How to learn more effectively

There’s been a lot of interest in recent neuro-scientific research, particularly research related to different aspects of learning and memory. As educators, we’re always trying to find better ways to help our students learn (and ourselves as well). While popular science articles have highlighted many of the significant changes in our understanding of how the brain works, reading some of the details of research and ongoing debates about our interpretation of fMRI data left me wanting to learn more.

A colleague of mine, Beth Cougler Blom, suggested I take part in a Coursera MOOC “Learning How to Learn” last year (she had just completed an earlier offering). She found the University of California (San Diego) course enlightening and mentioned several insights she’d gleaned. So I signed up and was introduced to Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering, Oakland University, and Dr. Terence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

So what “stood out for me” that might be useful to share with other educators?

  1.  Behaviorist theories of learning are still important and applicable, particularly when interpreted in light of neuro-science research and application in various studies grounded in higher education environments.
  2. We learn best (deeper, broader) and retain more when use the study / work techniques redefined through recent investigations. Surprisingly, practising recall without prompts was still one of the powerful tools we can apply to improve our learning. No more relying on my Google-brain when tackling new subjects. And recall trumped mind/concept-mapping for some types of learning (see references)
  3. We need to take care of our physical well-being to ensure that our brain functions well – aerobic activity is an increasingly important factor, along with getting sufficient sleep. Note:  I’ll never forget the mental image of my brain cells shrinking as I sleep so all the effluent can be drained away and my cells can be ready and clean for the next day. And, fMRI brain imaging showed multiple new synapses can form after learning and sleep.
  4. We can “rewire” our brains. Research has shown (and Dr. Oakley is a living example) that the brain retains it’s flexibility (neuro-plasticity) and we can continue to generate new brain cells and neural connections.

What could you do to improve your student’s learning right now?

You can jump right to Dr. Oakley’s 10 Rules of Good Studying (extracted from her 2014 book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). The 10 rules are far easier to read than to apply – I’m still trying to integrate them in my reading and note-taking although I’ve noticed some improvement fairly quickly.

Some of the interesting ideas I learned from the Learning How to Learn MOOC:

  1.  Practicing something for 10,000 hours is not the best way to master your subject. Mixing up your techniques for practice, spacing your practices, and challenging yourself to recall without supports (or to try teaching what you’re learning to someone else) combine to form a more efficient way of learning.
  2. Eating your lima beans before your baked apple pie with ice cream – is still a good strategy.
  3. The power of linking learning to visual images or memories is powerful across cultures. I’ve worked with indigenous instructors who used metaphors and stories as is traditional in their cultures. Surprisingly, metaphoric zombies (invoked by Dr. Oakley) do stick in my brain to help me remember.
  4. Self management techniques like Cirillos’ “pomodoro Technique” can be very effective when they link goal setting, focused-rest-focused cycles of work, small rewards and setting up the best conditions for learning you can.
  5. Not really new but re-affirmed – passion and persistence underly most success in learning (and life?)


Example? Her recent, thought-provoking and clearly written article for Nautilus – a science magazine aimed at non-scientists –


Cirillo, Francesco, The Pomodoro Technique Retrieved from

Karpicke, Jeffrey D. and Janell R. Blunt. (11 February 2011) Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping  Science New Series, Vol. 331, No. 6018, pp. 772-775  Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science   

Hamilton, John. (October 17, 2013). “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep.” NPR All Things Considered.

Oakley, Barbara (October 2, 2014). How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, Nautilus, Issue 017, Retrieved from

Pan, Steven C. “The Interleaving Effect: Mixing It Up Boosts Learning,” Scientific American, August 4, 2015.

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