Barbara Oakley’s professional biography does not suggest that she was once a struggling math and science student: She is an engineering professor, author of A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science and Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential (which is not affiliated with this MindShift). Oakley co-created Coursera’s most popular course, Learning How to Learn,” with Terrence Sejnowski, which has enrolled nearly 2 million students. 

But Oakley is a self-described “former math flunky” who “retooled” her brain — and who has since made it her life’s work to help others learn how to learn by explaining some key principles from modern neuroscience. 

The field of metacognition offers educators many techniques that are rooted in brain research, such as deliberate practice and interleaving. “But before you can even tackle these,” says Oakley, “you have to innoculate learners against the idea that they are stupid if they cannot figure things out first off. You have to teach them that faster is not always better.”

While her online course primarily enrolls adults, Oakley is now working on a book aimed at 10-to-14-year-olds. “I picked that age range because it is old enough that they can grasp the ideas but young enough that they don’t necessarily think ‘I’m bad at math. I can’t do it.’ We can get to them before they lock out possibilities.”

When students do not understand how their brains learn and retain material, they can develop misconceptions about themselves as learners — such as a faulty assumption that they are bad at a subject or that they suffer from performance anxiety. Oakley shares the common experience of students who reread their notes and think they know the material —  only to enter a test and find that they cannot retrieve the information. “They are horrified and think they must have test anxiety.” More likely, says Oakley, they simply haven’t been taught how to study in a way that allows them to retrieve the information.  

Oakley recognizes that “many educators are not at all comfortable with or trained in neuroscience,” so she breaks down a few key principles that teachers can use in the classroom and share with students to help them demystify the learning process.  

1. The Hiker Brain vs. The Race Car Brain

Start by teaching students the difference between focused and diffused thinking, says Oakley. When the brain is in focused mode, you can get started on the task at hand. But deep understanding is not fully accomplished in this mode.

Diffused thinking occurs when you allow your mind to wander, to imagine and to daydream. In this mode, the brain is still working —  consolidating information and “making sense of what you are trying to learn,” says Oakley. If a concept is easy for you to grasp right off, the focused mode might be sufficient, but if a new skill or concept “takes consideration, you have to toggle back and forth between these two modes of thinking as you get to true understanding of the material — and this doesn’t happen quickly.”

Because toggling is essential to learning, teachers and students need to build downtime into their day — time when learning can “happen on background” as you play a game, go on a walk or color a picture. It’s also one reason why sleep is so vital to healthy cognitive development.

Since students tend to equate speed with smarts, Oakley suggests sharing this metaphor: “There’s a race car brain and a hiker brain. They both get to the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car brain gets there really fast, but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker brain takes time. It hears birds singing, sees the rabbit trails, feels the leaves. It’s a very different experience and, in some ways, much richer and deeper. You don’t need to be a super swift learner. In fact, sometimes you can learn more deeply by going slowly.”

2. Chains and Chunks

In cognitive psychology, “chunking” refers to the well-practiced mental patterns that are essential to developing expertise in a topic.  Oakley prefers the image of a “chain” when she explains this to students.

Learning is all about developing strong chains. For example, says Oakley, when you are first learning how to back up a car, you have to consciously think about each step, from how to turn the steering wheel to how to use your mirrors. But “once that process is chained, it’s easy” — it becomes automatic. Similarly, once solving certain equations becomes automatic in math, students can apply these equations to more complex problems.

Teachers can help students identify the procedures in a unit of study that they need to master in order to take their learning to the next level —  from the steps of the scientific method to fundamental drawing techniques.

“Any type of mastery involves the development of chains of procedural fluency. Then you can get into more complex areas of fluency,” says Oakley. Here’s another way to think about it. We all have about four slots of working memory that we can use to problem-solve in the moment. One of those slots can be filled with an entire procedural chain —  and then you can put new information in the other slots.

3. The Power of Metaphor

“Metaphor and analogy are extraordinarily powerful teaching tools and very often underused,” says Oakley.  “When you are trying to learn something new, the best way to learn it is to connect it with something you already know.”

The formal term for this is “neural reuse” —  the idea that metaphors use the same neural pathways as the concept a metaphor is describing. So familiar metaphors allow a learner to draw on a concept they have already mastered and apply it to a new situation. Or as Oakley says, metaphors “rapidly on-board” new ideas. For example, says Oakley, comparing the flow of electrons to the flow of water is a way to “jump-start students’ thinking.”

As part of her research, Oakley reached out to thousands of professors who are considered top teachers in their fields. “Many of these professors had a secret that they used in their teaching: metaphor and analogy. It was like a secret shared handshake.” Oakley encourages teachers to not only use metaphor but to challenge students to develop their own metaphors as a study strategy.

4. The Problem of Procrastination

Oakley says that procrastination is the number one challenge facing most learners. To train the brain to systematically focus and relax — to toggle — she  recommends the “Pomodoro Technique.”

Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this strategy uses a timer to help the learner work and break at set intervals. First, choose a task to accomplish. Then, set a timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer goes off.  At that point, take a five-minute break: stand up, walk around, take a drink of water, etc. After three or four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15 – 30 minutes) to recharge. This technique “trains your ability to focus and reinforces that relaxing at the end is critical to the process of learning,” says Oakley.  Teachers and administrators can build a similar rhythm into the schoolday, providing brain breaks and movement time to help students toggle between focused and diffused thinking.

5. Expanding Possibilities

When we teach children and teenagers how they learn, we can blow open their sense of possibility, says Oakley. “I would tell students, you don’t just have to be stuck following your passion. You can broaden your passions enormously. And that can have enormous implications for how your life unfolds. We always say ‘follow your passions’ but sometimes that locks people into focusing on what comes easily or what they are already good at. You can get passionate about — and really good at — many things!”

5 Strategies to Demystify the Learning Process for Struggling Students 22 November,2017Deborah Farmer Kris

  • Mike Petty

    Thanks for this timely article! I just finished a video with a colleague that we use to teach students a metaphor to help them learn how to learn. We are working on the second part. It is based on comparing learning to a hike. I put the video and resources on my blog:

    And the direct link to the video is here.

    • floyd hall

      Yeah? No one cares.

      • Trish Malone Schade

        Get off, troll.

      • Mike Petty

        I can appreciate a critical response, but “no one cares” is inaccurate, to say the least. Are you trying to express an opinion you want others to take seriously? If so, I’m more than happy to hear it. I posted the video on my blog in hopes of getting feedback and initiating conversation.

        • floyd hall

          You’re right. My apologies. I obviously came out of my teaching experience deeply frustrated. Didn’t mean to take it out on you.

          • Mike Petty

            I spent 14 years teaching high school math and most of that time I was frustrated too. I’m in a different role now, working across several classrooms. I can distance myself from some of the apathy I see from students, but it still affects me.

            When I started teaching, I got advice from a mentor teacher that basically amounted to “teach the ones who want to learn”. The message from administration, teacher training and books/articles like this one always presented a higher ideal of reaching everyone. That’s what I wanted to do, of course, so I was always trying to find my way between those two extremes.

            After 24 years of trying to work this out, I don’t have any dramatic success stories to tell, but I do think there is something to the ideas like those Dr. Oakley presents in the video above. Experts and people in the trenches are finding out that students who learn quickly and who we might say “want to learn” are approaching learning in ways that can be identified and taught to others. Some of those students who, at first glance, don’t want to learn can possibly be won over with a little more attention to what’s really going on with them emotionally. And of course we hear stories of classrooms or schools where teachers do turn things around for many students.

            Those things along with some encouraging cases I see in my district give me hope to keep going. I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t want to deal with the struggle though.

          • floyd hall

            I just wanted to see the most good done — i.e., that as many kids learn as much as possible to prepare themselves for the future. I taught at both the college and high school level. I loved teaching college. It seemed like the kids learned because they absolutely had to — you either did the work or you did not. If you didn’t, you flunked. High school kids you had to pass no matter what, so a significant number of them just malingered from year to year. By the time I got them as sophomores, there wasn’t much that could be done for them. They were already years behind and most had no real interest in catching up. So I tended to focus on the ones I could help prepare for college. The rest I helped if they wanted it. So the question, I guess, is do you go way out of your way to help kids who don’t want to learn, or do you focus on the kids who do? I went with the latter.

          • msr2day

            Doubt any really diagrams a sentence any longer…I’d be glad if students could tell an adjective from an adverb when they read a sentence (or write one).

          • floyd hall

            Exactly. If nothing else, diagramming a sentence forces them to understand how a sentence works. If they can’t do that, they can’t write. As for reading, pfffft. “To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘1984’ used to be books for Freshmen. Now their for Juniors and Seniors. The question is, “Can they read and understand these books as Freshman or Sophomores?” Of course they can. They just don’t want to if they can get away with it and we let them get away with it now. So, to get back to my original point, why can’t we focus on this rather than on whether they feel good about themselves? Hence my (misplaced) hostility toward Mr. Petty above. Again, my apologies.

          • Keleborn Telperion

            We clearly need to bring back corporal punishment. Then they’d learn!

    • Binu Zachariah

      Hi Mike, I just watched your video! It is quite inspiring.Thanks for sharing it.. Incidentally, I have been working on a similar project that focuses more on trans formative learning.

      • Mike Petty

        Hi Binu,
        I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for the feedback. Please let me know when yours is done. I’d love to see it. We’ve been pretty excited about what we’re learning as we explore these ideas.

  • Jeya Velu

    Very good article and the techniques suggested are very appropriate and effective . I personally have used some of these techniques with my students.

    • floyd hall

      You must have like ten students.

      • Trish Malone Schade

        That’s just rude. Stop trolling people.

  • floyd hall

    Problem is not every student gets one single teacher to shepherd them through all their problems. In North Carolina, you get 90 or 100 students to shepherd through all their problems. How do you think that goes?

    • floyd hall

      So the bigger question is do you spend all of your time dealing with the kids the above article suggests you should? Pro tip, since I taught high school, is ‘no.’ You help the ones who are receptive and want help because, you know, they want help. You don’t have time to help the kids who are this difficult. Why stop for two or three when you can help ten?

      • pixiedust8

        You sound like a horrible person. So sorry for you and your students.

        • floyd hall

          No, just would like to see some practical solution. This isn’t practical.

        • Keleborn Telperion

          “The first message that Schools (…) send to the people who attend them is a message of distrust and contempt: If we didn’t make you come here you wouldn’t learn anything, you’d just waste your time, spend the whole day playing basketball or watching TV or making trouble, you’ d hang out on the streets, never do anything worthwhile, grow up to be a bum.”
          -John Holt
          Instead of Education p.171

      • ben

        Yeah? No one cares

        • floyd hall


      • Troy

        Not one single teacher has that kind of time, but your school community (parents, teachers, administration) should be identifying those kids who aren’t confident in their learning and working towards helping to elevate them so that they can learn. They aren’t asking for help because they don’t think they can learn, but they can. They shouldn’t be ignored.

        • msr2day

          I used to tech a class of 35 and taught every student How to Learn – according to their own personalities/predilections/current level of capability. Yes, it was a tremendous workload- 50-60 hours a week finding the material and creating assistive depictions or 3-D models. However, coders and many executives work those sort of hours, but for better compensation because the value of their work is price-tagged tangibly where PreK-12 teachers are merely functionaries within a grinding mechanism that is rewarded for homogenizing all the differences into something that flows easily into the current mold demanded by employers.

  • George Kraynak

    I overcome procrastination by not looking at the whole task/project, just one step – just start.

  • Keleborn Telperion

    This article is a good summary of how effective learning takes place. Yet how did Barbara Oakley learn these things?
    She describes herself as a “former math flunky who re-tooled her brain”. A flunky, I suppose, is someone who flunks math. And someone who re-tools their brain is actively taking responsibility for doing so, rather than having someone else (like a teacher) do it for them. In other words, I conclude that one of the things that made it possible for her to learn how to learn was exiting from the classroom, with its short attention span and focus on achieving high exam scores, which many naturally find to be anxiety provoking with their perceived consequences of “failing”, that is quite inimical to the very patterns of learning that she describes here.
    Yet people try to apply these ideas to the classroom, rather than focusing on changing the educational environment in ways that would make it possible for children to *naturally* learn in these ways, in a way that is self-chosen and self-directed, facilitated by those who can provide spaces and resources and answer questions, rather than having people impose a compulsory curriculum upon them and test and grade them upon their “performance”.
    For more about this, read either John Holt’s “How Children Learn” or Peter Gray’s “Free to Learn”.


Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator. She spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibilityresearching, writing, and consulting with schools. She is the mother of two young children. You can follower her on Twitter @dfkris.

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