Learning How to Learn

Most of us can learn anything, if we’re taught how. Yet few of us find this to be the case. Why? Because we lack the skills we need to deal with the resistance and frustration we inevitably face when learning difficult topics.

Barbara Oakley wants to change that. Author of the book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science, and Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, she shares techniques for mastering any subject. And these are techniques over 2 million people have experienced in her incredibly popular MOOC, Learning How to Learn.

In this interview we discuss:

  • How she made the leap from self-described high school math “flunky” to accomplished engineering professor
  • What inspired her to make the shift from Russian linguist to engineer
  • How offering interesting learning hooks can help people learn content more effectively
  • How a diffuse or relaxed mode of thinking helps us organize what we learn
  • The importance of toggling between focused and diffuse thinking to learn
  • The fact that learning difficult things is hard
  • How sleep helps us build the neural architecture we need to learn new things
  • How we can be strategic in our approach to learning
  • Why you actually need content knowledge to become an expert — we cannot outsource it
  • How repetition, practice, and seeing things from different perspectives builds important neural patterns for expertise
  • Why conceptual chunking — memorizing and understanding — help us create these neural patterns
  • How our prefrontal cortex relaxes when we know something, so that we can build on that knowledge to solve more complex problems
  • What it means to have an illusion of competence when it comes to learning
  • How we can check our understanding by seeing if we can explain it to a five year old
  • How neural reuse theory, or learning something new by attaching it to something we already know, is a powerful learning tool
  • Why teachers should emphasize how simple something difficult can be to learn
  • How interleaving helps us learn when to use one technique versus another
  • How transfer helps us use learning we have done in one area in a new area and how it is best learned by doing
  • How we can reframe procrastination by focusing on the process not the product
  • How breaking the work into tiny tasks helps us overcome procrastination

Links to Topics Mentioned in this Podcast



The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman


Bayes Theorem

Negative binomial

Geometric distribution

Pomodoro Technique and Francesco Cirillo

Terry Sejnowski


If you enjoy the podcast, please rate and review it on iTunes — your ratings make all the difference. For automatic delivery of new episodes, be sure to subscribe. As always, thanks for listening!

Thank you to Emmy-award-winning Creative Director Vanida Vae for designing the Curious Minds logo, and thank you to Rob Mancabelli for all of his production expertise!




Like what you read? Give Gayle Allen a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.