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Notes on learning how to learn

One important trait that guarantees growth is constant learning.
However, as much as we all seem to learn every day, we do sometimes find ourselves sometimes experiencing challenges in learning such as the dreaded-by-all valley: illusions of competence. Personally, discovering Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley was just beyond exciting. It brought to perspective mental models in learning, how to learn, and retain information. Here are a few notes I put down on the subject.


When learning we engage our minds in two different modes. The Focused mode and Diffused mode. The focused mode is when we are deeply concentrating on learning to grasp the details. We employ the focused mode as well when we are solving a problem we are familiar with. Such as an arithmetic problem or any familiar subject.
When we experience an unfamiliar subject or problem that needs solving, we engage our brains to solve or learn them using an unfamiliar approach. The mode of thinking we use then is the diffused mode. During such moments, we engage the brain to work on the problem while either jogging, running, or doing anything other than active learning.
Diffused mode involves looking at things from the big picture perspective.


The brain stores information in two memories. The working memory and long-term memory.
Working Memory - This holds a few ideas to connect them, understand or solve a problem. It holds information briefly while being processed. Information in the working memory is transient and can easily be lost unless the data is moved to the long term memory. This can be achieved through spaced repetition. The working memory which occurs in the prefrontal cortex can be likened to an inefficient mental blackboard.

Long term memory - This is the storage warehouse in the brain. It is distributed all over and quite large. Information however can be buried deep if the data is not retrieved repeatedly.


Sleep is for the weak. This message has been a mantra to devalue the essence of sleep in retaining information in the memory. During sleep, the brain rehearses essential parts of the information to be retained and clears less important information.
Again, Sleep is also very essential because it shrinks the brain and allows the brain fluid to wash of all toxic substances generated during the day for the brain to function very well.


while in focused mode our brain tries to process information whiles occasionally linking information stored in the Long term memory. The working memory has about four slots for processing.
Compact information that is linked together through either use or understanding is created. This is known as a chunk. Unfortunately, the chunking process can be made unsuccessful
there are distractions(eg phone), or stress, or when one is angry, afraid, etc. It is necessary then to learn in an undistracted environment.


  1. Focus - Focusing one's undivided attention on the resource.
  2. Understanding - Practicing the resource. This goes beyond the aha moment. It also involves mastering the resource through spaced repetition.
  3. Context - Getting a perspective on how the resource fits in the broader picture. It answers questions such as: When do I use this resource? When do I not use this resource? How does this resource fit into the bigger picture?


This occurs when there is an assumption of mastery of a resource which is not so.
The illusion of competence can occur through:

  1. Rereading material repeatedly in a short period without any active recall.
  2. Engaging the use of concept mapping, drawing diagrams, showing relationships, etc. Whiles these may aid in understanding, they do not necessarily assure one of mastery.

To avoid the illusion of competence, recall the material, and test yourself. The retrieval process enhances the deep learning of the material. Employ the use of spaced repetition.

Overlearning can enhance automaticity(you become so used to the material) which aids in situations like public speaking or if you do choke on tests. But overlearning can be negative since it can create the illusion of competence.


Just as learning well is essential, it takes time. Procrastinating does not help in learning since it leads to cramming.
A bodybuilder does not build her/his body by working repetitively in a day. Rather, they build the body by spacing out workouts.
Procrastination gives instant relief similar to addiction. The brain perceives a task as difficult and triggers the part of the brain associated with pain.
Procrastination becomes habitual. It can be changed by using the same process habits are formed and making changes.
Cue - change your response to a cue(A cue is a trigger. It could be how you feel, location, time, etc)
Routine - Rewiring old habits. Plan and remove distractions. Adjust the plan as necessary. eg learning a difficult concept feels uncomfortable so you switch to social media to make you feel good.)
Reward - Give yourself a reward for your achievements.
It could be surfing the net, having fun, or anything worth rewarding yourself with.
Belief- Believe that you can do it. The system you have adopted can make things better.

To prevent procrastination, focus on the process, and not the product. Processes focus on habits whiles the product focuses on the outcome which usually can trigger the part of the brain associated with pain.
An example of focusing on the process could be, I want to spend 25 minutes going through this material instead of I want to finish this material. Focusing on the product can be intimidating instead of the former.

Keep a checklist of your task to be worked on or accomplished.
Plan your quitting time.


  1. using metaphors and analogy can help retain information in the brain.
  2. Practice makes perfect. Practice can repair the brain.
  3. As one learns, exercises, and have new experiences, new neurons survive. This is beneficial than any drug.
  4. No need for genius envy. Smarter people have larger working memory. This enables them to store more information. Whereas others that have low working memory are very creative. Hence to each his or her ability. Regardless of the differences, putting in the effort to learn can ensure retaining information in the brain regardless of the size of the working memory. In situations, like school where there is a lot to get done. Never forget the saying that, "The Lady Luck favors the one who tries".


Top comments (3)

piperymary profile image

Thanks for sharing such valuable information. I found for myself another way to learn: to consider this process as a project. It means that I act according to project development stages starting from the idea, planning, executing and so on.

grena_me profile image

Wow, I love this! Thanks for sharing this resource too Mary

kimsean profile image

Thank you for sharing. Now I need to have a better sleep ๐Ÿ˜‚