8 minute read  written by 

Someone once made the comment that if MOOCs were around 100 years ago, we would all be learning high-school physics from Albert Einstein via pre-recorded video lectures. Although this is a wonderful hypothetical to ponder, upon closer inspection it may miss an important point about learning. There is no guarantee that Einstein would be particularly good at teaching basic physics. In fact, often a deep expert is not the best person to teach novices, because for them so many aspects of the subject have been so ingrained that it is difficult for them to relate to those learning the basics.

BarbaraOakleynew

Barbara Oakley, professor in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at Oakland University, can definitely relate to learning struggles. In middle school and high school, she flunked math, but found that she had much more natural talent for languages. It was only years later, when she was in the U.S. Army (you can find out more about her personal story on her website) that she became interested in engineering. Barbara then obtained a doctoral degree in engineering, obviously learning math pretty well along the way (she has a forthcoming book to help others with math, A Mind for Numbers). Through her experiences, Barbara developed a keen interest in how we learn, and has immersed herself in the relevant research in this area. She is teaming up with Terrence Sejnowski, a Professor of computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, to teach a free MOOC: Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, which begins on October 3. Barbara spoke with Charlie Chung of Class Central on the subject of learning and her MOOC.

“Unfortunately, there is no instruction manual for the brain.”

Looking back on her own learning history, to what does Barbara attribute her initial struggles with math? Barbara “got no pleasure at all from sitting and learning math” whereas she was much more interested in languages. Is this innate? Barbara acknowledges that “there is no question that there is a biological basis for different propensities. Some people will find math easier, other people will find language easier.” However, more important than our natural talent is what we choose to learn, and that is up to us. We shouldn’t base that choice solely by what we are good at. Barbara advises:

I had always heard ‘follow your passions’ but your passions come from what you tend to practice…if you blindly follow your passions you are going to be getting good at something that a lot of people will be good at and it will be hard to differentiate. So do not just follow your passions. Instead, broaden your passions. You should be willing to experiment and push yourself in your learning.

This is good, deep advice, the kind of you might receive from a relative or mentor that helps you set your direction at some formative time in your life. As Barbara and Terrence point out, unfortunately, there is no instruction manual for the brain. However, we have learned a great deal in the past few decades, thanks to insights from cognitive psychology and the tools of brain imaging techniques. They want to disseminate some of what we’ve learned about how we learn in this MOOC.

Prof. Oakley on Focused vs. Diffused Modes of Thinking

 The MOOC approaches how we learn at three levels: 1) concepts and principles that originate from the relevant sciences (there are quite a few links of references), 2) illustrations and metaphors that are designed to help us understand grasp these concepts, and 3) practical tips that we can utilize in our learning endeavors.

Below are a few of the most interesting practical tips that are discussed in the MOOC:

  • Get sufficient sleep in order to think well – We often hear the advice that a good night’s rest will help us to think more clearly. The material in the MOOC gives us great animations that help us understand why: when we sleep, our brain cells shrink a little bit, and that allows fluids to wash out the toxins that accumulate in the brain. Thus, if you pull an all-nighter before an exam, you are literally “going in to take a test with a poisoned brain”
  • Use the Pomodoro technique to battle procrastination – When we are faced with something that we do not like (e.g., working on a math problem), pain centers in our brain will initially light up. There are two ways we can react: we can quickly shift our attention to something else in order to avoid the feeling of pain (that is, procrastinate), or we can continue to work through the pain—after 15 to 20 minutes, it will fade away. Thus, we need to trick our brains into not taking the easy way out, and just persevere a little bit. A popular technique for helping with this is the Pomodoro Technique in which you set a timer for 25 minutes, work on the task at hand for that time, then take a 5 minute break, at which point you reward yourself.
  • Use spaced repetition to help remember key facts – There is a trend to move away from rote memorization to emphasizing engaging learning experiences, like working on real-world problems with your peers, and this is a good trend. However, memorization is still an important part of learning—you need to have a store of relevant information with which to make higher-level connections. Barbara advocates the use of Anki, a free spaced repetition software tool to help reinforce facts periodically before you forget them (and incidentally, so does the irrepressible language hacker, Benny the Irish Polyglot).
  • To test whether you’ve really learned something, try recalling it – When students read textbooks, for example, many try to reinforce what they’ve learned by extensive highlighting or re-reading the information. Barbara points to a series of studies that show that these techniques are inferior to simply trying to recall the information—you can create flashcards to test yourself, or simply glance away from a page and recalling what you’ve just read.
  • Try learning in different locations – Research shows that you have the best recall of things you’ve learned when you are in the same settings. Thus, if you are a student, one approach might be to do all of your studying in a classroom, which is where you will take the test. But Barbara has a much better suggestion, and that is to vary where you study so that you don’t become attached to any specific environmental factors, thus making your learning more robust.

How well we learn something is much more in our own hands than we realize 

Advice such as these, and others, will be discussed in the MOOC. They are quite encouraging, not just because it offers a few practical tips to do better on an exam, but because it helps us to realize that how well we learn something is much more in our own hands than we realize. That is a crucially important realization in our current time of rapid change. Barbara uses another good metaphor, that of learning how to drive a car. Some people may learn to drive fairly easily, and others may struggle through driver’s education, but virtually every mentally competent adult learns to drive in a short period of time (this actually consists of a highly complex set of skills). Yet, we don’t hear about people who gave it up just after trying because they found “they had no talent for it,” nor people who have been learning to drive “off and on for 10 years, not really making much progress.” It is just something we learn to do because it is important to us! This is the same way we should think about a lot of learning.

“A very well-done MOOC is harder than writing a book”

Barbara shares that she has had a great time developing this MOOC. She is not a fan of boring lectures, and noted that some professors simply replicate their classroom lectures in their MOOC, and so do not take full advantage of the online medium. Thus, in this MOOC, she has put in the extra effort to design the content to be as rich as possible to convey each concept:

I have animations and all sorts of interesting things flying around in the videos and can compress what would ordinarily be an hour-long lecture into 6-7 minutes because it’s all right there and you are getting it crystallized and synthesized…I have to say that I have written a lot of books, and doing a MOOC—a very well-done MOOC – is harder than writing a book

Barbara clearly has a strong passion about the process of learning, and I have no doubt the MOOC will be interesting and quite useful for nearly everyone who is trying to learn something. If you are interested in taking the MOOC as well, you can sign up for Learning to Learn, which starts October 3.

Prof. Oakley on Starting by Learning Tiny Things