Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

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Course Date: 01 August 2014 to 29 August 2014 (4 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

Whether you are an outstanding or a struggling student, "Learning How to Learn" will give you powerful mental tools that will help you learn more effectively in tough-to-master subjects. You will discover practical, immediately useful insights that will help you to more deeply master your studies.

Estimated Workload: 3-4 hours/week

Course Instructors

Terrence Sejnowski

Terrence Sejnowski is a pioneer in computational neuroscience and his goal is to understand the principles that link brain to behavior. His laboratory uses both experimental and modeling techniques to study the biophysical properties of synapses and neurons and the population dynamics of large networks of neurons. New computational models and new analytical tools have been developed to understand how the brain represents the world and how new representations are formed through learning algorithms for changing the synaptic strengths of connections between neurons. He has published over 500 scientific papers and 12 books, including The Computational Brain, with Patricia Churchland.  He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, one of only 10 living persons to be a member of all 3 national academies.

Sejnowski received his PhD in physics from Princeton University and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins University. He is now an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and holds the Francis Crick Chair at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.  He is also a Professor of Biology at the University of California, San Diego, where he is co-director of the Institute for Neural Computation and co-director of the NSF Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center.

Sejnowski is the President of the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) Foundation, which organizes an annual conference attended by over 2000 researchers in machine learning and neural computation and is the founding editor-in-chief of Neural Computation published by the MIT Press.  He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society. He has received many honors, including the NSF Young Investigators Award, the Wright Prize for interdisciplinary research from the Harvey Mudd College, the Neural Network Pioneer Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Hebb Prize from the International Neural Network Society and the Rosenblatt Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Sejnowski was instrumental in shaping the BRAIN Initiative that was announced by the White House on April 2, 2013, and served on the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH for the BRAIN Initiative.

Barbara Oakley

Barbara Oakley, PhD, PE is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and writer of national acclaim. Her research focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior, it has been described as “revolutionary” by the Wall Street Journal. Oakley’s books have been praised by many leading researchers and writers, including Harvard’s Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson, and National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates. Oakley is the lead editor of Pathological Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2012), described as the best book on altruism in the past fifteen years. Her critically-praised Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, (Prometheus Books, 2007), has broken new ground in providing a compassionate, solidly scientific explanation for why nefarious people do what they do. Her forthcoming A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) (Penguin, July 31, 2014) has opened new doors on how to learn.

Prior to her academic career, Oakley rose from private to captain in the U.S. Army, during which time she was recognized as a Distinguished Military Scholar. She met her husband, Philip, when she was working at the South Pole Station in Antarctica.  Her experiences with well-intentioned altruism were shaped by her work as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea during the early 1980s.  Oakley was designated as an NSF New Century Scholar—she is also a recipient of the Oakland University Teaching Excellence Award (2013) and the National Science Foundation’s Frontiers in Engineering New Faculty Fellow Award.  Oakley is an elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.

Course Description

This course gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines. We’ll learn about the how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information. We’ll also cover illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.  

Using these approaches, no matter what your skill levels in topics you would like to master, you can change your thinking and change your life. If you’re already an expert, this peep under the mental hood will give you ideas for turbocharging successful learning, including counter-intuitive test-taking tips and insights that will help you make the best use of your time on homework and problem sets. If you’re struggling, you’ll see a structured treasure trove of practical techniques that walk you through what you need to do to get on track. If you’ve ever wanted to become better at anything, this course will help serve as your guide.


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor. With a higher level of performance, you can earn a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction.  You can also sign up for Signature Track, which could earn you a Verified Certificate or a Verified Certificate with Distinction.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    For this course, all you need is an Internet connection and a bit of time to watch videos, read, discuss, and learn.

  • What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class?

    You'll learn why focusing intently to solve a difficult problem can prevent you from being able to solve the problem! Discovering what's going on behind the neurological scenes can help you master new subjects in many different areas, from math and science to art, music, dance, sports, and literature.


Learning How to Learn is meant to give you practical insight on how to learn more deeply and with less frustration. The lessons in this course can help you in learning many different subjects and skills. Whether you love language or math, music or physics, psychology or history, you'll have a lot of fun, and learn a LOT about how to learn virtually any subject!

This is a 4-week course. You may spend an hour or two watching the videos each week, or you may choose to dive deeper and complete a Statement or Verified Certificate or even a "with Distinction" honor. It’s all up to you! Although not required, we also encourage you to read the material on the week's topics in the book, A Mind for Numbers, where some of these ideas are explored more deeply. (Don't worry if you're not a "numbers" person, the book is still for you, because it's a general book about learning.) 

Every Friday at 12:00 PM EST, the weekly content will be posted for the weekend and the upcoming week. Here is an overview of the weekly topics for the course; 

Week 1 – Introduction: Focused versus Diffuse Thinking (begins Aug 1)
Week 2 – Chunking (begins Aug 8)
Week 3 – Procrastination and Memory (begins Aug 15) 
Week 4 – Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential (begins Aug 22) 

By the end of the course, we expect you to be able to do the following:
  • Explain the difference between focused and diffuse modes of thinking. Be able to practically apply this knowledge to solve problems and understand concepts with less frustration.
  • Relate key techniques proven by research to help students learn most efficiently
  • Describe common illusions of learning, and explain how to most effectively help yourself to avoid these illusions.
  • Explain how working memory and long term memory differ from one another.
  • Explain what a chunk is, and how and why you can and should enhance your chunking skills.
  • Use metaphor, story, and visualization to allow pre-existing neural scaffolds to help in improving memory as well as to assist in learning more quickly and deeply
  • Apply proven and effective techniques dealing with procrastination.
  • Describe the most important aspects of proper test preparation.
  • Relate latest research findings explaining why sleep is so important in learning and memory.
  • Explain why multi-tasking (trying to do more than one task at the same time) makes it more difficult to grasp concepts.
  • Explain the importance of “mindset” in learning. Describe how some famous people in history defied all odds to go from failure to success through a change in their mindset.
  • Explain the advantages and disadvantages of working with other students in your studies.When would you want to work with other students? When would it be better to work alone?
  • As a consequence of your interactions with other students in this course, explain some of the commonalities and differences of learners from around the world.


The class will consist of several videos per week, which are generally between 5 minutes in length for lecture videos, and 15 to 20 minutes in length for interviews. These contain 1-2 integrated quiz questions per video. There will also be two peer-evaluated challenges, three quizzes and a final exam. Discussion forums and a "Talkabout" session are also important--and very fun!--parts of the course.

Suggested Reading

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley (Foreword by Terrence Sejnowski), ISBN: 978-0399165245.

Although the lectures are designed to be self-contained, we recommend (but do not require) that students refer to this book, which was written specifically for this course.  (Not to worry--if you don't have a mind for numbers, the book is still for you!)

Course Workload

3-4 hours/week

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