I’ve been kind of skeptical about MOOCs (massive open online courses) for a while, but I took the Learning How to Learn course on Coursera and it was actually really good. Turns out there is free stuff that doesn’t suck :)

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Like any free resource, some MOOCs are great and some are… not. On the upside, the fact that they’re generally free (although some sites charge for a certificate of completion) means you aren’t out any money if you didn’t learn anything or were too bored to finish. The only problem is you’ll waste a lot of time if you’re too stubborn to give up on a course that’s not interesting. Do as I say, not as I do and all that :) I’m currently stubbornly hoping that I’m actually going to learn something in a very vague and high level software architecture online course I’m taking. Maybe it’ll get good in week 3?

The Learning How to Learn course, aside from being interesting on its own, is also a good example of what other courses should probably be doing. It teaches you specific concepts that you can actually go out and apply to whatever you want to learn right away. Some of the most useful things I learned in that course were the pomodoro technique and the fact that part of procrastination is that the brain reacts to a task you don’t want to do the same way it reacts to physical pain (at least, that’s how I remember it) but that if you can hang on through the initial pain, it goes away pretty quickly.

As a software developer I have to learn new stuff all the time, and because I’m totally irrational sometimes I worry that the thing I need to learn this time might finally be the thing that proves I’m just not smart enough. The Learning How to Learn course makes learning sound much less scary. Instead of learning being this mysterious thing that some people can do and some people just suck at, the course breaks down the process of how the brain makes sense of and stores new information. Learning is actually a simple process of repetition, chunking, using different modes of attention, and managing your time, it’s something anyone can do if they put in the time and effort and have learning materials that make sense to them.

It also has some tips for taking exams that I wish I’d had when I was still in college. If you have any important tests in your future, the course is worth taking just for the exam tips. I’m guessing here because I don’t have test anxiety, but I think it would be really helpful to have a simple plan to follow when your mind goes blank.

Learning about different modes of attention is also really useful for when you’re working on a really difficult bug. It’s hard to step away when you’re convinced you’ll get it if you keep trying (especially when the total refusal to give up is a pretty central programming skill), but taking your mind off the immediate problem really does help your brain to make the connection you need to solve it. When you’re too focused on a problem, your brain sort of sticks to the information you already have. When you take your mind off of it and think of nothing in particular, your brain can start making connections between things that didn’t seem to be connected at all and that’s where those sudden eureka moments come from.

The course is based on a book by one of the professors, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). As much as I love books, I’d actually recommend taking the course first, because being tested on the material helps you learn it (a concept you’ll learn about in more depth if you take the course or read the book :) The due dates in the course also helped persuade me to make time to sit down and do it. The course also has transcripts for all the videos, so if you prefer reading to watching you’re covered.

If you want to learn things faster with less effort or you’re just interested in how your brain works, take the Learning How to Learn course.