Review and Summary: Learning How to Learn

Learning How to Learn Book Cover

Ever wondered if you could become a super learner? Well, Learning How to Learn gives you key to unlock your brain’s full potential. It’s a book that speaks to everyone, no matter where you are in your learning journey. Barbara Oakley, Terry Sejnowski, and Alistair McConville come together, blending expertise in brain science and real-world teaching experience.

Learning How to Learn contains tools that help you memorize better, work smarter, and grasp concepts faster. At the end of every chapter, there’s a little checkpoint. It’s like having a personal coach who asks, “Got it?” before moving on. Plus, they sprinkle in resources to broaden your horizon on various topics, making sure you’re not just learning, but seeing the world in new ways.

Worried about tripping over technical jargon? Don’t be. The authors have this gentle way of breaking down complex terms, ensuring you’re never lost. It’s like they anticipated every “Huh?” moment and cleared the path for a smooth learning ride.

Reading this book was like walking down memory lane for me. It reminded me of my school days, applying methods I instinctively knew worked but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. This book puts those methods into words, validating that, yes, these strategies really do work. It made me think, “If only I had this guide for navigating life lessons with the same ease.”

Learning How to Learn is not just about learning; it’s about transforming how we approach knowledge itself. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever been curious, anyone who’s ever wanted to improve themselves, and especially for those who believe that learning is a lifelong adventure. If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: learning how to learn is the first step in understanding the world and our place in it. And who knows? Maybe one day, there’ll be a sequel on learning how to navigate life itself. Wouldn’t that be something?


The Brain’s Learning Modes

  1. Focused Mode
    • Intense concentration on the task.
    • Role: Activates brain regions for understanding new information.
    • Use: Crucial for the initial learning phase.
  2. Diffuse Mode
    • A relaxed, wandering mind.
    • Role: Facilitates creative thinking and the connection of ideas.
    • Use: Vital for developing insights and innovative solutions.

Efficient learning requires toggling between Focused and Diffuse modes. This dynamic allows for both deep understanding and creative problem-solving.

Navigating the Shift between Focused and Diffuse Mode

  • Activating Focused Mode
    • Triggered by directing our attention to a task.
    • Challenge: Maintaining prolonged concentration is tough.
  • Entering Diffuse Mode
    • Achieved by relaxing and not focusing on any specific task.
    • Simple activities like walking can facilitate this transition.
  • Enhancing Diffuse Mode
    • Shifting focus away aids in entering a related Diffuse Mode, offering fresh perspectives.
    • Optimal strategies for engaging Diffuse Mode:
      • Sleeping: Allows the subconscious to process information.
      • Exercising: Boosts creativity and problem-solving.
      • Traveling: Riding in a vehicle can stimulate thought processes.

Alternating between modes enhances problem-solving. Activities that seem unrelated to work—like sleep or exercise—play a crucial role in learning and creativity.

Stuck in Learning and How to Overcome Them

The reasons you get stuck probably because:

  • Stuck After Missing the Basics
    • Issue: Struggling because the initial concept wasn’t grasped.
    • Solution: Revisit and review the material. Before the Diffuse Mode can be effective, the Focused Mode needs to be engaged with the foundational information through notes or textbooks.
  • Stuck Despite Understanding
    • Issue: Feeling frustrated even after diligently studying the material.
    • Cause: Failing to leverage the Diffuse Mode for problem-solving by remaining too fixated on the problem.
    • Solution: Step away from the problem. Engage in different activities to shift into the Diffuse Mode, allowing your brain to work on the issue subconsciously.

Strategies for Unsticking Your Brain

  • Taking a break or changing your focus can significantly aid in problem-solving. It gives your brain the chance to process information in the background, often leading to breakthroughs without direct conscious effort.
  • Alternatively, diverting your attention to a new activity can unexpectedly spark solutions to previously unsolvable problems.

This approach simplifies the understanding of common learning barriers and offers practical advice on how to navigate them by effectively using both modes of thinking.

Procrastination in Learning

Procrastination is the habit of delaying tasks or decisions until later, which can severely impact learning and productivity.

  • Consequences
    • Leads to a shortage of time, which is essential for consolidating new ideas and knowledge.
    • Results in wasted energy worrying about unfinished tasks, further detracting from learning opportunities.
  • Impact on Learning
    • Acts as a major barrier to achieving high-quality learning outcomes by preventing the necessary repetition and practice that solidify new concepts.
  • The Problem with Cramming
    • Cramming is often a direct outcome of procrastination, characterized by last-minute studying.
    • This approach is flawed as it skips the gradual process of knowledge acquisition, leading to poor retention and understanding.

Addressing procrastination is key to unlocking effective learning strategies, ensuring both the efficient use of time and the deep integration of knowledge.

Pomodoro Technique, A Solution to Procrastination to Beat Procrastination

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique is named after the Italian word for tomato, inspired by the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used. This method is a powerful tool to combat procrastination and enhance focus and productivity.

How It Works:

  • Prepare a Timer: A simple timer is the core tool you’ll need.
  • Eliminate Distractions: Ensure your workspace is free from anything that could break your concentration.
  • Set the Timer: Start with 25 minutes dedicated solely to the task at hand.
  • Focus Intensely: Commit to working with full attention on your task.
  • Take a Rewarding Break: After the session, treat yourself. This reward system is crucial as anticipation of a reward significantly boosts your ability to focus.
  • Note Wandering Thoughts: If unrelated thoughts intrude, jot them down on paper to clear your mind and return to the task.
  • Engage in a Different Activity During Breaks: Choose break activities unrelated to your work to refresh your mind.
  • Stick to One Task: Avoid switching tasks mid-Pomodoro. Focus on completing what you started before the timer rings.

Why It’s Effective:

  • The Pomodoro Technique breaks down work into manageable intervals, making tasks seem less daunting.
  • It emphasizes single-tasking over multitasking, which is a myth. Switching tasks dilutes focus and reduces efficiency due to the mental energy required to shift attention.

By following the Pomodoro Technique, you can enhance your focus, manage your time more effectively, and improve your learning and productivity.

Active Recall

Active recall is the practice of consciously retrieving information from memory, a powerful technique for deepening understanding and enhancing retention of knowledge.

How to do active recall?

  • Look Through the Chapter First: Before you start reading a chapter, quickly look at pictures, titles, and summaries to get an idea of what it’s about.
  • Read Carefully: Go through the chapter slowly. It’s okay to mark a few important things, but don’t mark too much.
  • Try to Remember: After reading a bit, stop and look away from the book. Try to remember the main ideas you just read.
  • Think First, Then Check: The important part is to try to remember on your own before looking back at the book. You don’t have to do this for every page, just the important parts.

Why It’s Good:

  • Trying to remember stuff on your own helps make your memory stronger.
  • It’s better than just reading over the text many times because it makes your brain work harder to remember, which helps you learn better.

Using active recall means testing yourself on what you’ve learned to really make sure it sticks in your brain.

The Three Key Steps to Powerful Reading

  1. Picture walk
  2. Read with care
  3. Use active recall

Why Sleep is Essential for Learning

Sleep is like a superpower for your brain. It helps your brain practice what you’ve learned during the day.

Here’s How It Works:

  • Practice While You Sleep: Your brain goes over things you’ve learned, using the same paths in your brain over and over, like it’s practicing.
  • Sleep Makes Connections Stronger: During sleep, parts of your brain called dendritic spines grow. This makes the connections between brain cells stronger, so it’s easier for you to think about what you’ve learned.

Naps and Learning:

  • Naps Help, But Aren’t Enough: Taking a nap can move information from a temporary spot in your brain to a long-term spot. This clears up space so you can learn new things. But, napping all day can’t replace a good night’s sleep.

Why Good Sleep Matters:

  • Moving Information: While you sleep, what you’ve learned moves from one part of your brain to another, where long-term memories are kept.
  • Making Room for More: Sleep also makes space in your brain for new information by clearing out the temporary storage.

Sleep Recommendations:

  • Enough Sleep: You should try to have at least 8 hours of sleep every night to give your brain enough time to process and store new information.

Sleep isn’t just rest; it’s a crucial time when your brain gets smarter by strengthening what it has learned and preparing to learn more.

The Cycle of Learning: Learn, Practice, Sleep

Learning, practicing, and getting enough sleep are key steps to really understanding new things.

Here’s Why It’s Important:

  • Building Brain Connections: Every time you learn and practice, your brain creates new connections. Sleep then helps these connections get stronger.
  • Daily Learning: When you learn something new a little bit each day, you give your brain several chances to sleep on it. This means more opportunities for your brain to strengthen what you’ve learned.
  • The Role of Sleep: Each night’s sleep helps the new stuff you’ve learned become a solid part of what you know. It’s like adding layers to make it stronger.

The mix of learning, practicing, and sleeping isn’t just about getting better at something. It’s actually about growing your brain in a way that makes learning stick. So, remember, practice doesn’t just make perfect—practice plus sleep does.

The Brain’s Memory Systems

The brain uses two main systems for handling information: Working Memory and Long-Term Memory.

Working Memory: Quick and Limited

  • What It Does: It’s like a temporary sticky note in your brain that holds what you’re currently thinking about.
  • Where It’s At: Located in the Prefrontal Cortex, right above your eyes.
  • Capacity: Can usually hold about 4 pieces of information at a time, though this number can vary slightly from person to person.
  • Duration: Information stays here for just 10-15 seconds unless you actively keep it there by focusing or repeating it.
  • Role: It’s crucial for temporarily remembering things you’re actively working with but isn’t meant for long-term storage.

Long-Term Memory: The Brain’s Storage Unit

  • Capacity: Can hold a vast amount of information, much more than Working Memory.
  • Challenge: Because it stores so much, it can sometimes be tricky to retrieve specific information.

Key Insights:

  • Transitioning Information: For something to be remembered in the long term, it must move from Working Memory to Long-Term Memory.
  • Attentional Variance: The exact capacity of Working Memory can vary, with most people having about four “slots.” Having more or fewer slots has its own advantages and disadvantages.
  • Importance of Practice: Repeating or focusing on information helps prevent it from slipping away and aids in transferring it to Long-Term Memory for safekeeping.

Understanding these two systems is crucial for learning effectively, as it highlights the importance of repetition and focused attention in making new knowledge stick.

Enhancing Memory with Visual Imagery Tricks

Our brains struggle with memorizing plain facts, but images make a much stronger impression. Here’s how to leverage this for better memory retention:

  • Transform Facts into Pictures: Visualizing information as images enhances memorability.
  • Embrace Uniqueness: The more distinctive the mental image, the easier it is to recall.
  • Incorporate Movement: Imagining movement within these visuals further cements them in our memory.

Adopting these techniques transforms dry facts into vivid, memorable experiences, significantly improving recall.

Strategies for Remembering Things

Improving memory involves a few straightforward but powerful steps:

  • Concentrate: First and foremost, give your full attention to the material. Focused attention is crucial for memory formation.
  • Repetition: Regularly practice recalling information. The act of trying to remember things strengthens memory pathways.
  • Visualize: Convert information into mental images. This makes abstract concepts more concrete and memorable.
  • Connect: Link new information with what you already know. Making connections helps in storing new knowledge more effectively.
  • Active Recall: Frequently test yourself by trying to remember information without looking at your notes. This step is key to transferring knowledge into long-term memory.

Adopting these techniques can significantly enhance your ability to remember and retrieve information when you need it.

The Memory Palace Technique

The Memory Palace Technique is a timeless method for enhancing memory, using familiar places as a mental framework for recalling information. This approach has roots stretching back 2500 years and was even utilized by the ancient Roman orator Cicero to remember his speeches. Modern studies confirm that this technique can physically alter your brain, leading to improved memory capabilities.

How It Works:

  • Choose a Familiar Place: Start with a location you know inside out, like your home.
  • Assign Information to Specific Locations: As you mentally walk through this place, distribute the items or concepts you need to remember across different spots within this space.
  • Make It Memorable: Infuse each piece of information with unique, even absurd, characteristics. Think shocking, silly, or adding movement to make them stand out.
  • Visual Walkthrough: Imagine yourself navigating through this space, interacting with these exaggerated, placed items. The more vivid and bizarre, the better.

Why It’s Effective:

  • Leverages Visuospatial Memory: Our brains are exceptionally good at remembering locations and spatial relationships, which are parts of our long-term memory. By tapping into this “visuospatial memory,” the Memory Palace Technique uses our innate strengths to enhance our ability to remember.
  • Creates Meaningful Connections: Linking abstract or random information to well-known routes or locations makes it significantly easier to retrieve.

By practicing the Memory Palace Technique, you not only improve your memory for specific tasks but also strengthen your overall memory skills, turning your brain into a more efficient storage and retrieval system.

More strategies to remembering things

  • Make up songs
  • Make up metaphors
  • Take good notes
  • Imagine you are the object or idea you’re trying to remember and understand
  • Associating numbers with well-known shapes or characters
  • Teach the information to someone else.
  • Sleep is important in anchoring new ideas you are learning

Building Brain-Links for Efficient Learning

Brain-links are crucial for processing complex information quickly and effectively. They consist of dendritic spine-synapse connections with axons, forming in long-term memory as you thoroughly learn a concept. A robust set of brain-links makes it easier for your attention to electrically latch onto and integrate into working memory.

How Brain-Links Work:

  • Formation in Working Memory: Initially, when grappling with new information, your working memory is highly active, striving to piece together ideas into a coherent structure. This process involves creating a new set of brain-links.
  • Transition to Long-Term Memory: Over time, as these connections solidify, understanding a concept becomes second nature. This transition results in a network of brain-links in long-term memory, enabling quick and easy access to the information with minimal effort.
  • Freeing Up Working Memory: Once a concept is securely linked, it occupies less space in working memory, freeing up capacity for tackling other tasks or learning additional concepts.

The Importance of Practice:

  • Beyond Understanding: Simply understanding a concept isn’t enough to form durable brain-links. Consistent practice is essential for embedding the knowledge deeply within long-term memory, enhancing comprehension over time.
  • The Risk of Overemphasis on Understanding: Too much focus on understanding every nuance can hinder performance and learning flow. It’s possible to overthink, leading to decision paralysis or confusion.
  • Effective Learning Strategies: Approaches like mastery learning, where knowledge is built incrementally, allow for the gradual development of strong brain-links before moving on to more complex ideas. Programs like Kumon exemplify this method, emphasizing step-by-step mastery.

In summary, while understanding concepts is vital, the creation and reinforcement of brain-links through practice are what truly embed knowledge into long-term memory, facilitating the efficient handling of complex information.

Making Learning Stick with Two Tricks

When you want to remember what you’re learning better, two tricks can really help: practicing on purpose and mixing things up.

  1. Deliberate Practice
    • Beyond Repetition: Simply repeating a task isn’t enough to build strong brain-links. The quality of practice matters immensely.
    • Avoiding Lazy Learning: Once a concept is comfortably understood, continuing to practice it in the same way can lead to lazy learning, which doesn’t challenge the brain to form new connections.
    • Focus on Challenges: Deliberate practice involves concentrating on aspects that are difficult. This approach ensures continuous growth and the formation of new dendrites, leading to stronger neural connections.
  2. Interleaving
    • Interleaving means practicing different elements or types of problems within the same study session. This contrasts with focusing on one type of problem repeatedly before moving on to another.
    • Seeing the Bigger Picture: By mixing different topics or types of problems, interleaving helps in distinguishing and understanding the nuances between them. This method not only enhances adaptability but also deepens comprehension by forcing the brain to constantly adjust and apply concepts in varied contexts.

Why These Methods Work:

  • Deliberate Practice pushes you out of your comfort zone, prompting your brain to adapt and strengthen connections in response to new challenges.
  • Interleaving enhances cognitive flexibility and aids in developing a more comprehensive understanding by exposing you to a wider range of applications and distinctions within the material.

Together, these strategies foster the creation of robust brain-links, making the learning process more efficient and the knowledge gained more durable.

Why Studying in Different Places Help

Mixing up your study spots can actually make your memory stronger. Here’s why:

  • Keeps Your Brain Alert: When you change where you study, you keep your brain on its toes. It pays more attention because the surroundings keep changing.
  • Links Learning to More Places: If you only study in one place, like the library, your brain starts to connect what you’re learning just to that place. Then, if you take a test somewhere else, like a classroom, it might be harder to remember because your brain is looking for the “library” feeling.
  • Makes Your Memory More Flexible: By studying in different places, you teach your brain to recall information anywhere, not just in one specific spot.

So, changing up your study environment can actually help your brain get better at pulling up information, no matter where you are.

The Myth of Learning Styles: Auditory vs Visual

The idea that we learn better through our “preferred learning style,” like listening or seeing, isn’t backed by research. In fact, sticking too much to one way of learning might limit how well we can learn in other ways.

  • Use All Your Senses: Learning isn’t just about using your eyes or ears. It’s about engaging as many senses as you can. This helps your brain build a fuller picture of what you’re learning.
  • Mix It Up: When you use different ways to learn something—reading, listening, and doing—you understand it better. Your brain gets more ways to remember the information.

So, the more ways you can experience and practice what you’re learning, the better and stronger your understanding will be.

Also read: The Learning Game.

The Impact of Video Games on Learning and Skills

Video games, especially action ones, have some surprising benefits for your brain:

  • Boosts Focus: Playing action video games can help improve your ability to concentrate on tasks.
  • Enhances Vision: Believe it or not, these games can actually make some aspects of your vision better.
  • Improves Spatial Skills: Games like Tetris are great for beefing up your spatial abilities. This means you get better at picturing things moving or rotating in your mind, which is a handy skill for math and science.

However, not all games provide these benefits. For example, life simulation games might not help with improving your focus or control over where you direct your attention.

A Word of Caution: Despite these perks, there’s a downside. Video games can be really addictive, so it’s important to play in moderation.

Effective Note-Taking Strategies

Taking notes by hand is one of the best ways to remember what you learn:

  • Handwriting Boosts Memory: When you write notes with a pen and paper, it forces you to think about what you’re writing. This process starts building brain-links, helping your brain to begin forming new connections.
  • Review Before Bed: Going over your handwritten notes before sleeping can further enhance memory. Your brain works on strengthening those connections while you sleep, making the material easier to recall later.

A Tip for Organizing Notes:

  • Divide Your Page: Draw a line about one-third of the way in from the edge of your paper. Use the larger section for your initial notes. Later, summarize the main points in the smaller section.
  • Test Your Recall: After summarizing, try to remember those key points without looking. This practice of active recall helps cement the information in your memory.

This method not only helps with better retention of information but also organizes your notes in a way that makes reviewing key concepts more efficient.

The Unexpected Advantage of Having a Poor Working Memory

Having a poor working memory isn’t always a disadvantage. In fact, it can sometimes be a secret strength, especially when it comes to creativity and problem-solving.

  • Working Harder Leads to Simplicity: If your “attentional octopus” has fewer arms, you can’t hold as many thoughts at once. This limitation forces you to find simpler, more creative ways to link ideas together. The result? Your brain-links might be more elegantly simplified and innovative.
  • Forgetting Can Spark Creativity: People with a smaller working memory capacity might find thoughts slipping away more easily. While this might seem like a drawback, it actually allows for new ideas to enter the mind more freely, often leading to higher creativity.
  • The Trade-off: Yes, if your working memory isn’t as strong, you might have to put in more effort to form connections between concepts. But this extra effort can make it easier for you to come up with unique, creative solutions that others might not see.

Research suggests that what some might see as a limitation can actually be a source of creative power. So, having a few less “arms” on your attentional octopus might just be a hidden advantage in the realm of creativity and innovation.

Mastering Test-Taking with the Hard-Start Technique

When you’re sitting down for a test, here’s a strategy to help you perform your best:

  • Scan and Mark: First, quickly go through the entire test. Put a checkmark next to the questions you think are the toughest.
  • Try a Tough One: Choose one of the difficult questions and start working on it. Give it a minute or two, just until you hit a snag or feel stuck.
  • Switch Gears: Once you’re stuck, switch to an easier question. This boosts your confidence and keeps your momentum going.
  • Return with Fresh Eyes: After solving some easier problems, go back to the tough one. You might find you’re now able to make progress.

Why This Works:

  • Engages Both Brain Modes: This technique leverages your brain’s dual processing power. When you move on from the hard problem, your diffuse mode (your brain’s creative, problem-solving mode) keeps working on it in the background.
  • Prevents Last-Minute Panic: Tackling hard problems at the start, rather than saving them for the end, gives your diffuse mode time to work, which wouldn’t happen if you waited until time was almost up.

By using the Hard-Start technique, you not only make better use of your brain’s capabilities but also get practice in strategically navigating through test questions, enhancing your overall test-taking skills.

Transforming Obligation into Opportunity

Embracing learning not as a chore but as an opportunity can change the way you approach your interests and passions. Here’s how shifting from “have to” to “get to” can make a difference in your life and learning:

  • Expand Your Passions: Learning isn’t just about following the paths you’re already passionate about. It’s also about discovering new areas of interest that could lead to unexpected opportunities. By broadening your scope of learning, you’re preparing yourself for a world that’s constantly evolving.
  • Keep Your Options Open: As you navigate through life, maintaining an open mind about your interests and potential career paths is crucial. The world is becoming increasingly complex, and having a wide range of skills and interests makes you more adaptable and prepared for whatever comes your way.
  • Persistence Pays Off: True learning requires persistence. However, persistence doesn’t mean pushing through without breaks. It means consistently coming back to tackle challenges after giving your mind time to rest and process information in the background.
  • Stay Flexible: Being open to realizing when you’re wrong and willing to change your perspective is invaluable. Admitting mistakes and adjusting your approach based on new information is a sign of strength and flexibility in learning.

By shifting your mindset from seeing learning as an obligation (“I have to learn this”) to viewing it as a privilege (“I get to learn this”), you open yourself up to a lifetime of growth, discovery, and resilience in the face of change.

Author: Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD

Publication date: 7 August 2018

Number of pages: 255 pages


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