Learning How to Learn – Barbara Oakley

In A Mind for Numbers, Dr. Oakley lets us in on the secrets to effectively learning math and science—secrets that even dedicated and successful students wish they’d known earlier. Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

How Your Brain Works

  • 2 mode of brain function: Focus Mode + Diffuse Mode
  • Focus mode is when you’ve already learnt something, when recalling the knowledge, it’s firing up a pattern in a centralized area of neurons to recall that knowledge
  • Diffuse mode is when you’re trying to learn something new, pattern does not exist so it bounces in different areas of your brain to try to develop that pattern
  • When you’re trying to learn something, it’s really inefficient to sit there and focus on the problem over long durations of time
  • Best thing to do is to take a step back, take a break, go for a run that can take your mind off it and put your brain back on diffuse mode
  • Cannot be in both mode at the same time
  • To solve the problem, takes time to flip between modes. Example is like a weight lifter. He/she doesn’t jam the workout the night before the competition, but it takes time to develop those muscles


  • When you do something you don’t like, the pain centers of your brain activate
  • When you feel pain, there are 2 ways through it: work through it and pain will go away, but most people will turn your attention into something more pleasant
  • Procrastination is like an addiction, because you do it once, you’re more likely to do it 2 or 3+ more times and it becomes a disruptive habit
  • To deal with procrastination, use the Pomodoro Technique
  • Set a timer of the time you will spend time doing the painful task
  • Remove all distractions during that time period except for the task at hand
  • Your mindset will change to focus on only the task and the time, but not the pain
  • At the end of it, then you reward yourself
  • From research, some of the learning process takes place in this relaxation mode, so no time is actually wasted
  • Don’t focus on the task, focus on the time
  • Make subtle changes (gradually get use to this technique)

Importance of Sleep

  • When you’re awake, there are toxins gradually accumulate in your brain and will affect your judgement
  • When you go to asleep, the system washes out these toxins
  • Another advantage of sleep relates to neural synaptic growth
  • When you learn something and you go to sleep, that’s where the synaptic connections are forming
  • Want to have short learning periods then sleep, and that’ll help build that connection to help you learn faster

Importance of Exercise

  • Past assumption was that you’re born with X number of neurons that that’s all the neurons throughout your life, and now its proven not to be true
  • New neurons are being born every day and are essential to our ability to learn and remember new information
  • 2 ways for new neurons to grow and survive: expose to new environment (e.g. travel), 2nd way is to just exercise

Disadvantage of Multi-tasking

  • Short term memory
  • Have 4 slots of memory
  • When you’re remembering, your brain is accessing those 4 different areas of working memory to form ideas
  • When you’re trying to juggle multiple task, you’re trying to overload your memory hence losing some brain power on the task at hand

Take Working Memory to Long-Term Memory

  • Simple answer is practice
  • Build deeper connections in your brain
  • If you don’t practice, the patterns get sucked away from working memory and never gets moved to long-term memory
  • Best is to practice through spaced repetition (e.g. practice on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, take breaks on Tuesday and Thursday)
  • Example given is like building a walk. If you take time and let the layers of mortar set, you can build a sturdy wall. If you rush into it, the mortar will never set and the wall falls apart

Learning in Chunks

  • If you pull together information in chunks, it’s easier to pull it into working memory
  • Rather than stuffing random facts of information into working memory, it’s a lot easier when you have the general idea built out (like putting together a puzzle first) and then have that moved into your working memory
  • Another word, it’s easier to first understand the information first, before trying to memorize it rather than memorize the information without understanding it
  • Once you compress that knowledge in a chunk, you can make it bigger, either by diving deeper into the topic, or combining it with different chunks that are related to each other (eg. combining disciplines in math and psychology to predict stock prices)
  • Learning chunks all over the place and slowly piecing it together into a bigger picture
  • But if you don’t continue to practice, the chunks begin to disappear and you’ll never finish the bigger picture

Poor Memory

  • When you have poor working memory, research as shown that other stuff is slipping into your working memory and it potentially makes you more creative
  • Research as shown that if you have attention deficit disorder, what it means you have much more potential for being creative

Slow Thinkers

  • People with “race car brains” have the potential to jump into conclusions that can be missed because they are so use to being right, they find it difficult to change in the light of contradictory data
  • Can be overcome by hard work and taking the problems slow
  • The winners don’t come by coming with a solution quickly, but the one who can come up with the most effective solution

Imposter Syndrome

  • Feeling like you’re the fake in the room (self doubt)
  • Best way to address this problem is awareness of how common it is

Illusions of Competence in Learning

  • People fool themselves when they are learning something but they’re really aren’t
  • That’s why there’s test anxiety of when you feel like you’re ready for a test and sit in a test, you realize you don’t know the material at all
  • Tests are the best to overcome this
  • Use flash cards
  • Do homework (practice)
  • Recall the knowledge (read the material, look away, then see how much you can remember)
  • Study with other classmates (bounce ideas off other people)
  • Explain a way that a 10-year-old can understand