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How to Learn

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Brain, Mind, Learning

Why is it in school we’re taught what to learn but not how to learn?

In this article I interview Barbara Oakley, PhD, PE, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, who teaches the world’s largest online course on learning, Learning How to Learn with over two and a half million registered students so far, and you are going to learn how to learn.

In this article:

  1. What is Learning?
  2. The Pomodoro Technique
  3. Sleep
  4. Focused vs Diffused Concentration
  5. Visualization
  6. Why you should pretend you are the concept you’re trying to understand
  7. Questions to ask when learning something new
  8. How to read a book
  9. Flashcards
  10. The hard start technique
  11. Explain it in a way a 5-year-old could understand
  12. Metaphors
  13. Listening to music while studying
  14. Don’t just learn what you’re passionate about
  15. Persistence and flexibility is everything

Let’s begin:

What is learning?

Michael Frank: Let’s start with some definitions: How do you define learning and what does it mean to learn something?

Barbara Oakley: That’s a little bit of a sticky question. I understand that there was a research group in Europe that was assigned the task of defining learning and they took two years and still never really quite came up with a good definition of learning. And that was their sole task. So I’m an engineer, I’m really into practical rule of thumb heuristics sort of things, and I think learning is changing your brain so that you are receptive. You have received new information, incorporated it into your neural structures, so that you can use it yourself effectively.

Michael Frank: It’s not just memorizing and regurgitating and repeating back information.

Barbara Oakley: It isn’t, but it is. I mean facts are part of what you need to know in order to be able to have expertise at something. So I think sometimes we’ve shied away and said “Well you don’t actually need to know the facts, you can always just go look them up”. But would you know French or Spanish or Russian if you just had to go look it up on Google? Of course not. It’s not incorporated into your neural structures. So knowing facts is part of what it takes to become an expert at whatever you’re studying and learning.

Poets will often say, memorize the poem and you will understand it more deeply. And it’s really the same in math and science. Memorize the equation. Really think about while you’re doing it: Why is it squared here? Why is it divided by two here?

The Pomodoro Technique

Michael Frank: Okay let’s get straight into the key lessons of learning how to learn…

Barbara Oakley: The first tip I want to share with you is the Pomodoro technique.

Procrastination is a huge issue in learning, and the best way to tackle it is to use the Pomodoro technique. Often when you think about something you don’t like or don’t really want to do, it activates pain centers in the brain, and so what the brain does is skitter away from those painful thoughts onto something more pleasant, and the result is you’ve just procrastinated.

So when you catch your mind wandering and you’re surfing the net instead of doing your homework or working on a report you need to be working on, you’ll do the Pomodoro technique (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and the developer of this technique Francesco Cirillo had a tomato shaped timer).

All you do is sit down and get all distractions away from you as much as you can. Make sure your phone is on flight mode or silent, make sure there’s nothing popping up on your computer screen, and nothing is going to distract you.

You simply set your timer for 25 minutes and then focus as much as you can on the task at hand. You may catch your thoughts wandering. That’s normal. As soon as you do just bring it back, because the reality is that anybody can focus intently for 25 minutes.

Reward yourself at the end of the Pomodoro

The most important part of the Pomodoro is that you reward yourself at the end of the 25 minutes.

What that means is that you give yourself five or ten minutes where you let your mind go free and do whatever it wants. If you want to go on Facebook or chat with friends or listen to your favorite song or have a cup of coffee – cool.

Anything that helps you to relax and get your mind off of what you’ve been working on. This break is important because it activates other neural networks that allow you to look with a fresh perspective at what you’d been working on or studying. And so it’s actually very beneficial and very helpful.

What if you get into the flow of things? Can you continue working past the 25 minutes of your Pomodoro? Absolutely. You can keep on working.

But whenever you start feeling tired and you’ve really had it, then you go ahead and rest, but you do that reward. So whenever you finish that Pomodoro, make sure you get that reward incorporated in there. And what that does is it helps you to actually like and enjoy the process of focusing more, because you’re training yourself that you always get a reward whenever you do this. And so it turns out that it’s very beneficial, and it trains you to enjoy the process of focusing even more.

How many study sessions per day?

Michael Frank: How many study sessions or Pomodoros should we be aiming for per day?

Barbara Oakley: The number of Pomodoros you do in a day is up to you, but remember it’s really important to take that break and reward yourself after 25 minutes. Don’t say “Okay, now I’m going to be super effective and do two Pomodoros back to back”. I mean you can keep going if you want to, but when you finish that work on that topic, you need to take a little break and then begin anew.

If you’ve worked really hard and long on a certain subject say math, I recommend doing something a little different because that will activate another part of your brain when you begin anew. Maybe a little language study or something that’s a little bit different to keep your brain fresh as the day goes by.

Sleep

Barbara Oakley: I also want to talk about sleep because it’s such an important part of learning because it’s when you go to sleep at night, that’s when the neural structures actually grow. That’s when they really solidify. That’s when the neural architecture of your learning becomes stronger. We used to think it only happens when you’re focusing, but that’s not true.

It starts when you’re focusing, but it really solidifies, and those connections grow, during the night when you’re sleeping. More than that, toxins develop in your brain and they accumulate as the day goes by, and this is why you get a little bit of brain fog and get more tired as the day goes by. And this is why it’s often better to do difficult things in the morning before those metabolites have kicked in. Let’s say you’re cramming all day and you stay up most of the night, if you take a test the next morning or the next day with very little sleep, it’s not a good idea because it’s kind of like taking a test with a poisoned brain.

So this is why you want to try to get your work done earlier instead of at the last minute, because if you get very little sleep at the last minute, you’re functioning effectively with the poisoned brain.

Focused vs diffused concentration

Barbara Oakley: The next thing you need to know is about focused vs diffused concentration. Your brain primarily operates in two modes. The first thought pattern is what I’ll call the focused mode. Psychologists call it the task-positive network, and that’s when you’re focusing intently on something.

The second mode is what I’ll call the diffuse mode, psychologists call it the task-negative networks, and neuroscientists call it the default mode network, and that’s when you’re not thinking about anything in particular, your mind is just wandering, and thoughts are flowing through your brain. They’re there, but you’re not forcing them along a certain thought pattern. They’re just arising organically.

It turns out that your brain naturally alternates back and forth between the focused mode and the diffuse mode throughout the day, and you can’t be in both modes at the same time.

People often think that learning only takes place when you’re focusing, but it also takes place during the diffuse mode when your brain is relaxing. That’s when it puts together some of the ideas that you’ve received when you were in focus mode.

That’s why learning involves going back and forth between focused and diffuse modes, because when you’re focusing you’re taking it in, and when you’re in defuse mode you’re putting together what you’ve already taken in. And that putting together in the diffuse mode is often, it seems, where creativity arises.

So if you’re focusing all day nonstop without a break, and then you go home at night and you’re focusing even more for meditation purposes and so forth, there is evidence that it may reduce your creativity.

Visualization

Michael Frank: We know that athletes often visualize shooting hoops, kicking goals etc. Do you think that visualization is helpful when we’re doing things of a theoretical nature e.g. mathematics?

Barbara Oakley: There’s very good research evidence that shows that visualization is key to the development of mental models. So what this means is when you’re trying to learn something, sometimes it can help to have audio or to read the words, but the more you can use pictures, and especially developmental pictures of what’s actually happening, the more easily you’ll be able to understand the mental models.

So for example, if I told you that hot air rises and eventually goes up in the atmosphere where it can cool enough that little water droplets will form and that’s where clouds arise. If you have a mental image of that, or if you see a picture as you’re learning these concepts, it helps you to develop that mental model much better. Now, as far as when you’re playing basketball and you envision yourself being successful at what you’re working on, there’s some very good research evidence that that works well and is very helpful too.

Pretend you are the concept you’re trying to understand

Michael Frank: Barb, I read a summary of notes on Reddit from someone who had done your course. One part said: “It is often helpful to pretend that you are the concept you’re trying to understand”. What does that mean?

Barbara Oakley: Well that’s an approach that’s been used by great scientists through history. Einstein for example, famously imagined himself on a light beam traveling through space, and Barbara McClintock, the Nobel prize winning geneticist, would imagine herself studying the chromosomes and the genes and they were almost like her friends. She could see them. They were life sized in her mind’s eye and she would roam about and interact with them. And even Ramón Cajal, my hero in science, almost lived in his world of what is going on at a neural level, and how neurons are communicating with one another.

So the more you can insert yourself into whatever you’re trying to study e.g. if you’re trying to understand what this molecule is doing, try to visualize it. Look at that molecule as a friend. See it physically linking in with this other molecule. If you can see it on a large scale, and you’re kind of there with it, it becomes so much more real and almost more friendly for you to be studying.

Questions to ask when learning something new

Michael Frank: What are some generic questions that we should be asking ourselves whenever we’re learning something new?

Barbara Oakley: Some good questions to ask when you’re learning something new:

“What was the key idea here?”

“What did I really grasp?”

“Did I really learn it?”

“Can I recall it or use it independently of having the book open right in front of me?”

That is the key because otherwise you’re just fooling yourself and you don’t really know it.

Don’t listen to those who say “You can always just go look it up”. Sure. Some stuff you can look up. But again, do you really know french if you have to use google translate to look up the words? Of course you don’t.

How to read a book

Michael Frank: Any recommendations as to how to read a book or a textbook?

Barbara Oakley: When you’re reading a book, there’s a couple of keys to remember.

Skim the chapter first

First off do a picture walk. Look through the chapter, look at the pictures, the captions, the subtitles, and just get a sense of what the material is about. That will give you something to hang your thinking off as you begin to read through the chapter or listen to the teacher when they’re discussing the chapter. Don’t spend more than five minutes on this even if you don’t understand it. Five minutes is enough.

Don’t highlight everything

And then as you’re reading that chapter, don’t highlight everything. What people will often do is highlight everything. There’s purple here and yellow here and green here and everything is highlighted, and it’s kind of crazy because it doesn’t help your learning at all.

What it does is fool you into thinking that you’ve somehow magically put information into your brain – and it hasn’t.

Try to remember the key idea of the page

The most effective way to read a page, is to read it, and then look away and see if you can recall the key idea of that page. That makes you actively engaged with the material. It starts pulling those little dendritic spines out and starts making those neural connections that good learning actually entails. And so don’t do a bunch of highlighting or underlying. Maybe a tiny bit for some key idea. If you write in the margins what a key idea is, that can help you, because that will help you neurally encode that key idea.

Concept mapping is not as effective as the recall method, so just reading the page then looking away to see if you can recall the key idea is actually far more effective than rereading the page, highlighting or underlining the page, or using concept mapping on the page.

In fact, it’s the best way we know of to really help you understand what you’re learning in that book.

Flashcards

This is where flashcards can come in so handy because our brain can fool ourselves so easily. If you have a book open in front of you, you’ll look at that material, read it through, read it through again, and go “I got this… I know it!”

And your brain is totally fooling yourself because it’s there on the page, and yes you understand it on the page, but it’s not in your brain yet.

And so when you look away, there’s nothing there. You don’t really know it as well as you think you do. So the more you can actively recall ideas and flashcards are great for that, not only for vocabulary and so forth, but also just like what verb conjugations can you do? Present tense, for example. AR verbs in Spanish.

And it’s always good for things like what are the three different rock types? What are the anatomical parts? What’s the derivative of sin? What’s the derivative of cos? Do I know it? Can I say it by heart? Can I recall it? Use flashcards and test yourself at every possible moment and that’s probably the best way to ensure you’re actually learning something and getting those patterns into long-term memory so that when you draw on them and funnel them back through that limited working memory, you’ve got something to work with. And if it’s not in long-term memory, you don’t really know it.

Real understanding only comes not only when you conceptually understand something, or think you do, but when you have practiced it and used it in many different kinds of circumstances.

Take practice tests

Michael Frank: In regards to taking tests, I’d advise taking as many online practice tests as you can about your subject. Would you concur, Barb?

Barbara Oakley: Absolutely. Because practice tests give you plenty of practice and of course that’s what helps to develop those sets of links in long-term memory, that allow you to be more successful when you actually take the real test.

The hard start technique

Michael Frank: When you take a test should you start with the easiest questions first, and then come back to the difficult ones because they’re the most time consuming? Or should you start with the more difficult questions first?

Barbara Oakley: Well, that’s a great question because I was also told to start with the easiest questions and that’ll gain your confidence, but it turns out you should look over the test, make a little tick mark by some of the hardest questions, and then start with the hardest problem.

But the important part is this: You start with the hardest problem, but train yourself to pull off and start working on other problems as soon as you start getting stuck. Every time you go work on something else, you are momentarily falling into the diffuse mode. And as you’re going back and working at other problems, you’re allowing that other way of thinking to start reflecting and putting together and recalling key ideas that can help you solve that first more difficult problem.

So start with the hardest questions. Pull off as soon as you get stuck, go work on something else easier, then start on another hard problem, pull off, go back to something easier, and then go back to that hardest problem. And you’ll be surprised to find that you’ll make more advances and headway on that hard problem because you’ve had time to use that diffuse mode intermittently in between.

If you just wait until the very end to do the hardest problems, you’ll be the most stressed because you’ll have very little time to work on them and then you can’t really draw on these other perspectives.

So using the hard start technique can be very effective not only on tests but even on homework as well.

Explain it in a way a 5-year-old could understand

Michael Frank: You advise in regards to learning actively:

  • Ask questions
  • Do the exercises
  • Test ourselves
  • We could try to teach the subject as we understand it to others
  • I’d also recommend repeating it back to the teacher in your own words

Is there anything else that we could or should be doing to learn actively and to lock things into our long-term memory that we haven’t yet covered?

Barbara Oakley: I think two things. First it’s a good idea to try to explain whatever you’re doing to a classmate or to your teacher, in a very, very simple way that even a five year old could understand.

Metaphor

The second is to use metaphors.

Metaphor is an extremely powerful way to learn something. What it does is it builds on preexisting neural patterns and uses them as the basis to learn something new. So for example, if you’re learning electrical current flow, water is often used as the analogy for electrical current flow. You might think water is super easy, but actually water is very complicated in how it flows, that’s why babies marvel at the flow of water, they’ll sit and play with it for years, they’re just fascinated by water. And so getting that neural concept of what water is and how it flows, is not really as easy as you might think. It’s a complicated topic that you’ve made seemingly simple by encoding it, and you can use that neurally encoded concept of water and how it flows as the basis for how you understand electrical current flow.

This is called neural reuse theory and that’s exactly what metaphor is doing. It’s reusing a neural patterns that you’ve already laid in order to create new patterns and new understanding. Now does a metaphor breakdown? Every metaphor breaks down eventually. I mean if you’re talking about electrical current flow, then you’re like, well, let’s see. Positive is flowing this way, but the reality is it’s negative electrons flowing the other way and when you get down to a quantum level at all, you know, it goes to heck in a hand cart. But when that metaphor breaks down, you just throw it away and get a new one. That’s what metaphors are good for.

Sometimes professors will say “The only reason that other professors are seen as good teachers is because they dumb the material down with metaphors”. But the reality is that they’re being very good teachers when they’re using metaphors because they’re making good use of what we know about how the brain works. So you can do the same thing in your own learning. The more you can use metaphors to explain whatever you’re learning to either to yourself or to others, the more it can be helpful in creating those new neural patterns that are somewhat akin to the knowledge you already have.

You can explain even really complicated ideas using metaphors so that even kids can understand. And you’ll find that if you put yourself through that exercise, it’ll actively bring it to mind from long-term memory, which helps enhance to it and build those neural structures.

Listening to music while studying

Michael Frank: Is it true that it’s beneficial to listen to to classical music whilst studying? Or is that just a myth and is just silence better?

Barbara Oakley: Well since I like classical music of course I approve 😉

But the reality is that you can find research evidence to say that music is good or bad for you while you’re studying. So whichever one you prefer, you can find research evidence that will back you up in that decision.

It seems however that the best kind of overall summary is that music with lyrics can interfere with your studies. So avoid any kind of music with lyrics in it when you’re studying, and avoid music that’s really loud. Both of those have pretty definitively been shown to detrimentally affect your ability to study. But other than that, all bets are off.

Don’t just learn what you’re passionate about

Michael Frank: What are some of the other key lessons in learning how to learn that we need to know?

Barbara Oakley: We’re so often told to just follow our passions in what we’re learning, but life throws a lot of curve balls, and if you want to be effective in your life, you don’t just want to be following your passion. If you spend just a little time broadening your passion, learning something that’s completely different, completely outside your comfort zone, what that can do is that can help build creativity into your life. It builds a flexibility into what you’re doing.

Persistence and flexibility is everything

Michael Frank: Barb, any final thoughts?

Barbara Oakley: Yes. Going back to my hero, Ramón Cajal, the Nobel prize winner, who actually had a terrible memory and was such a problematic student, he was asked once why he was so successful, and he said, I am no genius (and he really wasn’t, it was hard for him to learn new things) but I am persistent, and I am flexible when the data tells me I’m wrong. So he’d have a theory, he’d test it out, it’d be wrong, and then he’d say okay and then he’d go back to the drawing board.

He said, I have worked with many geniuses, and because geniuses are really smart, they’re used to being right. So they’ll often jump to conclusions about something without having all the data they need, and because they’re so used to being right, when they’re wrong, they often can’t mentally accept it. And so they’ll find ways to intellectually justify why they were somehow right anyway, instead of admitting it and trying again with a fresh approach.

And I’m so surprised when I look out at what’s going on in science, in research, so often you can have a camp that is trying to really do legitimate research and see what the data is actually truly trying to tell us. And then there’s sometimes these groups where they already know what they want that data to be saying and by golly, they’re going to continue finding that no matter what. And anyone else who gets something different they’re idiots, they’re not doing proper science etc.

When you’re on the outside looking into that, you can’t tell which group is which, except that sometimes the group that is just actually talking about the science instead of busy bashing the other group, can sometimes be the best group, but it’s really fascinating how inflexible some really smart people can be and how much that has held back scientific research, progress in the corporate world, all sorts of things. So try to be flexible in your own approach, and in your own life, and the lives of those around you will be better for it.

Michael Frank: Ego, hubris, closed-mindedness, inflexibility, confirmation bias and motivated reasoning – these are the enemies. Barb, how do we find you online and how do we take your course?

Barbara Oakley: Barbaraoakley.com and if you go there, you’ll see the learning how to learn course through the University of California, San Diego and McMaster University. And we have a new course for teens coming out, it’s learning how to learn for teens and it’s going to be coming out from Arizona state on Coursera very soon.

Michael Frank: Barb, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much!

Barbara Oakley: Michael, thank you so much for having me!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Barbara Oakley, Barb Oakley, Learning How to Learn

Barbara Oakley, PhD, PE is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan; Michigan’s Distinguished Professor of the Year; and Coursera’s inaugural “Innovation Instructor.” Her work focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Dr. Oakley’s research has been described as “revolutionary” in the Wall Street Journal—she has published in outlets as varied as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. She has won numerous teaching awards, including the American Society of Engineering Education’s Chester F. Carlson Award for technical innovation in engineering education. Together with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, she co-teaches Coursera – UC San Diego’s “Learning How to Learn,” one of the world’s most popular massive open online courses with over two million registered students. Dr. Oakley is a New York Times best-selling author—her most recent book, Learning How to Learn, is geared to give kids aged ten on up neuroscientific tools to help their learning.

Dr. Oakley has adventured widely through her lifetime. She rose from the ranks of Private to Captain in the U.S. Army, during which time she was recognized as a Distinguished Military Scholar. She also worked as a communications expert at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, and has served as a Russian translator on board Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Dr. Oakley is an elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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