Dave Lovemartin

Metacognition, learning and me

The science of thinking about thinking

last tended: 29.10.2022

After writing about using the act of writing and rewriting using spaced repetition to take my notes to the next level, I became interested in how we learn, think and problem solve.

We call thinking about thinking “metacognition” and it can be broken down into:

Metacognition is really the act of observing and reflecting on thoughts. It’s tied closely with mental health and procrastination.

Learning strategies

Focussed and diffuse model

Our brains have two modes, focussed and diffuse.

The focussed mode uses your working memory to complete a task - it may shut down other parts of the brain to get things done (like long multiplication).

The diffuse mode - is your brain at rest. The diffuse mode only gets switched on when your brain is relaxed so try taking a nap, going for a walk, taking a shower etc.

Switching to the more relaxed diffuse mode is a great way to learn as our diffuse mode of thinking allows us to form new neural pathways.


Sleep is an important part of the memory and learning process.

During sleep, your brain rehearses whatever you’re trying to learn, strengthening neural patterns. The complete shut down of the prefrontal cortex (your conscious self) helps other areas of your brain deepen connections.

If you revise what you’re learning right before you take a nap or go to sleep, you have an increased chance of dreaming about it. Dreaming about what you’re studying can substantially enhance your ability to understand — you consolidate your memories into easier-to-grasp chunks.


Chunking helps your brain run more efficiently. Once you chunk an idea, a concept, or an action, you don’t know need to remember all the little underlying details.

A conceptual chunk consists of mental leaps that unite scattered bits of information through meaning. Concentrate on the links between the information.

Ultimately, practice helps you broaden the networks of neurons that are connected to your chunk

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is the best approach to learning. You are essentially practicing remembering. Each time you retrieve these ideas from your memory, you’re strengthening the links between neurons.

Our brains learn by repetition, not cramming. Use the pomodoro method to intensely focus on learning something. Then take a break. Our brains use the diffuse mode to build new connections. Test yourself and repeat.

Practice makes perfect using spaced repetition

Our working memory can hold four items of information, we chunk information into these four pots that we can access. We may need to repeat this information to ourselves to get the information to stick in the pots.

Practicing using spaced repetition transfers working memory to long term memory. Writing things out by hand and saying out loud what you’re learning seems to enhance retention.


Mastering a new subject means learning not only the basic chunks, but also learning how to select and use different chunks. The best way to learn that is by interleaving — practicing jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies.

Once you’ve understood the basic concept of a subject, interleave your practice with problems of different types or different types of approaches, concepts, or procedures.

Although practice and repetition is important in helping build solid neural patterns to draw on, it’s interleaving that starts building flexibility and creativity.

Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way.

Focus on the hard stuff - deliberate practice

Once you’ve mastered a subject. There’s no point in repeating it over and over. This can lead to an illusion of competence. Make sure you focus on the more difficult and challenging areas in your practice.


Not a technique, but something to be wary of. Your first thought or solution to a problem may not be the best. Your initial idea may be your brain stuck in a rut — accessing well establish neural patterns. Einstellung means mindset. You may have to unlearn your erroneous older ideas or approaches while you’re learning new ones to create a new state of mind.


Mnemonics are a useful way to learn a group of things. They can be any system such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something. A mnemonic for Biological taxonomy is Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

Tapping into our visual and spacial memory with index cards

Our brains have special spacial and visual abilities. We are able to remember locate things such as where we found a source of food on a hunt.

Drawing vivid imagary of the concept on one side of a physical index card and an explanation on the other can help retain information. The funnier and more evocative the image, the better.

The more you can turn what you’re trying to remember into something memorable, the easier it will be to recall.

If you remember correctly, move onto the next. Once you have several cards, you can interleave your learning. Used spaced repetition, and use them before you go to sleep.

Visual metaphor

One of the best things to remember and understand concepts, is to create a metaphor or analogy — the more visual the better.

Metaphors and models are important in giving a physical understanding of the central idea behind the process or concept you’re trying to understand. Interestingly, metaphors and analogies are useful for getting people out of einstellen.

Memory palace

The memory palace technique is a particularly powerful way of grouping things you want to remember. It involves calling to mind a familiar place like the layout of your house and using it as a visual notepad where you can deposit the concept images that you want to remember.

The memory palace technique is useful for remembering unrelated items such as a grocery list, milk, bread, eggs. Imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, and use shockingly memorable images of what you want to remember in each place.

Keep a learning journal.

Before you start learning something new, tackling a new idea or creative endeavour, stop and plan:

Whilst completing the task think about:

After completing the task, ask:

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