FFF 130: Learning How To Be A Better Learner – with Dr Barbara Oakley


This week, Scott and Barbara Oakley talk about how you can learn how to learn, why our learning ability tends to decline as we grow older, and some learning hacks you can to do learn more effectively.

Barbara is a Ph.D. and a full professor of engineering at Oakland University. She also teaches at the Salk Institute on Learning How to Learn, one of the biggest Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the world with over two million students. Growing up, Barbara was a terrible learner but she was able to turn that around. She started as a linguist in the military and found that learning in math and science shares a lot in common with learning languages.

How Do You Learn?

Learning is a physical process of making new connections in the brain and practicing to reinforce and strengthen those connections between neurons.

There’s much evidence that people have an advantage with their genetic underpinnings. Some people have “race car brains.” Others have “hiker” brains, but while they’re walking, they can reach out and touch the leaves on the trees, smell the pine in the air and hear the birds singing. In many ways, this is a far reacher and deeper experience.

The Challenge with Geniuses

Many smart people are not used to correcting themselves when they get wrong. No matter how smart you are, you’re going to make mistakes in your decision. The smart people who have little experience in correcting those mistakes can have real difficulties with them. Instead of correcting, they could more likely double down and justify their mistakes.

Learning a New Language or Skill

Try to spend 2-3 hours a day to study the language, or even the Pomodoro technique of 25 minutes of concentration can at least help you get started. Barbara recommends using the Yabla and Duolingo apps which you can just download online.

For instance, Kenyan athlete Julius Yego never wanted to be a long-distance runner; instead, he wanted to be a javelin thrower. But since there were no javelin-throwing coaches in Kenya, he taught himself how to throw the javelin by watching YouTube videos and practicing on his own. Ultimately, he became a world champion in javelin-throwing.

Why Our Learning Ability Declines as We Age

At 9-12 years old, you have the maximum amount of grey matter, which means you have a lot of neurons. As you grow older, the connections you don’t use start to be pruned away. There is a decline in our ability to learn. We have more difficulty trying to cram that information into our brains and make it stick than we did when we were in our teens. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t still learn. In fact, it’s vitally important that we continue to learn as we age and push ourselves to master something new.

Video Games to Enhance Cognitive Skills for Aging People

Surprisingly, older people can benefit from playing action-style video games. In fact, an upcoming video game can potentially become the first video game to be approved by the FDA for enhancing cognitive skills in aging individuals having cognitive decline.

25 Minutes of Real Focused Work

Although there is not a lot of research on the Pomodoro technique, there’s a lot of ancillary evidence that hints about why this technique is so powerful and useful. To do this, turn off all distractions. Set your timer for 25 minutes and work as intently as you can. When you’re done, give yourself 5-10 minutes of a reward. Get your mind off intense focus. This is one of the most important parts of this technique because it allows you to use this other set of neural circuits, allowing you to consolidate and make sense of the material you’ve been focusing on. This technique is essentially in sync with how your brain truly works.

How to Study More Effectively

Cramming is the worst thing you can do because learning actually really happens when we sleep. Study within the day then right before you sleep, take one last look at it. This preps your brain to practice those ideas in your sleep.

The Best Time to Learn

As the day goes by, little metabolites can accumulate and poison the neurons. Your brain cells are putting out these toxins but because your brain cells are too big, they can’t be easily washed away by the cerebral fluids. Research shows that when you go to sleep, your brain cells shrink. Hence, it’s better to learn earlier because you get a little more tired as the day goes on and you’re just not able to devote as much neural horsepower to whatever you’re learning. Moreover, spend four hours a day of primetime where you can focus on something.

Other Learning Hacks That Stick

Repetition is the mother of learning. That extra practice can help you build those neural connections. The more you can practice over a number of days can help. Do it over a few different times of the day and then over a number of days. Learning fast is not the same as learning deeply.

  • How do you learn?
  • The challenge with geniuses
  • How to learn a new language or skill
  • How fast do children learn and why our ability to learn declines as we grow older
  • Why older people need to continue to learn and how video games can help
  • Learn how to do the Pomodoro technique and why it’s so powerful
  • How to study more effectively
  • Why it’s better to learn earlier in the day
  • Allotting four hours of prime time to focus on learning
  • The power of repetition and practice
Quotes & Take-Aways

When we learn anything we’re actually making changes in our long-term memory.

No matter how smart you are, you’re going to make mistake in your decision.

We can learn a lot nowadays even things you think would be impossible to learn just by carefully watching and doing from what we see online.

As we grow older, there is a decline in our ability to learn.

You can do a lot better job if you’re not being disturbed by other things.

Learning actually really happens when we sleep.

When you go to sleep, your brain cells shrink.

It’s better to learn earlier because you get a little more tired as the day goes on and you’re just not able to devote as much neural horsepower to whatever you’re learning.

Repetition and practice are one of the biggest hacks around but whatever you’re practicing, try to use it flexibly.

Thanks for listening and the support – if you enjoyed this episode, I hope you can leave the podcast a rating and review on iTunes, and if you haven’t subscribed yet, this is the best time to do that too. This will help the show to get up in the rankings.

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.