Daniele Reda

Random notions and thoughts after Learning how to Learn

I have been suggested to watch the learning how to learn coursera course for quite a while and finally had the time to watch it and digest it over 2 weekends. The course is being taught extraordinarily well by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. Below are some quick notes I took while watching the lectures and in italics some personal thoughts that have arisen in that moment.

First week: What is learning?

Many times I experienced closing my eyes for a few minutes while working and letting my brain relax: the majority of the times my brain would go on his own path towards random exploration of possible solutions and I was quite fascinated with discovering that Salvador Dali, Einstein and many others used techniques to switch on purpose between the two thinking modes.

Personally, I have always appreciated more a good sleep night rather than an all-nighter and in conversations with various friends I always tell them that sleep is much more important than last-minute studying. Discovering that there are proofs and scientific reasons behind this makes my reasoning even stronger in future discussions. Also, there have been times in which I was stuck on some problems for hours at night but early morning was able to solve it with ease.

I didn’t know new neurons could be generated but even without knowing it, I have always felt that after sports my brain was able to understand concepts faster and better. For this same reason, I have always loved and tried to spread the utilization of the bicycle as a mean of transportation. Moreover, as if improving learning wasn’t a good enough reason, it has always stuck in me the statistic that Steve Jobs used when making the analogy between bicycles and computers.

Second week: Chunking

What I learned during my bachelor and master’s years is that if I really want to master a concept I have to perform two steps: dig deeply in order to comprehend every single bit behind it and then look it from the outside in order to see where and how it fits in the bigger picture. I know some people can master concepts per-se without knowing where they fit but that never worked for me.

Unfortunately I realised this only after many inefficient ways of preparing finals. I realised that for me this is what works well: start planning out well ahead when studying (even months before), reading the syllabus of the material and trying to understand how the main concepts connect with each other and why we study them and only then diving into every argument. What I try to do is also be ready for the exam at least a few days before the actual final in order to have time to relax and repeat. After perfectioning this technique, not only my grades improved but also my stress and anxiety pre, during and post exams dropped to zero.

Is this overfitting? Seriously, this reminded me a lot of the concept of overfitting in machine learning when an algorithm fails to generalise because it has learned so well the training data.

I didn’t know this was a thing but I can clearly see myself and other friends prefering to study and work on the easy tasks rather than facing the difficult (and probably important) ones.

Third week: Procrastination and memory

procrastination, why should we handle it?

I was fascinated with this few lectures on procrastination and I think these are the real takeaway for me; most of the stuff of the first two weeks of the course I was already putting it into action even without knowing the reasoning behind it. I managed to re-frame many tasks into “focus on the process not the product” mindset and been more happy than ever. One example is keeping my blog updated. I don’t think I would have been able to finish this course and this blog post without this process. Also, many times I was postponing reading book chapters before going to bed because I was telling myself “it’s too long, I will never finish it now”. I started reading much more now that I tell myself “who cares if I finish the chapter or not, I will just read for thirty minutes”.


Fourth week: Renaissance learning and unlocking Your potential

I can’t stress enough how much better it is to study and work in a group rather than studying alone. Just a few reasons: if they are better than you, you will learn so many tips and tricks that will help you with the material and you will see how others understand the same concepts (having many different views has always opened my eyes on details that I have never stopped thinking about it); if they are worse than you, you will be forced to slow down the pace to explain the material and doing this not only you will understand better the concepts but you will probably realise that you didn’t know it perfectly at first; finally, studying with others will force you to work (the probability of both you and all of your friends of being lazy and in the mood of not studying is very low. If it’s high, change study group).

Overall it has been a great and relaxing course. A lot of the stuff is overall known or already put into action even though we don’t really think about it but this course makes you think on how you actally approach the learning of new concepts.