Barbara Oakley | Learning How to Learn (Episode 440)

You don’t have to be afraid of math (or anything) when you adapt techniques that make you excel at other things.

“You can do way more than you think you can do.” -Barbara Oakley

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Why is following your passion not always your best option? (10:35)
  • Gaining smooth, practiced “chunks” of knowledge is invaluable in art, sports, math, language — and even charm. (19:50)
  • Is “mathphobia” a global phenomenon? (21:05)
  • Why do we procrastinate, and what can we do to fend it off? (23:56)
  • Learn how to get motivated instead of overwhelmed. (29:54)
  • And so much more…


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During the course of formal education, most of us find ourselves drawn naturally to certain subjects — and just as naturally repelled by others. Why is it that some people can seemingly wrap their brains around concepts we find elusive, and is it possible for us to change the way we learn?

Anyone who’s ever uttered the words “I’m just not a math person” will want to tune in to this episode of The Art of Charm to hear the story of Barbara Oakley, who conquered an early aversion to math and science to become — of all things — a professor of engineering. But it’s her expertise in cross disciplines, connecting the dots between them, and the way she’s learned how to learn that you’ll find most remarkable — and applicable to your own efforts to become a better, well-rounded, and more educated you. Enjoy!

More About This Show

“When you’re a professor with tenure,” Barbara Oakley will tell you, “you can do whatever you want.” But she didn’t wait for the luxury of becoming a tenured professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan to live a life of learning. You could say she’s been doing whatever she wants all along.

Barbara loves, as she says, “to look at life with a profoundly scientifically influenced underpinning.” She knits together broad, yet practical, scientifically grounded insights about the human psyche that the specialists miss.

On a quest for knowledge that’s led her around the globe enough times to rival Indiana Jones and 007, Barbara rose from the rank of Private to Captain in the US Army, during which time she was recognized as a Distinguished Military Scholar. She also worked as a communications expert at the South Pole Station in Antarctica (where she met her now-husband of 31 years), and has served as a Russian translator on board Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea.

Because she’s been a lifelong student of everything, Barbara’s real discipline is in learning how to learn. In fact, you might be surprised to discover that her expertise in engineering wasn’t driven by an intrinsic ability to juggle numbers and equations — that didn’t come until much later.

From elementary to high school, she was a self-described mathphobe who was more aligned with linguistic-oriented subjects than the ones that involved science and math. The story of how Barbara overcame this limitation is the foundation of a free Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) she teaches with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute: Learning How to Learn. Its companion book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), is a New York Times bestseller — which may indicate just how common it is for people to consider themselves mathphobes.

The course itself has attracted nearly a million students — “it’s almost the largest MOOC in the world,” Barbara says. “We get a lot of feedback on what people are trying to learn [and] what they’re trying to do. And one of the biggest things, I find, is that people often box themselves in by following their passion.”

While advising against following one’s passions seems counterintuitive, Barbara knows from her own story that it’s easy to miss options and opportunities when we tell ourselves that we’re “bad” at something — like math. But once we start knocking these self-imposed mental blocks away, we open ourselves up to a world of potential passions we didn’t even realize existed.

“You can do way more than what you think you can do, and you can change what your passions are,” says Barbara. “You can change what you’re good at, what you’re interested in, and it can actually be really beneficial in today’s society and culture.”


So how did Barbara make the change from someone who flunked math and science courses in school to someone who embraced them and turned them into the tools of her livelihood? She began by applying skills from an area at which she excelled — languages — to the skills at which she did not.

“A big thing that people don’t realize is that practice and repetition with little tidbits can help build your learning expertise,” says Barbara, “no matter what you’re learning.”

This is what Barbara calls “chunking.” If you’ve ever tried to pick up another language or play a musical instrument, for instance, it’s common to practice and repeat the “chunks” of knowledge your brain is taking in until their associated tasks become second nature. But in the Western world, when it comes to the dreaded STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects that only 17% of today’s youth are pursuing, chunking doesn’t usually factor into the learning process. A math problem gets solved, the paper gets handed in, and the student never looks at it again.

But if chunking is applied in this scenario, a student can really study the solved problem by repeating the steps it took to solve and practicing until the process becomes easy.

“In other countries, there’s not this mathphobia like there is in the United States and in some European countries,” says Barbara. “If you go to Asia, people are very aware that it’s kind of like driving a car. Some people take longer to learn how to drive a car, but most people can learn how to drive a car — and it’s the same with math. It just takes a little longer and more practice for some people, but they’re not scared of it because they’ve had plenty of practice.”

Learning How Not to Procrastinate

But if just the thought of practice and repetition makes you scramble to find something — anything — else to do, you might have fallen prey to one of chunking’s biggest enemies: procrastination. And there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for this reaction.

“You may not realize it, but [thinking about doing something you don’t want to do] actually activates part of the insular cortex,” explains Barbara, “which is affiliated with pain. So your brain feels pain — the same kind of physical pain as if you just stabbed yourself accidentally with a fork or something.”

If you want to overcome this pain, Barbara says there are two ways to deal with it:

  1. You can power through the task you’re trying to avoid. “After about 20 minutes,” says Barbara, “that pain will go away.”
  2. Procrastinate. Simply switch your brain’s attention from something it doesn’t like to something that’s more pleasant.

A lot of us will opt for “solution” number two because it’s the easiest choice — and we may not even realize we’ve done it until we’re looking back at the day and recognize what we did in place of what we should have been doing.

What Barbara recommends is going with option one, but after making the explicit agreement with yourself that you’re only going to do the unpleasant task for 25 minutes. Set a timer and have at it, keeping distractions to a minimum and just focusing on what you need to do. This is the Pomodoro technique, and Barbara (and her students) swear by it. When you stop thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing and just do it, the pain subsides and you actually get things accomplished.

Learning How to Get (and Stay) Motivated

Another enemy to the overall learning process is motivation. How do we get motivated — and stay motivated — instead of becoming overwhelmed with the steps and hurdles that stand between us and what we want out of life?

Barbara’s first answer, once again, involves a form of chunking.

“I think people all too often [get stuck] thinking of the big picture of everything they want to do,” says Barbara, “but everything starts with one step. A great thing to do is to — and we’re getting back to that idea of chunking — just break things down into a little, doable chunk. If you’re always doing these little chunks that are working toward your main [and possibly very intimidating] goal…and you put enough of them together, they’re like bricks. You lay enough of them and you start getting to where you want to go.”

Another motivational tool is reframing where you want to go against where you’ve been — keep a constant reminder of an unpleasant situation from the past that you would never want to repeat. For instance, one of Barbara’s students used to work at a chicken farm before he decided to become an engineer. It was hot and smelly — just a terrible experience. He kept a picture of that chicken farm close at hand to look at whenever his studies were wearing on him or some other distraction presented itself, and it reminded him of what he never wanted to do again.

The going was initially tough, Barbara tells us, but the student was able to stay on target with his studies and he’s doing really well now, thanks in no small part to the motivation of a better future for himself that doesn’t involve being cooped up with chickens.

Learning How to Enhance Creativity

Repetition and practice are effective because they work when you’re trying to learn something new, but what happens when you get stuck in a rut? This is where creativity — thinking about something in a different way — comes in handy. We all have the capacity to be creative, but how do we jog its power when we need it?

“The brain has two fundamentally different modes of operation,” says Barbara. “One is when you’re focusing hard on something — it’s like a flashlight. You turn your attention to someone or something and it’s on. The second mode is a set of relaxed neural resting states — I’ll collectively call it the diffuse mode. If…you’re taking a shower and you’re not thinking of anything in particular, or you’re going out for a walk or you’re riding on a bus.”

This second mode is what we’re trying to access when we get stuck on a problem that the first mode can’t seem to break us out of. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back from focusing too hard. Take a walk around the block. Ride your bike. Grab a quick shower. Summon the power of the diffuse mode and let your natural creativity do its work.

Learning How to Recall

Having lots of data stored in your head is of no use if you can’t recall it, but Barbara gives us this simple exercise to try.

“You just sit there; you look at the page; see if you can kind of grasp the main idea,” says Barbara. And then you look away and see if you can recall what those main ideas are.”

Believe it or not, Barbara says this is the most powerful method of helping you learn something new from written material. In fact, it’s far better than rereading, highlighting, or “concept mapping.”

“If there’s one thing you take away from what I’m talking about, let it be this idea of recall,” says Barbara.

Listen to this podcast in its entirety to learn why creativity is counter correlated with agreeableness, how sleep helps the learning process sink in, what it means to be dreaming without dreaming, and how the Pomodoro technique got its curious name.


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AJ Harbinger - author of 1126 posts on The Art of Charm

AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality. Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.

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