Learning How to Learn

Last August a tweet popped up that peaked my interest.

By the way, quick plug, if you’re a system admin of any sort and you haven’t heard of Tom you need to visit his website. He’s a smart and insightful guy and the (co)author of some very helpful and well written books.

I decided to follow Tom’s recommendation and signed up for course on Coursera. Tom’s advice was bolstered by a very comforting statement on the course website. This is not a math course, it declared, and required nothing higher than high school math. Perfect, I thought. That’s about as much math as I typically like to entertain at a time anyway.

So I went through the course and quickly found it quite challenging. Especially the math. Despite the assurances. Don’t get me wrong the level of math was as advertised, the course was well designed and I’d recommend it to others. I was just much rustier at math and, well, learning than I gave myself credit for. I made my way through the course and learned some very interesting concepts and approaches. The formulas, admittedly, did not stick with me. We were friendly enough that I could get in, complete the test, and get out again but then went our separate ways.

Ultimately my grade at the end was respectable but I didn’t feel satisfied with the experience. More specifically my ability to work through new material and the amount of understanding I was able to eke out. Some time later Coursera prodded me gently in the inbox to consider some of their other offerings. While weary from my first experience I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the aptly named ‘Learning How to Learn‘.

Learning How to Learn

This course, taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, an engineer and neuroscientist respectively, endeavours to teach students how the mind works in the context of learning. We’re also introduced to some tools and techniques to enhance or overcome some of the natural ways in which the brain learns, or avoids learning.

The Doctors maintain that whether you’re a struggling student or breezing through your studies there’s something to be gleaned from this course that will help you be a better learner. As the current class rounds the corner towards the finish line I have to heartily agree.

Let’s cover three of the course topics I found the most profound and useful. Some of these may be new to you and some may seem like old hat, common sense approaching mythical proportions. It’s well worth visiting or revisiting these topics to understand just what the big deal is when it comes to their impact on your ability to learn.

Focused and Diffuse Modes

Early on in the course we’re introduced to the concept of focused and diffuse modes of thinking. Focused mode is as it sounds. It’s the mode your brain is in when you concentrate intently on a task or activity. This mode of thinking is great when you’re working to understand something that’s similar to what you’re familiar with. Your brain is able to zero in on well-defined patterns of thought.

Think of a time when you sat down, fully intending to get something done that you already had some practice with. Now think of a time when you’ve tried to concentrate on learning something or doing something completely new to you. You may come away feeling like your head’s hit the gym for a while. That’s your brain struggling to apply the focused mode of thinking on a brand new activity.

So how do you more readily consume new ideas? Or associate thoughts and knowledge you already have in one subject with those in a fresh subject? That’s where the diffuse mode of thinking helps. Diffuse thinking is conceptually the opposite of focused thinking. Instead of concentrating on something you let your mind wander or preoccupy it with something else that doesn’t need the same level of attention.

In diffuse thinking mode your brain gets to work processing new information as well as making associations, or “leaps”, that you might not have identified otherwise. Great ways to engage the diffuse mode are things such as relaxing, exercising, or doing something completely different.

Clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus

If you just watched the above clip, congratulations!, you’ve just experienced a taste of diffuse mode thinking. We’ve been focusing on the topic of learning and you just gave yourself a whimsical distraction which allowed your brain a small window of opportunity to process and make associations. Diffuse mode is understood to be a source of creative inspiration, what with the creation of associations between seemingly unlike thoughts and ideas, I imagine the Python troupe spent a lot of time in diffuse mode…

It’s through a combination of both diffuse mode and focused mode that we have the ability to better process, understand and store information and concepts. However as the clip above may show, especially if you were away for a while surfing other clips before continuing reading, an activity may be complementary to diffuse mode thinking but also put us at risk of procrastination.


I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

— Douglas Adams

The dreaded ‘P’ word. We’ve all met procrastination at one time or another, to some degree or another. In essence procrastination is the avoidance of doing something. Deferring the tackling of tasks until the last-minute or outright missing the whooshing deadline. Procrastination is a byproduct of our fight or flight response system. We encounter something that hurts us, basically an unpleasant feeling associated with the task at hand, so we instinctively look for something more pleasant. Whether that’s a YouTube video, a sweet or salty snack, or an unplanned night of Netflix binge watching.

As you can imagine, this certainly gets in the way of time spent focusing on something we really ought to be doing. Fortunately there are some tools and techniques available to help us deal with procrastination. Firstly, it’s helpful to consider the task at hand in terms of process and not product. Often it’s the thought of the outcome of a task that provokes that unpleasant feeling and leaves us yearning for some pleasant mindlessness. Instead of the product, whether it’s a report due for work, cleaning out the garage, or engineering a new module for the international space station, we should approach the doing of the task. Simply spend some time on the task. The thought being that eventually you’ll find yourself on the way towards your end goal, or product, and past the initial panic.

Of course this sounds simple. But we’ve all experienced enough procrastination in our lives to know that it’s not always just a matter of deciding to get on with it. Enter the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo and despite its fancy sounding name is based on a simple premise. Any task can be accomplished by breaking it down into easily consumed, distraction free “pieces” of time and then work on the task piece by piece until you’re done. The amount of time suggested is about 25 minutes of focused time at once. So you commit to working in a focused fashion on your task for a full 25 minutes with no interruptions or pauses.

After the 25 minutes has elapsed you give yourself a wee break, say 5 minutes or so. This is where you grab a coffee, check Twitter, read xkcd or do your stretches. Basically you’re giving yourself a small reward for sticking with the 25 minutes of work. By attempting a few Pomodoro sessions a day you’ll find yourself finished in no time!

pomodoro photo

The Pomodoro itself. Photo by AndyRobertsPhotos (CC BY 2.0).

I’ve put this technique to the test at work, turning off email, putting on my headphones and setting a timer for 25 minutes. I can safely say that, even for the most accomplished procrastinator, the Pomodoro Technique is an effective way to get work done.

Oh, and that fancy sounding name? Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. The technique so named due to the tomato shaped kitchen timer Francesco Cirillo had as a student. While cool, in a retro ’70s kind of way, you don’t need a fruit-shaped mechanical time-keeper. Your smart phone works just fine.


You know that thing that we often take for granted and don’t get enough of? Well, some of us anyway. Turns out that not only is getting enough sleep instrumental for being in better spirits the next day, it also has a profound impact on our ability to learn and especially retain information. During sleep our minds work in the diffuse mode of thinking. Everything new we’ve encountered that day, our thoughts and ideas that came before, all of it gets mulled over, processed and stored while we sleep.

The quality and amount of our sleep directly contributes to how well that process does. If we don’t get enough sleep, or good enough quality of sleep, then new ideas and concepts may not take root in our minds properly. It’s been suggested that a good night’s sleep is a more capable and effective technique the night before a test than cramming. The activity your brain undertakes helps allow you to recall information more easily and accurately.

This is one of the more common-sense-sounding topics but is no less true for it. I’ve traditionally had difficulty keeping better hours when it comes to sleep so I’ve decided to enlist the aid of technology to keep me on track. What else do you expect from a neophile, as many technology oriented folks are?

Dabbling with these approaches in the past and applying a renewed effort to getting better use out of them, I’ve drafted my smart phone to take part in this pursuit. I first discovered sleep monitoring apps several years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how well they actually accomplished their goal. Typically a sleep app on your smart phone uses the various sensors to decide when and how much you move around in your sleep. This is then extrapolated to guess which stage of sleep you may be in, allowing the app to dynamically adjust your alarm to wake you at a more opportune time.

The apps have evolved over the years and can now also recommend times to go to sleep, based on a record of your sleep patterns and how much sleep you want to get in the average night. My own setup consists of an Android based phone, the Sleep as Android app and a Pebble smart watch. The phone acts as the ‘hub’. It’s the platform the app runs on and the Pebble communicates with. The app is the brains, deciding when I should go to sleep and when I should wake up. The Pebble is then the input, providing the information to the app to chart my sleep progress.

sleep photo

C’mon, even TIGERS sleep! Photo by Tambako the Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0).

This seems to be doing the trick for me so far, as long as I’m willing to adhere to the recommended sleep times. I’m feeling better rested than I have in a while and can’t wait to see what learning improvements will come as I build better sleep habits.

You don’t need to use a smart watch, Pebble or otherwise. Sleep apps are capable of using the sensors in your smart phone, typically by having you place the smart phone on a corner of your bed. I used to do this myself but was woken a few times in the middle of the night by the clatter of the phone hitting the floor. For me the Pebble brings piece of mind and convenience. You’re also not limited to Android phones. There are sleep apps for almost all smart phone platforms, so check out your device’s app store.

Make sure you take the app for a test run or trial before you part with your hard-earned dollars though, as not all apps are created equal. Some are better equipped to track your sleep effectively and some you may just “get along with” better. Personal satisfaction matters when choosing an app you intend to use long-term.

So What Does This Have to do With Virtualization?

This blog primarily focuses on virtualization, so this post may seem to come out of left field. I’ve found that in the ever-present pursuit of additional knowledge whether virtualization, technology in general or some other subject, that actually knowing how to learn is invaluable. You may have certification achievement in mind, or you’re trying to understand a technology or discipline well enough to help your next project succeed. Whatever the case, I highly urge you to explore these topics, and more, by checking out the Learning How to Learn course. The only thing it costs you is some well invested time.

Now get out there and learn something.

Featured image photo by brdonovan

Dee Abson

Dee Abson is a technical architect from Alberta, Canada. He's been working in the field of technology for over 20 years and specializes in server and virtualization infrastructure. Working with VMware products since ESX 2, he holds several VMware certifications. He is a 9x VMware vExpert. You can find him on Twitter and Mastodon.

9 Responses

  1. @xinity_bot says:

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  2. @cswaters1 says:

    Learning How to Learn http://t.co/3jsyALqNxW @deeabson > great post, thanks for sharing!

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  4. @1cloudroad says:

    Learning How to Learn – T.B.D. – by @deeabson via @1cloudroad http://t.co/eUTWAGIWiw

  5. RT @1cloudroad: Learning How to Learn – T.B.D. – by @deeabson via @1cloudroad http://t.co/eUTWAGIWiw

  6. @VMVernak says:

    “@deeabson: ICYMI: Learning How to Learn http://t.co/hfvS7WlTM6” Great post, Dee. Bonus points awarded for the Flying Circus clip.

  7. Great article by friend and coworker @deeabson! Learning How to Learn – T.B.D. – http://t.co/AotwVDRyuZ

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