Learning How to Learn – Train Your Mental Muscles to Learn Anything

We are all good at one thing or another—business, music, painting, sports, cooking, writing, etc. But what if we want to learn a new skill that does not come naturally to us? What if someone who is not good at Math wants to learn trigonometry? It may not sound that easy, but it’s absolutely possible. We often think that our brain is wired to be good at certain things, and not so good at others, but our brain is flexible, and with the right learning techniques, we can learn whatever we want to.  We first need to learn how to learn. Learning how to learn empowers our mind to pick up any skill we desire, wether we have a natural knack for it or not.

Learning how to learn
Learning how to learn course (affiliate link)

For example, I have been wanting to learn to speak Italian for years now, but the language still alludes me. So, it got me thinking that may be I am not learning it the right way, and I started searching for language learning techniques. That’s when I came across a course by Coursera, Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. It is created and taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at the Oakland University, in collaboration with Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist, and with the University of California, San Diego.

This course covers wonderful learning techniques that can be applied to any subject, skill or work. Any student, teacher, professional or hobbyist can use these techniques to master a skill or succeed in their learning goals.

Barbara Oakley applied the concepts of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to break down the process of learning into a few processes, and identified the pain points that we encounter when we try to learn something. She listed down a few points to learn effectively, and she made a 4-week online course on it, which has benefited 1.8 million learners from 200 countries.

The course has 3 hours of video, 3 hours of exercises, 3 hours of bonus material, and is available in various languages. It broadly covers how to:

  • Use focussed and diffused learning modes of our brain to learn new things or think new ideas
  • Overcome procrastination
  • Divide knowledge into chunks of concepts and learn them fully
  • Avoid illusions of learning, and practice a subject enough to master it
  • Know if you are a quick or slow learner, and work it to your advantage

In the following TeD talk (from Youtube), Dr. Oakley gives a gist of her course:

If you you are convinced by what Dr. Oakley has to say, then go ahead and enrol yourself in the Learning how to Learn course: Master learning techniques to help you master tough subjects. Join today! (This is an affiliate link; however, the opinions of the writer of the article are non-partisan.)

Diffused mode of learning

focussed and diffused modes of learningDr. Oakley firstly points at how to learn something we think we are not wired to learn. Our mind gets used to functioning in a certain way, and when we are focussed, our mind runs as it has been trained to for so many years. So, naturally, when we try to learn something new, our mind does not easily adapt to the new way of knowledge flow. Dr. Okaley’s answer to ‘I am not designed to learn this’ is to move from a focussed state to a diffused one, where your mind is freer and flexible. It’s a state when you are not trying to put effort in coming to a solution or learning something—you are just letting your mind absorb information, process it, and let it flow to your subconscious. Let your mind find new paths to process new type of information. With enough meditation over a subject, you will eventually start understanding it, and that too successfully. This helps you gradually train your mental muscles to adapt to the new learning process. if you think you’re not good at Math or Art, think again, but be relaxed first.

Handling procrastination

pomodoro technique
Pomodoro is Italian for tomato; learnt a new Italian word 🙂

The second challenge we face when we are trying to learn something we are not naturally good at is procrastination. It’s always tempting to do something more stimulating than learning Maths formulae or coding syntax. Dr. Oakley suggests that one can follow the The Pomodoro Technique to overcome procrastination—set yourself a small learning goal, set a timer to 25 minutes, study without diversions for those 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. After that, set yourself another small goal, and study for the next 25 minutes. This helps you achieve your learning objectives, and it gradually trains your mind to work towards a task at hand with focus and without procrastination. It’s actually a great morale booster to be able to beat procrastination, which leads to more focus, which leads to higher morale; you can guess where that leads to—success!


Information chunks

We can’t try to learn something all at once. What we need to do is to first take an overview of the whole course of a subject, then divide the knowledge into small chunks of information. Learn those chunks inside-out and their role and placement in the whole course. This helps us remember better and utilise information effectively.

Beat the illusion of knowledge

Another challenge is when we think we understand a subject, but still are not able to perform well. Dr. Oakley says that to beat this illusion of knowledge, we need to practise what we learn until the solution flows like music in our mind.

Coursera’s Learning how to Learn course prepares you so that you are able to learn and master whatever you set your heart on. It empowers you with knowledge, practise and will power.

I recommend this course for anyone with a zeal to learn—it can be anything—cooking, music, science, math, art, language, coding, public speaking, or management. Also, the course is priced low, and is worth the time and money.

We can hit and try our way to success, or we can supplement our effort with the right knowledge. The techniques taught in this course can be life altering. We sometimes face mental blocks, demotivation, and bout of procrastination; this course prepares us to be ready to tackle such challenges in our student, personal and professional lives.

Learning how to Learn course is learning-oriented. If your goal is more career-oriented, then you can try Dr. Oakley’s other course called Mindshift: Break through obstacles to learning and discover your hidden potential, that is designed to boost one’s career in today’s fast-paced learning environment.


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