphors provide powerful techniques for learning.

Note that “rest is not idleness” (- John Lubbock, The Use Of Life). It is important for your brain to rest:

Don’t cut back on sleep. It’s important for your learning.


1) Unhappy feeling when you have to tackle something you don’t like 2) You funnel attention onto a more pleasant task 3) Feel happy (temporarily)

-> Trick to overcome this is the Pomodoro technique, setting a 25 min. time span to focus on something without interruption. Afterwards reward yourself.

Practice makes permanent

When you first start to understand something, e.g. how to solve a problem, the neural pattern you form is there, but very weak. When you solve the problem again, fresh from the start, without looking at the solution, you begin deepening that neural pattern. This pattern permeates once you go over it more often, from different angles without following solutions.


This means:

When you are learning, what you want to do is study something, study it hard by focusing intently, then take a break or change your focus. During this time of seeming relaxation your brains diffuse mode has a chance to work away in the background and help you out with your conceptual understanding. “Your neural mortar has a chance to dry.”

Two types of memory

  • Working memory
  • Long term memory

To move something from the Working memory into the Long term memory it takes time and practice. To help with this use “Spaced Repetition”



  • Chunks are bits of information bound together by meaning or use
  • Another way to put it is Chunks are mental leaps that unite scattered bits of information through meaning.
  • When learning academic topics it is important to create conceptual chunks.
  • Chunks can help you understand new concepts. When you grasp one chunk you will find that that chunk can be related in surprising ways to similar chunks not only in that field, but also in very different fields.
  • Small chunks can become larger and all of the expertise serve to underpin a more creative interpretation as you gradually become a master of the material.

How to best build chunks

  • with focussed undivided attention
  • understanding
  • practice

Simple recalling, without looking at the page/solution is one of the best ways of learning.

When learning it is not effective (and causes “illusions of competence”) to

  • highlight more than one sentence in a paragraph
  • rereading

What is highly effective

  • summarize a paragraph in your own words
  • focused practice and repetition without solutions
  • test yourself

Neuromodulators in our brains

  • Acetylcholine affects focused learning and attention
  • Dopamine signals in relation to unexpected rewards
  • Serotonin affects social life and risk taking behavior

2 ways to figure something out

  • Sequential thinking, step to step
  • Holistic(“global”), intution using the diffused mode
    -> Intuitive insights that the holistic modes provides should be verified carefully with the focussed mode of sequential thinking.

Chunks can help you understand new concepts through a process called transfer


  • Pomodoro technique is powerful
  • Don’t use will power to fend of procrastination (because will power is scarce)

  • “Zombie mode” is a habit that you get into, where you do things without thinking. This is also what chunking is about and it can be good (parking your car, getting dressed etc.)

Habits have 4 parts:

  1. The cue (what triggers the routine)
  2. The routine (the response)
  3. The reward (habits develop and continue because they reward us. it gives us an immediate (little) feeling of pleasure. Procrastination is easy to get into, because the reward happens so quickly. but good habits can also be rewarded.)
  4. The belief (“I’ll never be able to change a habit”)

How to overcome Procrastination?

  • Focus on process instead of product
  • Focus on building processes, which are habits
  • The product is the pain that causes you to procrastinate

It’s important to put forth your best effort for a short period (the process). Less important if you finish the 5 tasks in that session (the product) -> That’s where the Pomodoro comes in handy.

Don’t spend too much will power. The only place we have to use will power is in reaction to the cue.

Recognize what launches you into the procrastination mode.

What is your?

  • Cue: Location, time, how you feel, reactions
  • Routine: This is where you have to actively focus on rewiring your old habit
  • Reward: Provide yourself with a reward for your achievement. Important for rewiring your neural structures to adapt to the new habit you want to enforce. It only works if you accept the reward.
  • Belief: Believe that your new system works

When it comes to daily planning, it is important to also plan your quitting time to look forward to. Breaks and leisure times are very good for your overall performance.

To tackle procrastination do the following:

  • keep a planner journal
  • commit yourself to routines and tasks each day
  • write out tasks each day
  • arrange work into series of small challenges
  • make sure you and your “zombies” get rewards. save moments for happiness and triumph
  • delay rewards until you finish the task
  • watch for procrastination cues
  • gain trust in your new system
  • do the hard things first every day (e.g. in one pomodoro session)

Notes on memory (random)

  • Where things are and how they lock in memory system
  • To tap into that and associate something you want to learn with an image. For this to work it must be memorable and repeated. Repeat sporadically over several days.

Long term memory

  • Whenever we recall a memory it changes (“reconsolidation”) - we can even implant false memories
  • It’s better to study over time instead of all at once
  • Astrocides were what made Einstein so creative

  • Create meaningful groups and use the “memory palace technique”

“Memory palace technique”:

  • Call to mind a familiar place and use it as a visual notepad
  • Visually store things in that place. This makes it easier to remember things.