Recently I stumbled on an amazing TEDx video called “Learning How to Learn” by Barbara Oakley. I’m constantly inspired by people who take the hard road to improve themselves — and Barbara strikes me as one of the most astounding examples.
The amazing thing about the talk was how practical and simple her advice was. At the end of the video, I stopped, closed my eyes, and summarized to myself what she said. I’ve written in the past about time management for college students, but I wish I knew the things Barbara talked about during my academic career.
Watch it below, and let me know what you think. I hope you find it as useful as I did — and that you could start implementing it today in the things you do everyday. Thank you Barbara for sharing these amazing insights!
If you want more reading or videos — I also shared some previous content on learning things quickly. I added the full transcript of “Barbara’s Learning How to Learn” talk below as well for those who want to scan.
“I grew up moving all over the place by the time I hit third grade I’d lived in different places male is extraordinarily sequential and by the time I’d hit third-grade I had fallen off may have to pay and work basically I flaunt my way through elementary middle and high school math and science so it’s a little strange looking back now because today I’m a professor of engineering and I’m Hashim about my job what they want my students found out about my past and he asked me hot going how did you change your brain and I thought you did i do I mean here it was a slow kid and I just mom Ling Wu Jian culture and that’s all I wanted to learn when I grew up but I didn’t have the money to go to college so I enlisted in the Army right out of high school I had to learn language you can see me they’re looking very never miss about the frog really and I’m and I did learn a language I learned Russian and i ended up working out on soviet trawlers up on the Bering Sea as a Russian translator so I just want adventure and getting new perspectives so I also ended up in into Merdeka at the South Pole Station and that’s where I ended up beating my husband so I always say I had to go to the en donde Earth two min that mean but I can’t begin to realize something I was doing all these adventures in seeing these new perspectives but somehow they were always extreme they weren’t intern I wasn’t wasn’t changing inside when I had worked with in the military I would with all these West Point engineers me they had these powerful techniques for problem solving and I for I didn’t look sometimes that what they were doing and you know they had these calculus and physics books and it looked like hieroglyphics to me but I thought what with I could get those ideas would like and learn that language I mean the world’s evolving link which incall true are important but math and science and technology are important to you what if I could learn these new ideas and yeah them to the ideas I already knew loved so when I got out of the military at age I decide to try in change my brain it wasn’t easy what if I knew then what I know now about how to word I cool have much more easily much more effectively so several years ago as I begin trying to answer that student’s question how did I change my free i think im reaching out to top professors from around the world people who not only had knowledge them difficult areas of expertise but also who could teach effectively and I asked them I said how did you learn and how do you teach so others could I what I felt was the way they learned in the way they talk was often similar to the way willard and talk it was almost like this kinda shared for terminal handshake but we often didn’t know why we did what we did so I begin researching new coastlines in cognitive psychology and reaching talented to talk to top experts and nose feels and here is what I found the keys to learn effective now as we know the brain is enormously complex but we can simplify its operations into two fundamentally different modes the first is what I’ll call the focus and the focus mode is in just like it sounds like you turn your attention to something boo it on but the second one is a little different UT relaxed several states that all coal the diffuse me it’s a number resting States and so it seems that when you’re learning you’re going back and forth between these two different modes how can we better understand these moms through analogy I want to use is a pinball machine analogy y’all know how in Boalsburg just pull back on the plunger and the ball goes blinking on and bounces around rubber bumpers and that’s how you get points so what we’re gonna do is win tapers pinball how they put right on your brain right so their ideas I there’s the pinball machine when you bring and if you ok this is the analogy for the focus and when you’re turning your often thinking tightly as you focusing on something its it involves what’s your somewhat familiar with perhaps historical patterns or you’re familiar with the multiplication table So You Think thought and it takes off and moves along smoothly much along the pathways that you already laid what if the for what you’re thinking is actually new phone a new concept a new technique that you’ve never thought about before well that symbolized by this new pattern towards the bottom of the pinball machine metal to get to this new place i mean Italy Sweden metaphorically speaking look at all the rubber bumpers there in the way how can you even get there you need a different way of thinking a new perspective unison and that’s provided here by diffuse look at how for apart those welcome bombers over from one when you think about what it takes off in the can range very quietly as your attempting to come up with some new ideas see you can do that careful focused thinking that you key in the focus mode but you can at least yet to the place you need to be in to grapple with these new ideas so the the bottom line for all of us on this is this win you were Murni you want to go back and forth between these modes and if you find yourself issue focusing in on something trying to learn a new concept or solve a problem and you get stuck you want to turn your attention away a problem and allow diffuse moves that was resting States to do their work in the background no how he actually use these ideas in real life if you look at this guy right here he was solved or dali one of the most brilliant surrealist painters the th century dolly was very definition a wild and crazy guy you can see him there he’s got his pet Ocelot Babu ellwood don’t use to do when he was kinda stock as he was solving some problems related to his painting was he’d sit mean he’d relax in a chair any have season is he any all those keys any relaxing come let his brain noodling way and just see blacks so much that he fall asleep the keys would fall for miss him the clatter would wake him up and what go he’d take those ideas from the diffuse mode over to the focus mode we could work with them refine them and use them for his painting so you might think well that’s great human is good for earnest but I’m an engineer so how can I use these ideas well if you see this guy right here he was Thomas Anderson what are the most brilliant inventors in history and what person used to like to do at least according to legend he’d sit in a chair with ball bearings in his hand any relax away kinda thinking about a problem loosely that he was trying to solve related to his inventions relaxing and injustice falsely ball bearings would fall from his hands and will think oh be woken up any take those ideas from a diffuse move back into the focus mode and use them to work mine and finished his inventions so the bottom line for almost an hour this is this whenever you’re sitting down to solve a new problem or or analyze a new idea even millions of other people have fought the scene for to solve the same problems for you its justice creative as it was for themes people like dolly in Addison and you want to use some of these creative approaches so which you might say to me we are you got a problem you know I just I love to procrastinate I mean is back for stuff is great but I just I don’t have time i cramped the last min that’s just me source talk just a little bit about procrastination what seems to happen when you procrastinate is this you look at something you’d really rather not do and Hugh actually your of physical pain in the part of your brain that analyzes pain so this who weighs that you can handle this the first way is you can just kind of keep working our way through it and research has shown that within a few minutes and actual will disappear but the second way is you just turn your attention away and guess what you feel better right right so so once you do this twice it’s just not that big a deal what you do this very often and it actually like an addiction it keanu really cause problems in how you lead your life so how can you handle it very simple way using the Pomodoro Technique the Pomodoro Technique as it turns out all you need to do you get a time anytime we will do and then you just take it and said for minutes and make sure everything else is turned off so no instant messengers nothing like that and you work with focused attention for minutes anybody can do minutes virtually in and when you’re done you do something fun just a little bit a few minutes relaxed fun what this seems to do is this you are in thing you’re practicing in some sense your ability to have focused attention and you also practicing your ability to relax a little bit and now you understand that relaxation is also an important part on the learning process these things going on in the background the only thing is this when you do the Pomodoro you want to make sure that you are the that you don’t sit there and say do my entire homework set miss minutes now you just sit and say I’m gonna work with focused attention for min and that’s key no students sometimes make the mistake up thinking that some up there there absolute best traits or their worst rates so what do I mean by yes let’s take the idea memory let’s say that you have a poor working memory you can’t seem to hold things in mind very well you watch these other students in their able to grasp all these ideas income and manipulate them but you can’t well what this means is surprising you are more creative because you can’t all these ideas in mind so me other ideas are often creepin if you have problems with the tension always in diverting off into some other idea its Suman you are often more creative because these new ideas are slipping instead so there’s another thing meant slow thinking so students compare themselves to other students and say you know really small by comparison i mean these other students they’re like what worries car drivers they got past me so fast but think yourself as a hiker yes a race car driver gets there much faster than you ever key a hiker has a completely different experience hiker cams smell the high near they can reach out touch the leaves they see the rabbit trails in many ways your experiences are deeper and more profound yams you don’t jump to conclusions so if you were a slower thinker yes you may have to work harder in order to grasp materials but the trade-offs in many cases are well worth it you gained solid mastery what your son so there is something called illusions of competence in the morning and what this means is you can study all day long and you can be spinning your wheels because you’re not using effective study techniques their is such a thing as testing zaidi but in many cases surprisingly it arises because you’ve just come face to face with the scary bear and that is that %um just learned that you are not master material researchers are with both critters and people are finding powerful insights into how we can learn most effectively want those ways is simply few exercise actual size within a matter of a few days Kim increase our ability to build more and to remember and researchers are beginning to understand the neurophysiological pathways that allow this to occur pass has are the best test yourself all the time give you so many taste test make flashcards even in math and science mixing up a study in different places and this brings me to homework when you do a homework problem never just work at once you put it away would you ever sing a song once and think you knew that song no work that test yourself would hopeful problem several times over several days until the solution flows like a psalm from your mind recall will looking at a page as you trying to learn something in the book people’s tendency is to highlight right there’s something about the motion up the hand on the page that makes you think that it actually going into your brain but it often isn’t and so so often sometimes people will just reread but that to is simply spinning your wheels the most effective technique is simply to look at page look away and see what you can recall and doing is as it seems helps build profound moral hooks that help your I hope it hits your understanding the material and finally don’t be fooled by the Romeus idea did understanding a low is enough to build mastery of the material understanding is truly important but only when combined with practice and repetition in a variety of circumstances can you truly gain mastery what learn so in closing I would like to say yet learning how to learn is the most powerful tool you can ever grass don’t just follow your passions Walton your passions and your life will be rich beyond measure.”