Why we only learn when we repeat

Our education system is based on the idea that we can learn things once, and that they’ll then stay in our minds throughout our lives. That’s far too optimistic. Our brains are like sieves. If anything is going to remain in them, we need regular reminders of what really matters.

Even convinced experts would have to admit that without consistent and patient repetition, practice and testing, you can’t progress in vocabulary, grammar and content learning.

This reminds me the wisdom of Dalai Lama XIV “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”


Learning how to learn — course notes

Using the Focused and Diffuse Modes — Or a Little Dali will do You

There are two modes of thinking:

Focused mode: Concentrating on things that are usually familiar.

Diffused mode: A relaxed mode of thinking “your thoughts are free to wander”.

Focused Versus Diffuse Thinking. Diffuse — more relaxed way of thinking. Broad picture of prospects. New ways of thinking. New concepts. Pictures explaining Focus mode and Diffuse mode.

Week 1: What is Learning?

Brain Facts:

Cells of the nervous system are called neurons. Information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse. Human brain has a million billion synapses.

Your brain creates synapses whenever you learn something new. Sleeping helps “update” your brain cells.

Dendrites of neurons before and after learning and after sleep. Many new synapses (connections) are formed on the dendrites.

You go to sleep one person, and wake up as another.

Learn more about the brain: www.brainfacts.org

Why do we procrastinate

Problem:Learning a new thing or doing something you would rather not do can be stressing. This can cause anxiety at first. This activates the area associated with pain in the brain (insular cortex).

Your brain looks for a way to stop that negative feeling by switching your attention to something else more pleasant.


The trick is to just start. Researchers discovered that not long after people start actually working out what they didn’t like, that neuro-discomfort disappeared.

Remember that the better you get at something, the more enjoyable it can become.Consider using the pomodoro technique.

Learning hard and abstract things

The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice to create and strengthen neural connections to bring the abstract ideas to reality for you. Practice makes permanent memory.The best way is to learn a little every day, than all at one. Because the brain makes better connection when you add information little by little.

Long term memory and working memory:

Every time you learn something new, it activates the wirking memory. If you want the information to be stored for longer period and you might use it everytime you need, you have to practice spacious repetition.

Spacious repetition is a technique, when you repeat the information over growing periods of time: 1-1-2-2-4-8… days.

This helps our brain to update neurons and store data in a long term memory.

Practical advice

When you don’t desire learning something, go through it and just start. The discomfort goes away and, in the long term, this will lead to satisfaction.

When you learn something new, make sure to take time to rest, then come back to it and recall what you learnt. This is very important. Don’t cram information in one day. This leads to inefficient learning. It’s like building a wall without letting it dry.

Revisiting and practicing what you learn is important. Research shows that spaced repetition (repeating things after few days) is the best way to build and strengthen the synaptic connections.

Sleep is very important. It clears the metabolic toxins from the brain after a day. It is best to sleep directly after learning new things.

It was shown that exercising and/or being in a rich social environment helps your brain produce new neurons. Don’t lock yourself in your room. Stay active and spare time for exercise (including general physical activities) and friends daily.

Sleeping in learning

While sleeping the brains cleans itself off the metabolic  toxins.

While sleeping your brain organizes ideas and concepts you’ve learned during the day. It erases the working memory and simultaneously strengthens the storage. While sleeping the brain rehearses difficult material — going over and over again of what you’re trying to learn.

Readings from the first week I liked

Week 2: Chunking

Chunks are pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, bond together through use and meaning. They can get bigger and more complex, but at the same time, they are single easy to access items that can fit into the slot of the working memory.

Chunking is the act of grouping concepts into compact packages of information that are easier for the mind to access.

Formula of making good chunks: focus + practice + repetition

Just learning a fact, doesn’t help you understand the context and how the concept fits with other concepts you are learning.

How to form a chunk

Using work-out examples to help you in starting to form chunks can make harm. It can be all too easy to focus too much on why an individual step works and not on the connection between steps — that is, on why this particular step is the next thing you should do.

Focus attention. Turn off distractions. You want to use all the four slots of your working memory when studying. Learning will be inefficient if some of those slots are connected to something else.

Understand the basic idea what you’re trying to chunk. Find the gist of the subject. Understanding creates broad traces in brain what can link to other traces.

Practice. You have to solve the problem yourself. Just because you see it, or even understand it, doesn’t mean that you will be able to solve it (Illusion of competence). It is always easier to look at the material, even if you think it’s easy, then doing it yourself.

Remember, it gets easier. When you think that a chapter or a book has too much information and that there’s no way to go through them all; just focus on whatever section you’re studying. You’ll find that once you put that first concept in your mental library, the following one will be easier. This concept is called Transfer; a chunk you have mastered in one area can often help you much more easily learn other chunks of information in different areas.

Master the major idea and then start getting deeper. However, make sure not to get stuck in some details before having a general idea. Practice to help yourself gain mastery and sense of the big picture context. Try taking a “picture walk” before you dig through the material, this means, look briefly at the pictures, chapter titles, formulas used… before diving into details.

Get context. Learn not only how, but when to use this chunk. This is beyond the first problem of solving a problem. Context helps to see a big picture.

Illusion of competence, the importance of recall, mini-testing, and making mistakes

Recall mentally without looking at the material. This is proven more effective than to simply rereading. Reread only after you try to recall and write down what was in the material.

Consider recalling when you are in different places to become independent of the cues from any giving location. This will help you when taking a test in the class.When we retrieve knowledge, the retrieval process itself enhanced deep learning and helps make chunks.

Illusion of competence. Looking at solution doesn’t make make you learning. Just reading doesn’t help you. Wanting to learn the material and spending a lot of time with it doesn’t guarantee you actually learn it.

Test yourself to make sure you are actually learning and not fooling yourself into learning. Mistakes are a good thing. They allow you to catch illusions of competence.

Don’t always trust your initial intuition. Einstellung problem (a German word for Mindset). An idea or a neural pattern you developed might prevent a new better idea from being found. Sometimes your initial intuition on what you need to be doing is misleading.

You’ve to unlearn old ideas and approaches as you are learning new ones.

Mix up the problems (interleaving) from different chapters. This is helpful to create connections between your chunks. It can make your learning a bit more difficult, but it helps you learn more deeply. Interleaving is very important. It is where you leave the world of practice and repetition, and begin thinking more independently.

Practical advice


Highlighting too much and creating maps are often ineffective without recalling.

Repeating something you already learnt or know very well is easy. It can bring the illusion of competence; that you’ve mastered the full material when you actually just know the easy stuff. Balance your studies and focus on the more difficult (deliberate practice). This sets the difference between a good student and a great student.

A big mistake is to blindly start working on an exercise without reading the textbook or attending the class. This is a recipe of sinking. It’s like randomly allowing a thought to pop off in the focus mode without paying attention to where the solution truly lies.

Motivation — how to learn when you’re into it

Why is that that learning something you’re interested in is easy? Neurons carry information about what is happening around you. The are some projecting system which carry the information of what important and value to your future.


Acetylcholine — important for focus learning.

Dopamine — responsible for motivation. Controls rewards system. Dopamine releases from the neurons when you get an unexpected reward.

Serotonin — affects your social life.

Emotions strongly affect learning.

The value of a library of chunks: compaction, transfer, creativity, and the law of serendipity

When you have many chunk patterns, the process of thinking is much better organized and functions better.

Transfer — when the idea/chunk is useful in other ideas or problems.

Two ways of solving a problem:

  1. Sequential step by step reasoning – each little step leads towards a solution
  2. Holistic (global) intuition — creative way of diffuse mode

You may think there are so many problems and concepts just in a single chapter of a subject you’re learning, that it’s almost impossible to learn and understand all of them.  –> Low of serendipity — Lady Luck favors the one who tries. 

Focus of one section of what you’re learning. Don’t try to get all in one.

Overlearning, Choking, the Einstellung Effect, and Interleaving

Continuing learning the information you’ve learned over the session is overlearning. It can produce automaticity. For example, famous public speakers can overlearn 70 hours to prepare 20 minute TED talk. But repetitive learning over one session is a waste of valuable learning time.

Einstellung Effect — when the idea you’ve already have in mind, or neural pattern you’ve already developed and strengthened, may prevent from a new better idea being found. h

Interleaving — when solution of one problem interleaves with the problems of different types. Mix up your learning. Make your brain used to thinking that knowing how to solve the problem isn’t enough. You also need to know when to use it. Thus, interleaving helps you learn deeper.

Reading from the second week I liked

Week 3: Procrastination and Memory

Procrastination works like this: screenshot.

The routine, habitual responses your brain falls into when you try to do something hard or unpleasant. Focusing only on making the present moment feels better.

Unlike procrastination which is easy to fall into, willpower is hard to come by. It uses a lot of neural resources and you shouldn’t waste it on fending off procrastination except when really necessary. You actually don’t need to.

The long-term effect of Procrastination can be dangerous. Putting your studies off leads to studying becoming even more painful. Procrastination is a habit that affects many areas of your life, if you improve in this area, many positive changes will unfold.

Procrastination shares features with addiction. At first, it leads you to think that if you study too early you’ll forget the material. Then, when the class is ahead of you, it leads you to think that you are inadequate or that the subject is too hard.

You want to avoid cramming which doesn’t build solid neural structures, by putting the same amount into your learning, and spacing it over a long period by starting earlier.

First time learning something

The first time you do something the deluge of information coming at you would make the job seem almost impossibly difficult. But, once you’ve chunked it, it will be simple.At first, it’s really hard, later it’s easy. It becomes like a habit.


Neuro-scientifically speaking, chunking is related to habit.

Habit is an energy saver. You don’t need to focus when performing different habitual tasks.Habits can be good or bad, brief or long.

4 Habits Parts

The cue: The trigger that launches you into zombie mode (habitual routine).

  • Recognize what launches you in zombie procrastination mode: Location. Time. Feelings. Reaction to people or events…
  • Consider shutting your phone/internet for brief periods of time to prevent most cues.

The routine: Routine you do in reaction to the cue.

  • You only need to use your willpower to change your reaction to the cues.
  • Actively focus on rewiring your old habits.
  • You need a plan. You need some willpower.

The reward: Habits exist because they reward us.

  • Give yourself bigger rewards for bigger achievements. But after you finish them.
  • Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.
  • Only once your brain starts expecting a reward will the important rewiring takes place that will allow you to create new habits.

The belief: To change your habits, you need to change your underlying belief.

  • Habits have power because you believe in them.
  • Joining a student community helps, either online or in real life.
  • Trust your system. You have to feel happy and worry-free when you are resting.

Tools and Tricks to beat procrastination

Weekly/Daily list: Researchers showed that writing your daily list the evening before helps you accomplish them the next day. If you don’t write them down, they will take the valuable slots of memory. Plan  leisure time. Plan your finishing time, this is as important as planning your working time.

Try to eat a frog in the morning. Work in the most important and most disliked task first, even if it’s only one pomodoro.

Take notes about what works and what doesn’t.

Have a backup plan for when you will still procrastinate.

Focus on Process: Focus on process (I’m gonna work for 20 minutes), not product (I have to finish this big home assignment).

You should realize that it’s perfectly normal to start a learning session with a negative feeling even if you like the subject. It’s how you handle those feelings that matters. Focus on the process, not the product. The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate. Instead of saying “I will solve this task today”, put your best effort for a period of time continuously over the days.

Diving deeper into memory

Use your visual memory to remember things.

Images help you encapsulate a very hard to remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities.

The more neural hooks you can build by evoking the senses the easier it will be for you to recall the concept.

Keep repeating what you want to learn so that the metabolic toxins won’t suck away the neural patterns related to that memory. Spaced repetition is the key.

Flashcards help. Consider using Anki.

Handwriting helps you deeply convert what you are trying to learn into neural memory structures.

Memory Techniques

Create meaningful groups and abbreviations.

To remember numbers, associate them to memorable events.

Create mnemonic phrases from first letters of the words you want to remember.

Memory Palace Technique: Use a familiar place (like the blueprint of your house) and associate visual images of things you want to remember with physical places.

This is not easy. You’ll be very slow at first. But with practice, you’ll get better. The more you practice your “memory muscle” the easier you’ll remember.

Reading from the third  week I liked

Week 4: Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

How to Become a Better Learner

You should know: Exercising is by far more effective than any drug to help you learn better. It helps new neurons survive.

Learning doesn’t always progress linearly and logically. Inevitably your brain will hit a knowledge-collapse sometimes. This usually means your brain is restructuring its understanding, building a more solid foundation.You learn complex concepts by trying to make sense out of the information you perceive. Not by having someone else telling it to you.

Metaphors and analogies are very helpful, not only to memorize, but to also understand different concepts. It is often helpful to pretend that you are the concept you’re trying to understand.

Intelligence does matter. Being smart usually equate to having a large working memory (more than just four slots). However, a super working memory can hold its thoughts so tightly that new thoughts won’t easily find a way into the brain. Such a tightly controlled attention could use an occasional breath of ADHD. You attention shifts even if you don’t want it to shift.

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. Deliberate practice is what helps the average brain lift into the realm of those naturally gifted. Practicing certain mental patterns deepens your mind.Brilliant scientist like Ramón y Cajal, the father of neuroscience, or Charles Darwin, were not exceptionally gifted. The key to their success was perseverance, taking responsibility for their learning and changing their thoughts.

Take pride in the qualities you excel at. Tune people out if they try to demean your efforts.

The Value of Teamwork

Right hemisphere: helps us put our work into the big picture perspective and does reality checks. When you go through a homework or test questions and don’t go back to check your work, you’re acting like a person who’s refusing to use parts of his brain.

Left hemisphere: interprets the world for us but with a tendency for rigidity, dogmatism and egocentricity. May lead to overconfidence.

Practical advice

Always step back and recheck to takes advantages of abilities of both-hemispheres interactions.

Brainstorm and find focused people to analyze your work with.

Your errors are sometimes easier to be found by others.

Explaining yourself to others helps you understand more.

Studying in a team helps you catch what you missed, or what you can’t see.

Don’t fool yourself. Don’t blindly believe in your intellectual abilities. Having a team can bring those projections down.

Checklist to test how well you prepared for the test

Did you make a serious effort to understand the text?

  1. If you had a study guide, did you go through it?
  2. Did you attempt to outline every homework problem solution?
  3. Did you understand all your homework problems’ solutions? If not, did you ask for explanations?
  4. Did you work with classmates on homework problems? checked your solutions?
  5. Did you consult your instructor/teacher when you had a problem with something?
  6. Did you sleep well the night before the test?

Test Taking Technique

Hard Start — Jump to easy.

  1. Take a quick look at the test when it’s handed to you to get a sense of what it involves.
  2. Start with the hardest problem.
  3. Pull yourself out if you get stuck for over 2 minutes. Starting with a hard problem loads your focused mode first and then switches attention away from it. This allows the diffused mode to start its work.
  4. Turn next to an easy problem. Solves what you can, then move back to a hard one. This allows the different part of your brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts.

Being Stressed before a test is normal. The body puts ups out chemicals when it’s under stress. How you interpret the body reaction to those chemicals makes all the difference.

Shift your thinking from “I am afraid of this test” to “I am excited to do my best”.

If you are stressed during a test, turn your attention to breathing. Relax, put your hand on your stomach and slowly draw some deep breaths. This will calm you down.

Relax your brain on the last day before a test. Have a quick final look at the materials. Feeling guilty the last day is a natural reaction even if you prepared well.

Good worry motivates you. Bad worry wastes your energy.

Double check your answers. Look away, shift your attention, and then recheck.

Reading from the fourth week I liked

Acknowledgements and references:

  1. The base notes from the course by melfou
  2. Original course Learning how to learn on Coursera


Knowledge cycle without exasperation

I want to stop. It’s enough of the race for me. Enough to run, blindly looking ahead and not paying attention to the world around me. Running takes all the forces. Running does not provide an opportunity to look around and make connections. This race I want to stop is the race that brings only harm.

I realized that it is time to stop wasting my time trying to learn everything. I have lots of information sources which became irritations: computer, phone, books, articles, materials, reviews, podcasts, letters, messages — all these things take my attention, leaving me annoyed and aimless. The original goal — to learn new and change my life — becomes — just learn new, add to the collection of knowledge, stock everything and forget. This completely contradicts the very essence of learning, which is using the knowledge, applying it in real life. Knowledge without practice is empty. Therefore, I did not make friends with many sciences — I did not see the application. Therefore, many studies remain only on the pages of scientific journals and are discussed in a narrow circle of initiates — researches are impractical.

I’m tired of collecting knowledge. I’m tired of the race for gathering ideas. Therefore, I am developing several rules that should help me cope with the never-ending flow of information, filter it and devote my time only to what passed the filters.

Don’t Rules

  • Do not collect bookmarks in the browser. If the bookmark has stayed for more than 2 days — ruthlessly close it.
  • Do not start reading a book without a clear understanding of why I need this information and how I plan to use it.
  • Do not start reading a new book until I finish making notes and building links from a previous one.
  • Do not collect content that I will not use. Ruthlessly delete (books, articles, links) or throw out paper one.
  • Do not save the whole article, but only the excerpt with the main idea and the call to actions.
  • Do not throw the materials in one heap. Build a clear taxonomy with links structure to easily find the materials I might need.
  • Do not leave knowledge without application. Set tasks that I’m going to apply from the book (article) and when. While I’m occupied with doing it, I can not start a new research.

Do Rules

  • Research a new topic to understand what is useful and what is not.
  • Reread the material found to increase understanding and postpone knowledge in long-term memory.
  • Take notes and build a taxonomy, thus increasing the knowledge system.
  • Write new materials, including what they have learned, notes and links.
  • Approach learning iteratively. It is impossible to encircle everything.

Knowledge cycle

  1. Research a new topic for not more than an hour.
  2. Take notes of everything that learned in the first hour to instantly receive a feedback.
  3. Link to existing knowledge in the archive.
  4. Evaluate the usefulness of the new material every hour. The sooner I understand the value, the better. This minimizes the loss of time.
  5. Write a short reflection-explanation of what connections I built between the new and the old, and also what I need to do to integrate new information into my life. I can answer the questions. It is very important to answer these questions in order to track changes.
    • How was the 1 hour study?
    • What did I learn?
    • How new is the material to what I already know?
    • How valuable is the new material?
    • How long will it take to get deeper?
    • Can I do the next stage of the study in less than an hour?
  6. Memory is unreliable — always take notes.
  7. Repeat these 7 iterations.

Available options:

  • Change the amount of time for research
  • Practice the approach “Release early, release often”. The sooner I start to make sense of the stuff I find, the sooner I’ll know if I’m heading in a right direction.

How to learn foreign languages

Listening comprehension:

  • Listen to your target language as often as you can.
  • Watch shows, listen to music.
  • Read out loud.
  • Start from reading your textbook.
  • Dare to mispronounce: use words often and out loud. The more familiar your mouth muscles become with making the sounds, the better you will get at interpreting them.
  • Repetition. If you have listening exercises, repeat those over and over again.

Study grammar:

  • Examples. write copious examples in your notes; the more ways you see things done, the clearer the pattern is.
  • Look for patterns. Most grammar is very clean; there’re rules and the grammar will follow them in organized ways. When you notice a pattern, write it down.
  • For conjugations. Practice new forms immediately.
  • Montessori shapes. Associate different elements of a sentence with shapes and colors.
  • Grammar drills. This is boring, but repetition has huge success rate with grammar.

Memorize vocabulary:

  • Flashcards
  • Word groups.
  • Pictures.
  • Vocabulary fan. Write all the vocab down the side of a piece of paper, then fold it over and write the definitions.
  • Kinetic study. Associate movement with words and definitions. Engage your whole body in the topic. Your body helps jog your memory.


  • Look up words and anything else you don’t know.
  • Try anyway. Even is you get confused, try it. Identify what you don’t know is hugely helpful, write questions in the margins so that you can remember them and look them up later.
  • Ask for help.
  • Keep up with you work and engage in class.