Self Help

Learning How to Learn How to Succeed in S - Barbara Oakley

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Matheus Puppe

· 42 min read

Here is a summary of the advance praise and contents of the book Learning How to Learn:

Advance Praise:

  • The neuroscience-based and practical approach will benefit learners of all ages. (Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF Professor)
  • The book shows how brain and behavioral dynamics underlie effective learning in an understandable and entertaining way for young learners. (Robert A. Bjork, PhD, UCLA Distinguished Professor)
  • The book shows kids and teens how a little knowledge of how their brain works can help them improve their learning and studying. Highly recommended. (Paula Tallal, PhD, Rutgers Professor Emeritus)


  • A Note to Parents and Teachers
  • 12 Chapters on learning strategies and study skills: — The Problem with Passion: Follow your interests but don’t avoid subjects you don’t like. You can get good at anything. — Easy Does It: Trying too hard can hurt learning. Take breaks and spread out your studying. — I’ll Do It Later, Honest!: Use the Pomodoro Technique to beat procrastination. — Learning While You Sleep: Sleep helps strengthen and consolidate memories. — Slick Tricks to Build Your Memory: Mnemonics, flashcards, mental images, etc. — How to Pump Up Your Brain: Exercise, sleep, and nutrition help your brain and learning. — Making Brain-Links: Connect new ideas to things you already know. Look for underlying concepts and patterns. — Surprises: Bad habits and weak points can be overcome and even become strengths. — Doing Well on Tests: Space out your studying, quiz yourself, sleep well, have a good breakfast. — Going from “Have to” to “Get to”: Develop a growth mindset. You can get better at anything.
  • Solutions, Resources, References, Notes, and Index

The key message is that by understanding a little about how your brain works, you can become a much better learner, develop a growth mindset, and pursue your interests broadly, not just follow your initial passions. With the right techniques and persistence, you can get good at anything.

Barb Oakley, one of the authors, hated math and science as a child but learned to master them as an adult. She retrained her brain through hard work and persistence. She struggled at first but eventually earned an engineering degree and a doctorate in systems engineering.

The authors want to share lessons they’ve learned about how the brain learns best. These techniques are simple but effective. Many successful adults wish they had known these methods when they were younger.

You can succeed at subjects you don’t initially like or do well in. Following your passions is important, but expanding into new areas opens up opportunities. Your brain is like a toolkit, and you need to learn how and when to use the right tools.

Frustration often arises from trying to understand everything on a page before moving on. A “picture walk”—briefly previewing pages—is an effective alternative. This helps you grasp the overall meaning and structure before digging into the details. You’ll learn more easily and feel less frustrated.

The key messages are:

  1. You can retrain your brain to learn and excel at subjects you find difficult. Hard work and persistence pay off.

  2. Simple but powerful learning techniques can make a big difference. Many successful people wish they had known these methods earlier.

  3. Broadening your interests by learning new, challenging subjects opens you up to more opportunities. Follow your passions but expand your horizons.

  4. Your brain has the tools you need to succeed. You just need to learn how and when to apply them.

  5. Previewing material briefly before studying details makes learning easier and less frustrating. A “picture walk” overview provides context to understand specific ideas.

  6. Learning abilities can be improved at any age through the right techniques and persistence. Great students and struggling students alike can benefit.

Does this summary accurately reflect the key ideas and messages presented in the passage? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand my summary in any way.

  • Do a “picture walk” through the chapter by briefly scanning the pictures, captions, section headings and end-of-chapter questions before actually reading the chapter. This gives your brain an overview of what’s coming and helps organize your thoughts.

  • The chapter discusses focused mode and diffuse mode - two ways our brain processes information.

  • Focused mode is when you are paying close attention, such as when problem-solving or learning something new. Different parts of your brain are activated depending on the task. Focused mode is necessary to initially learn something.

  • Diffuse mode is when your mind is relaxed and wandering. It activates different parts of your brain than focused mode. Diffuse mode helps make connections between ideas and fosters creativity.

  • Your brain alternates between focused and diffuse mode for effective learning. The chapter compares this to a pinball machine - focused mode has closely spaced bumpers, keeping thoughts contained to a small area. Diffuse mode has widely spaced bumpers, allowing thoughts to wander broadly.

  • It’s easy to enter focused mode by choosing to focus your attention. It’s harder to stay focused for long. Diffuse mode happens when you let your mind wander, such as going for a walk, showering or sleeping. Focusing on something unrelated can temporarily activate diffuse mode for the previous topic.

  • Switching between focused and diffuse mode, such as by taking breaks to let your mind wander, helps solve difficult problems. The diffuse mode works in the background to make new connections.

  • Procrastination means delaying or putting off tasks until later. It is a problem that interferes with learning for many students and adults.

  • An example of procrastination is waiting until the last minute to study for an exam or do an assignment. This makes you feel stressed and rushed and often results in poorer performance and learning.

  • There are a few reasons why people procrastinate:

  1. Lack of motivation: The task seems boring, difficult, or unpleasant so you avoid it.

  2. Poor time management: You don’t have a plan to accomplish the tasks and end up putting them off.

  3. Fear of failure or imperfection: You worry you won’t do well on the task so you delay starting it.

  4. Task seems overwhelming: The workload seems so large you don’t know where to begin so you put it off.

  • A technique to overcome procrastination is the Pomodoro Technique. It involves using a timer to focus for 25 minutes, then taking a short break. This makes the work seem more manageable and less overwhelming.

  • Other tips to reduce procrastination:

• Break down large tasks into smaller steps. Start with easy parts to build motivation.

• Have a plan or schedule to keep you on track. Set deadlines for yourself.

• Remove distractions. Find a place free of interruptions to focus your attention.

• Start working, even if you don’t feel like it. Getting started is often the hardest part, so just dive in.

• Reward yourself for achieving your goals to stay motivated.

• Don’t be a perfectionist. Do your best and keep progressing rather than striving for unrealistic standards.

That covers the key highlights from the provided information on overcoming procrastination. Let me know if you would like me to explain anything in the summary in more detail.

Here’s a summary:

• Procrastination is a major problem for students. We have many distractions and it’s easy to put things off. But procrastination leads to worse learning and more stress.

• Thinking about unpleasant tasks actually activates the pain center in our brain, the insular cortex. This makes us want to avoid the task. But once we start the task, the pain goes away. So getting started is key.

• The Pomodoro Technique helps overcome procrastination. It involves:

  1. Turning off distractions.

  2. Setting a timer for 25 minutes.

  3. Focusing on your work for those 25 minutes. Don’t worry about finishing - just work hard.

  4. Rewarding yourself when the timer goes off. Take a short break to rest your mind.

  5. Repeating Pomodoros as needed. Some people do several in a day. Start with just 1-2 if you’re new to it.

• Stick to one task during each Pomodoro. Don’t switch between tasks. That makes your brain work harder and reduces focus.

• Use a timer for your breaks too. A loud timer helps make sure you come back from your break. Some people like ticking timers for Pomodoros to stay focused.

• Think of your habits and autopilot tendencies as “zombies.” Some zombies (like studying with your phone) are bad. You need to defeat them. The Pomodoro Technique helps train good zombies - the habit of focused work.

• It takes practice, but the Pomodoro Technique can help overcome procrastination and build better study habits. Start using it, stick with it, and make it a habit.

  • Santiago had a troubled childhood and often got into trouble. He eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work in neuroscience.

  • The brain contains billions of neurons, which are the building blocks of the brain. Neurons are very small but can be quite long.

  • You can imagine neurons as friendly space aliens. They have an ‘eye’ (nucleus), an ‘arm’ (axon), and ‘legs’ (dendrites).

  • Neurons communicate with each other across small gaps called synapses. They release chemicals called neurotransmitters to send signals to other neurons.

  • Making connections between neurons is key to learning. When we learn something new, our neurons form new connections and pathways in the brain.

  • Neurons are like bizarre creatures with an eye (nucleus), an arm (axon), and legs (dendrites). Dendrites have spines that receive signals from other neurons.

  • Neurons communicate by sending electrical signals to each other across junctions called synapses. When one neuron sparks another, it’s like a tiny shock. These signals flow through neurons to create thoughts.

  • The more neurons fire together, the stronger their connections become. This is like friends becoming closer through frequent communication. Stronger connections between neurons are like wider paths that thoughts can travel along more easily.

  • Although there are billions of neurons and connections in the brain, you can’t use them all up. The brain is plastic and constantly changing.

  • You can model neurons and connections using craft materials like construction paper, pipe cleaners, and beads. This helps show how neurons connect and communicate.

  • Scientists used to think the brain was like a spiderweb, with neurons fused in a single network. But Santiago Ramón y Cajal proposed that signals jump between separate neurons across gaps. We now know he was right.

  • Metaphors compare unfamiliar concepts (like neurons) to familiar ones (like space aliens) to help learning. Metaphors activate neural paths in the brain. Although metaphors eventually break down, you can replace them with new ones for deeper understanding. Using multiple metaphors for one idea is also helpful.

Overall, the passage describes how neurons work and communicate to generate thoughts, using several metaphors to help explain and illustrate these complex concepts.

  • Metaphors are useful ways to understand new concepts. By comparing the unfamiliar to the familiar, metaphors make ideas easier to grasp.

  • Santiago Ramón y Cajal became a famous scientist through hard work and persistence, not natural genius. He cultivated his interest in medicine and overcame failures and setbacks to become an expert in neuroscience.

  • We can challenge common excuses for not learning, like lack of time, lack of imagination, perceiving the topic as useless, or having boring instructors. Learning is an active process that requires effort and engagement.

  • Recalling and summarizing what you have read improves understanding and memory. Even accomplished learners need practice to strengthen retention.

  • Creating your own metaphors for new concepts you’re learning is an effective way to build understanding. Explain your metaphors to others to reinforce them in your memory.

  • Important neuroscientific terms include: — Axon: extends from neuron to next neuron — Brain-links: connections between neurons formed through learning
    — Dendrite: receives signals from other neurons — Dendritic spine: part of dendrite that forms synapse — Diffuse mode: resting, less focused neural state — Focused mode: paying close attention, different neural areas active — Neuron: nerve cell that transmits signals — Neuroplasticity: ability of neural connections to change — Synapse: gap between neurons where signals jump

  • The author is a 42-year-old teacher who teaches religion and philosophy, not chemistry. He avoided learning chemistry when he was younger because he found it difficult.

  • As a teacher, the author has observed many chemistry classes but has felt embarrassed that he doesn’t understand the topics. Students have asked him chemistry questions, assuming he knows the answers, but he has had to admit he doesn’t know.

  • The author was inspired after meeting Barb to learn high school chemistry. He announced to his whole school that he would take the five-year chemistry exam with the students. He wanted the students to help teach him.

  • The students found it amusing but were very helpful. They quizzed the author, explained concepts, and invited him to join in experiments. The author followed Barb and Terry’s learning techniques, like Pomodoro, mixing focused and diffuse activities, active recall, interleaving topics, and creating mental images.

  • The author had to sacrifice vacations and weekends to study for a year. His family thought he was crazy, but he enjoyed overcoming his ignorance and having an effective learning method.

  • On the exam, the author felt he had done his best. After eight weeks, he found out he passed with a good grade. He was able to tell his students, who shared in his success.

  • The experience allowed the author to discuss learning with students and share Barb and Terry’s techniques. It also reminded him what it’s like to struggle as a student. The author is glad he took on this challenge.

  • Our brains change and strengthen connections as we learn, especially during sleep.

  • Studies show that dendritic spines, the connections between neurons, grow significantly overnight after learning something new during the day.

  • Repeatedly activating the same neural pathways during sleep helps solidify learning. It’s like the brain is practicing what it learned during the day.

  • Focusing intently on learning something new during the day prompts the initial growth of dendritic spines. But sleep is required for them to fully form and strengthen.

  • Dendritic spines can weaken or disappear if not activated again through practice or use. “Use it or lose it.”

  • Spaced practice over multiple days, with sleep in between, leads to the strongest learning. It’s like building a solid brick wall, layer by layer, letting the “mortar” (sleep) dry in between.

  • Cramming too much learning into one day without spaces for sleep can weaken the connections, like a jumbled wall.

  • Doctors test the strength of certain neural connections, like the knee-jerk reflex, to check nerve and muscle function. The connections behind reflexes are very strong.

The key ideas are: learning, sleep, spaced practice, and building strong neural connections through dendritic spines. Combining focused learning during the day with sleep at night is the most powerful way to build mastery.

  • Your school bag represents your working memory, which holds a limited amount of information that you are actively using.
  • Your locker represents your long-term memory, which can hold a lot more information but is not immediately accessible.
  • Your attentional octopus is a metaphor for how your working memory functions. Its arms allow you to hold and manipulate ideas in your mind. But it can only focus on a few things at a time, around 3 to 5 “arms” worth of information.
  • If the octopus tries to hold too much at once, it drops things. But with practice, your attentional octopus can get better at juggling more arms.

The key ideas are:

  1. Working memory is limited but essential for active thinking.
  2. Long-term memory provides more storage but less immediacy.
  3. Your attentional abilities are limited but can be improved.

Does this summary accurately reflect the key points about working memory, long-term memory, and attentional abilities from the passage? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand on any part of the summary.

Your working memory—that is, the attentional octopus in your mental school bag—lives in your prefrontal cortex. This is the front part of your brain, just above your eyes. Your working memory holds information you are consciously thinking about at the moment. It has a limited capacity, holding about four items of information at a time for most people.

Your long-term memory is spread throughout your brain. It has a huge capacity and holds information from your past, like facts, experiences, and skills. Long-term memory has two parts:

  1. A “toothpaste tube” for storing facts. It is hard to put new information into a toothpaste tube. Facts, like dates, names, and vocabulary words, are abstract and hard to visualize, so they are hard to remember.

  2. The rest of the “locker” for storing visual and experiential information. It is easy to store visual information, like images, routes, and memories of events. You can easily “tape” this information to the walls of your mental locker.

The key trick to building your memory is to convert facts into visual images and stories as much as possible. This makes the information much easier to store in your long-term memory. Memory athletes like Nelson Dellis become experts at using visualization and other mnemonic techniques to memorize huge amounts of information. With regular practice of these techniques, you too can strengthen and expand your memory.

Here is a summary of the key tips the passage provides for improving your memory:

Focus your attention. Pay close attention to what you want to remember. Tell yourself it’s important. Focusing your mind helps encode information into your memory.

Practice regularly. Repeatedly recalling information strengthens the memory. Use flashcards, apps, or just recall on your own.

Create memorable visual images. Our brains are much better at remembering pictures than abstract facts. Turn what you want to remember into vivid mental images, especially images that involve movement or emotion. The gorier or more ridiculous the better!

Find anchors. Relate new information to things you already know to give the information context and make it stickier. Use mnemonics, metaphors, songs or draw pictures to create associations.

Build a memory palace. This ancient technique uses familiar locations, like your home layout, to systematically store visual images of what you want to remember. Start at the entrance and place memorable images along a route through the location. Revisit your palace to strengthen the memories.

Quiz yourself. Repeatedly bringing information to mind through self-quizzing or flashcards helps cement the information into your long-term memory. Space out repetitions over time for the best results.

These techniques work because our brains have a powerful visuospatial memory for places and images. Tapping into this visual-spatial memory allows us to memorize and retain all kinds of information that would otherwise be difficult to remember. With regular practice of these strategies, you can significantly improve your memory.

• Your working memory has to work hard when you’re first learning a new concept. It is trying to create connections and form a new set of brain-links.

• Once you have practiced using a new concept, it becomes comfortable and natural. This is because you have built a nice set of brain-links—connected patterns in your long-term memory.

• It is easy for your attentional octopus to connect to a set of brain-links. It just has to give the set of brain-links an electrical zap. Then the octopus has connected the brain-links to your working memory.

• Because the information in a set of brain-links is well connected, your octopus only needs one arm to pull the whole set into your working memory. The other three arms are free for other tasks.

• Your octopus can connect many sets of brain-links, allowing experts to handle complex information.

• Understanding a concept is not enough to build a set of brain-links. You must practice using the concept to create the links. Understanding and practice together build expertise.

• There can be too much focus on understanding. Practice and using what you’ve learned are key. The girl in the story understood how backing up works but still had trouble doing it.

• The confusion and difficulty the girl experienced show what happens when you don’t have a set of brain-links for a task. Your working memory has to figure everything out, and it struggles. Build up lots of practice, and backing up a car will become second nature.

• Building brain-links through practice is key to gaining expertise and achieving mastery in any area. Understanding is important, but practice is essential.

Does this summary cover the key ideas? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand on any part of the summary.

  1. Creating sets of brain-links helps you think complicated thoughts. Without brain-links, your mind can become overwhelmed.

  2. When you’re trying to learn something new, you haven’t yet created brain-links. Your attentional octopus has to work hard to process the information.

  3. When you haven’t linked the material, you can feel confused. You just need to start building little sets of brain-links. With practice, the links become stronger.

  4. The earliest steps of learning are often the hardest. Make a library of brain-links, and you’ll become an expert.

  5. Your attentional octopus gets tired if it has to keep switching focus from one set of links to another. Avoid distraction and task switching.

  6. There is a limit to how much information we can hold in our working memory at once (cognitive load). Without brain-links, we get confused when we try to exceed this limit.

  7. Look for the enjoyment that comes when a set of brain-links starts to form and you begin to grasp a new concept.

Here are the answers to the questions:

Brain-links are important because they allow your working memory to process information quickly and easily.

Your attentional octopus grabs onto sets of links in your long-term memory and brings them into your working memory. It has a limited number of “arms” and gets tired when it has to switch between different sets of links.

An example of a linked concept is driving a car. At first you had to concentrate, but now you can drive easily while talking or listening to music.

If the TV is on while you’re working, it’s like taking away one of your octopus’s arms. You have less working memory available for the task.

You should avoid task switching because it tires out your octopus by forcing it to drop one set of links and grab onto another.

You should leave your phone somewhere else when doing homework so you’re not tempted to switch focus and drop your concentration.

Understanding a concept is the first step, but practicing and applying the concept creates brain-links.

You become an expert through practice. Keep working at something, start with small steps, get feedback, and build up your library of brain-links.

If learning something new, be patient. The early stages of learning are the hardest. Keep practicing and look for the enjoyment that comes with mastery.

I would choose a firefighter who had physically practiced rescuing people from burning buildings.

The reasons are:

  1. Experience. Physically practicing and experiencing rescuing people from fires would provide much more relevant experience than just watching others do it. The firefighter would have muscle memory, learned techniques, and an intuitive sense of how to properly rescue someone in a high-stress, dangerous situation. Simply watching would not provide that level of experience.

  2. Confidence. The experience of physically rescuing people from fires would give the firefighter confidence in their ability to properly perform a rescue. Confidence is important in high-stress, life-threatening situations. Lack of confidence could hamper their performance.

  3. Ability to improvise. Experience provides an ability to improvise and make quick decisions in response to unexpected events. The complex, chaotic nature of rescuing someone from a burning building requires that ability. Watching rescues alone likely would not develop that ability.

In summary, for such a dangerous real-world task, there is no substitute for direct, hands-on experience. Watching, while helpful, cannot replace the experience of physically performing the rescue activities. For a life-saving endeavor like this, experience and ability are paramount. I would choose the firefighter with the most actual experience rescuing people from burning buildings.

Does this help summarize why hands-on experience would be preferred for such a high-risk activity? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand on any part of the summary.

• The hippocampus is particularly important for remembering facts and events. It’s shaped like a seahorse, with one on each side of the brain.

• Your brain is like a high school basketball team because new neurons are born in the hippocampus every day, just as new players join the team each year. If you don’t learn and practice new things, the new neurons will disappear, just as players leave the team if they don’t improve their skills.

• When BDNF is added, the dendritic spines grow tall and broad. These spines connect neurons and help form memories.

• Five ways exercise is healthy:

  1. It’s good for every organ in your body.
  2. It’s good for your brain by improving understanding, decision making, focusing, remembering, and task switching.
  3. It helps produce chemicals like BDNF that support neuron health.
  4. It releases serotonin, dopamine and other chemicals that generate new ideas.
  5. It’s a great way to engage diffuse mode thinking.

• Elements of a healthy diet include:

  • Fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, onion family, cabbage family
  • Fish
  • Olive oil
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Dark chocolate

Avoid “fake foods” high in sugar, white flour, and processed ingredients. A Mediterranean diet is a healthy model.

You can learn from many sources, not just books and teachers. Practice and apply what you learn, like Julius Yego did by watching YouTube videos and practicing javelin throwing. Exercise, diet, and learning work together to support brain health and learning.

The key ideas for building brain links and becoming an expert are:

  1. Deliberate practice: Focus on practicing new, challenging material rather than going over what you already know well. This speeds up learning.

  2. Interleaving: Practice mixing different skills, techniques or topics together. This helps build flexibility and the ability to choose the right approach. An example is teaching an “interstellar friend” to use both hammers and screwdrivers, rather than just one tool at a time.

To build a set of brain links:

  1. Focus your attention. Eliminate distractions. Use techniques like the Pomodoro timer.

  2. Actively practice. Do the physical actions involved, get feedback, and correct yourself. Repeated practice over days helps build links. Change up what you do by interleaving different skills.

  3. For math, science and abstract topics: Try to solve problems on your own, show your work, and avoid peeking at the solutions. Repeat problems over days. At first it will seem hard, then become easy. You’ll get to where you can see the solution in your mind. Using active recall and feedback in this way builds mental links.

The key point is that becoming an expert requires focused, deliberate practice of new material, not just passive exposure or practicing what you already know. Interleaving different skills or topics helps build flexibility in applying knowledge. With practice over time, solutions become second nature.

  • Active learning means actively practicing or doing something yourself to strengthen your learning. Only actively working with the materials will help you build strong brain-links.

  • Active recall means bringing an idea back to mind without any notes or book. Recalling key ideas you are learning helps you understand them.

  • Cognitive load refers to the mental effort being used in your working memory. Too much new information at once overloads your cognitive load, making new learning difficult.

  • Deliberate practice means focusing on the most difficult material. Lazy learning means repeatedly practicing what’s easiest. Deliberate practice is key to mastery.

  • Long-term memory stores your brain-links. Working memory is temporary storage, holding about 4 items at once. It reaches into long-term memory to connect with brain-links.

  • Picture memories are easier to store than fact memories. Interleaving, or alternating between types of problems, helps strengthen brain-links.

  • Teaching an idea to someone else, without notes, is an excellent way to strengthen your own understanding.

  • Active learning, deliberate practice, interleaving, and active recall are the keys to building mastery. Work on difficult, new material using these techniques.

The key takeaway is that you must actively build brain-links through practice and application for mastery of a skill. Passively taking in information is not enough. Focus, repetition, and making connections are what strengthen learning.

Asking yourself important questions about your own learning, like whether listening to music helps or hinders you, is one of the best ways to strengthen your brain-links and will also make you realize where you have gaps in your knowledge.

Studying in different places, rather than always the same spot, helps ensure your attentional octopus can retrieve information regardless of where you are. Your octopus gets used to finding links in your long-term memory locker regardless of the environment.

The idea of “visual” or “auditory” learners is misleading. The most effective learning uses multiple senses. Relying only on your “preferred” sense weakens your ability in other areas.

Sleep is essential for clearing toxins from your brain and allowing new connections to form. Lack of sleep hampers learning, memory, and cognition. Sleep is also important for the diffuse mode of thinking that allows ideas and knowledge to connect in new ways.

In summary, employing active learning strategies like varying your environment, using multiple senses, and prioritizing sleep will strengthen your memory and understanding. Observing your own learning and thinking about how to improve is key to becoming an effective learner.

Here’s a summary of the key ideas:

• Become a learning scientist by observing your own learning and looking for patterns in what works and doesn’t work for you. Everyone learns differently.

• Music can be helpful or harmful for learning depending on the person and situation. Experiment to see how it affects you. In general, loud or lyrical music is more distracting.

• Study in a variety of places so you can be comfortable taking a test anywhere. This helps your attentional octopus adapt.

• Learn using a variety of senses like sight, hearing, touch, and smell. This helps you learn better.

• Sleep helps build new connections in your brain and washes away toxins. Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.

• “Eat your frogs first” means start with the hardest or most unpleasant tasks first. This allows your diffuse mode to work in the background if you get stuck.

• Set a firm quitting time when possible to increase your concentration when working. Stop all screens 1-2 hours before bed.

• Some types of music, especially loud or lyrical music, are not helpful for studying.

• Studying in different places helps you take tests in any room comfortably.

• There’s no such thing as a fixed learning style. Use a variety of senses to learn.

• Sleep removes toxins built up in your brain during the day. Lack of sleep prevents new neural connections and makes you prone to health issues.

• “Eat your frogs first” means do the hardest tasks first so you can take a break if needed. Diffuse mode can then work in the background.

• Setting a firm quitting time helps increase concentration while working. Shutting down screens before bed helps you sleep.

• Compare your answers to the end-of-chapter questions to check your understanding. Take a walk or change rooms to recall the main ideas.

Does this summary match your understanding of the key points? Let me know if you have any other questions!

  • Action video games and spatial video games can improve focus, vision, and mental rotation skills which are useful for math and science.
  • However, excessive video game playing can be addictive, so moderation is key.
  • Learning something completely different from your main interests or passions can improve your abilities in those areas. This allows for creative connections through metaphor and helps avoid rigid thinking.
  • Taking notes by hand is better for learning than typing notes. Writing by hand requires more thinking which helps build better brain links. Reviewing handwritten notes, especially before sleep, strengthens learning.
  • A poor working memory can be an advantage for learning. It requires more effort to build brain links, leading to simplification and creativity. Thoughts slipping from mind can lead to new insights. People with poor working memory and focus often have to work harder but can gain a deeper understanding.
  • Slower “hiker brain” thinkers can gain a richer, deeper understanding than faster “race car brain” thinkers. Hiker brains notice more details along the way. Race car brains can steer off track more easily.
  • In summary, slower learners can do as well or even better than fast learners. They build better brain links, gain deeper understanding, and show strong creativity. With hard work and the right techniques, slower learners can thrive.

Here is a summary of the key ideas from the chapter:

• Tests are important for showing what you’ve learned and helping you advance in life. They can even be enjoyable and help strengthen your learning.

• The more you prepare well for tests, the less stressed you’ll feel. Preparation through active recall and practice in the weeks before a test is key.

• Get good sleep, study regularly in different locations, read and take notes actively, do homework problems yourself, ask questions when confused, focus on harder material, take breaks, and teach ideas to others. These habits will prepare you well.

• Use the hard-start technique: start a test with one of the harder problems, work for a couple minutes until stuck, move to an easier problem, then return to the hard one. This allows your diffuse mode to work in the background. Disconnect quickly if stuck.

• Some stress during tests is good and helps you focus. But too much stress hampers your thinking. Prepare well to feel confident and less stressed.

• Video games and social media can be highly addictive and lead to overuse. Use common sense and avoid overdoing these kinds of pleasurable activities. Take breaks and do other things as well.

• To increase your mental flexibility and creativity, learn about topics very different from your main interests or passion. Look for links between different areas of knowledge. This helps avoid getting stuck in a “rut.”

• Take notes by hand - it helps build stronger links in your mind and memory.

• A poor working memory can allow you to see simplifications others miss and enhance your creativity. “Slow” thinkers can understand as well as “fast” thinkers, they just may need more time.

  • You have to learn for various reasons like following rules, avoiding punishment, getting into college, etc. But you also get to learn for more positive reasons like fulfilling your potential, helping others, and satisfying your curiosity.

  • Being able to see learning as a privilege is more motivating than just doing it to avoid negative consequences. We have complex brains and access to education, so we should make the most of these opportunities.

  • There are many benefits to learning how to learn effectively while young. It allows you to make the most of your education and opens up more opportunities in life. The world is changing rapidly, so continuous learning is important.

  • Learning for its own sake and pursuing a range of interests, not just following your passions, creates more opportunities. Life often brings unexpected changes, so keeping your options open through learning is useful.

  • We have a responsibility to make the most of our access to education since many in the world lack these opportunities. Developing a love of learning and sharing knowledge with others is a way to help humanity progress.

  • In summary, you should aim to move from seeing learning as an obligation to seeing it as a privilege. Pursue learning for positive reasons like growth, opportunity, responsibility, and progress rather than just to avoid consequences. Maintain an open and curious mindset throughout life.

Here is a summary of the best abilities to have:

  1. Develop abilities in different areas. Don’t narrow your options too much. Keep your interests and passions broad. This allows you to make unexpected connections and contributions.

  2. Be persistent. Stick with challenges and return to them after taking breaks. Persistence is key to mastery and achievement.

  3. Be flexible. Admit when you are wrong and change your mind. Don’t get addicted to being right. This openness allows you to learn and achieve more.

  4. Practice active recall. Simply reading or re-reading information is not enough. You need to actively recall the information by quizzing yourself, teaching it to others, etc. Active recall strengthens and embeds your learning.

  5. Take regular breaks to rest your mind. Let your diffuse mode do its work. Switching between intense focus and rest allows insights and creativity to emerge.

  6. Test yourself regularly. Testing is one of the best ways to strengthen your learning and prepare for assessments. Get used to being tested.

  7. Use mental imagery and metaphors to make learning stickier and more memorable. Our brains are highly associative, so link new ideas to familiar concepts and images.

  8. Interleave your practice. Don’t just repeat the same type of problem over and over. Mix it up by practicing different types of problems together. This helps you know when to apply what you’ve learned.

  9. Exercise regularly. Exercise increases the growth of new neural connections in your brain and promotes learning. An active body encourages an active, growing mind.

  10. Teach others what you are learning. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn and retain information yourself. Share your learning with friends, family, students, etc. You’ll remember so much more.

  • Focused thinking is like bumper pool with bumpers close together, while diffuse thinking has bumpers spaced farther apart, allowing for more wide-ranging thoughts.

  • You need to toggle between focused and diffuse thinking to solve problems.

  • Metaphors for focused vs. diffuse thinking: umpire vs. commentator; zooming in vs. zooming out; planting seeds vs. spring growth; focusing on basics vs. taking a break.

  • Procrastination means delaying something you should be doing. It’s bad for learning and causes worry.

  • The pain of thinking about unpleasant tasks causes us to procrastinate.

  • The Pomodoro technique uses timed work periods and breaks. The rewards are key. Finishing early is fine; the point is focused work.

  • Zombie mode saves energy but can lead to procrastination. We get used to procrastinating without realizing the harm.

  • Active recall means pulling information from memory rather than notes or books.

  • Neurons communicate via signals between axons and dendritic spines.

  • Microscopes originally couldn’t see synapses, so scientists thought neurons were directly connected.

  • Brain-links are connected neurons formed through repetition. Like paths through a forest, they strengthen with use.

  • New learning forms new synapses, dendritic spines, and links.

  • Sleep helps learning by growing new dendritic spines and synaptic links and rehearsing new information. New spines and links only grow with focused learning.

  • Spacing out learning over time allows for stronger neural architecture.

  • Working memory is like a school bag: close at hand but limited in capacity. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex.

  • Most people can hold about 4 items in working memory.

  • Long-term memory is like a locker: it holds more but can be hard to access. It’s scattered throughout the brain.

  • You can improve long-term memory with focus, practice, imagery, storage, recall, memory palaces, songs, metaphors, teaching, and empathy.

  • Memory palaces use imagery and familiar places to store and recall information.

  • We store facts and images differently in long-term memory. Images are easier to remember.

  • Vivid, moving images help memory.

  • Brain-links allow for faster information processing by reducing the workload on working memory.

  • The attentional octopus represents working memory, with its limited capacity. It draws information from long-term memory.

  • Getting dressed is an example of a brain-linked procedure that becomes automatic with practice.

  • Many skills, concepts, and techniques become brain-linked with practice. Even simple recognition, like letters, uses links.

  • Distractions tax the attentional octopus, making brain-links harder to form and use.

  • Task switching also overworks the attentional octopus. Avoid it when possible.

  • Removing phone distractions and using phone apps can help focus the attentional octopus.

To help with a Pomodoro technique:

  1. Focus for 25 minutes, then take a short 5 minute break. This helps you stay focused during your 25 minutes of work. Repeat this cycle a few times.

  2. Remove distractions like your phone during the 25 minutes. Put it away and turn off notifications.

  3. Start working on your task immediately. Don’t procrastinate. Get right into your work.

  4. Take good 5 minute breaks where you stand up, move around and do some light exercise like stretching. This rejuvenates your mind and body.

  5. Track your time and accomplishments to stay on task. This also gives you momentum to continue being productive.

  6. If you get distracted during your 25 minutes, gently bring your focus back to your work. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Get back on track and keep going.

  7. Take longer breaks when needed. If you’re struggling, take 10-15 minutes to recharge and renew your mental focus. Then start another 25 minute interval.

  8. Review what you accomplished during your Pomodoro intervals. This gives you a sense of progress and motivation. Celebrate your wins, big and small.

  9. Start over and continue the cycle. Keep going and build up your mental endurance and focus over time. Consistency and practice will help strengthen your ability to concentrate.

The key is to build the habit through regular practice. Be patient and kind with yourself as you improve your focus and productivity. The Pomodoro technique takes time but can be very effective. Stick with it and you’ll get better and better at completing focused work in short bursts.

Hope this helps summarize the key points! Let me know if you have any other questions.

Here is a summary of the learning resources:

The massive open online course “Learning How to Learn” teaches learning techniques based on neuroscience research. It covers focused vs diffuse thinking, procrastination, memory, and mastery. The follow-up course “Mindshift” teaches how to adapt to change and pursue new careers or learning interests.

Several books for young adults explain the brain in an engaging, visual manner for ages 8-13. Topics include memory, neurons, and the senses.

Neuroscience-based software programs like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant are designed for people with learning disabilities, struggling readers, dyslexia, autism, auditory issues, and English language learners.

Books for adults on learning and neuroscience include:

  • The Art of Changing the Brain: How teaching methods affect learning
  • The Art of Learning: Applying focused practice techniques
  • Deep Work: Developing focused attention skills amid distractions
  • I Am Gifted, So Are You!: A motivational book on developing your potential through learning
  • Make It Stick: Using evidence-based learning techniques like retrieval practice and spacing
  • A Mind for Numbers: Learning techniques for math and science mastery
  • Mindshift: Adapting to change by pursuing new learning interests
  • Peak: Secrets from the science of expertise on deliberate practice
  • Remember It!: Techniques for improving your memory

The resources provide practical insights into evidence-based learning methods, adapting your mindset, managing focus and distractions, and developing mastery. They offer guidance for students, teachers, and lifelong learners.

Christina Buu-Hoan and Kailani and Gavin Buu-Doerr; Meigra and Keira Chin; Romilly Cocking;
Ruth Collins; Christine Costa; Massimo Curatella; Andy Dalal; Simon and Nate Dawson; Yoni Dayan; Javier DeFelipe; Pablo Denis; Sudeep Dhillon; Melania Di Napoli; Matthieu Dondey; Catherine Dorgan and family; Susan Dreher; Dina Eltareb; Richard Felder; Jessica Finnigan and family; Shamim Formoso and students; Jeffrey Frankel; Beatrice Golomb; Jane Greiner; Maureen Griffin and students; Tarik Guenab; Gary Hafer; Greg Hammons; Paula Hoare; Richard Hypio; Shaju and Isabella Jacob; M. Johnson; Karine Joly and her sons Horatio and Valerius; Jonneke Jorissen; Kalyani Kandula;
Sahana Katakol; Tanya and Laura Kirsch; Jake Kitzmann; Cristina Koppel; Barbora Kvapilová; Loi Laing; Aune Lillemets; Susan Lucci; Beate Luo; Jennifer and Matthew Mackerras; Genevieve Malcolm; Kyle Marcroft; Anaya, Nafisa, and Mohamed Marei; Max Markarian; David Matten; Susan Maurice and students; Jo, Lulu, Ewan, and Jacob McConville; Zella and Jeremiah McNichols; Jim Meador; Jill Meisenheimer; Gerry Montemayor; Mary Murphy; Aleksandra Nekrasova; Patricia Nester; Michael Nussbaum; Philip, Roslyn, and Rachel Oakley; Jennifer Padberg; Saadia Peerzada; Violeta Piasecka; Michael Pichel; Jocelyn Roberts; Rev. Dr. Melissa Rudolph; Dennis Ryan; Leslie Schneider; Grace Sherrill; Julia Shewry; Maya Sirton; Vince Stevenson; Ray Symmes; Jimi Taiwo; Lauren Teixeira; Louise Terry; Barbara Tremblay; Donna and Hannah Trenholm; Bonny Tsai; Bonnie Turnbull; Robert Van Til and Oakland University; Vickie Weiss and students; Alan Woodruff; Arthur Worsley; Julia Zanutta; And Violet (the dog).

Here is a summary of the chapter:

The chapter discusses the importance of interleaving, or mixing up different kinds of problems and topics while practicing. Interleaving helps create connections between disparate ideas and builds flexibility. It is particularly helpful for math, where superficial differences in problems can mask underlying similarities. Research shows the benefits of interleaving over practicing similar problems in a blocked sequence.


  • Exposes you to the different ways a concept can be applied.
  • Strengthens connections between related concepts and procedures.
  • Promotes discrimination between different problem types.
  • Leads to greater retention and transfer of learning.
  • Helpful for learning math and science.

Research studies:

  • A 2014 study found interleaving led to better learning of probability problems.
  • A 2010 review found that interleaved practice led to improved retention, test scores, and ability to transfer learning. Conventional practice strategies were less effective.
  • A 2016 study found that interleaving different types of fraction problems led to better learning compared to blocking. Students learned to better discriminate between problem types.

In summary, interleaving practice problems from different domains or of different types is an effective learning strategy, especially for math and science. It builds connections between topics and the ability to flexibly apply knowledge. Blocked practice of similar problems, while perhaps less frustrating in the short term, is an inferior learning strategy.

  • Mental representations refer to the ways our minds store and organize information. These representations are activated in our brains through neural connections and the firing of neurons.

  • Long-term memories are encoded in the complex connections between many networks in the brain. When we recall a memory, we activate a subset of the neurons in these networks. So forming a “link” really means activating connected neurons.

  • The brain is highly plastic and changes physically in response to experiences, learning, and the formation of new memories. New neural connections form and strengthen through a process of activating connected neurons.

  • Experts have highly organized and efficient mental representations in their area of expertise. They are able to quickly activate the right neural connections to solve problems or demonstrate their skill. Developing expertise requires building robust mental representations through practice.

  • There are two key ideas behind forming robust mental representations or “brain-links”: 1) active learning and practice, and 2) interleaving. Active learning engages you deeply with the material, while interleaving involves mixing up your practice. Both help to strengthen neural connections.

  • Making brain-links requires focused attention, understanding, and repetition through active practice and recall. Sleep also plays an important role in consolidating memories and neural connections. Other techniques like deliberate practice, retelling, teaching the material to others, and note-taking can also help boost learning and the formation of brain-links.

  • To build mastery, you need to move from passive learning to active learning and engage in deliberate practice. This helps to develop the mental representations, knowledge networks, and skills of an expert. Mastery is a long game that requires patience and perseverance.

  • Surprising your brain with new learning activities, working at the edge of your abilities, and conceptual “mastery thinking” can all help boost learning, increase motivation and perseverance, and forge new neural connections. Your learning mental models and assumptions may also need to be periodically challenged.

does this summary cover the key ideas? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand on any part of the summary.

g: Summarize the key ideas around learning and memory covered in the selected passages. These include:

Episodic memory: Our memory of personal experiences and specific events. Referenced in passages 99n and 157.

Exercise: Exercise has many benefits for learning and memory. It boosts a protein called BDNF that promotes neuron growth, and it activates the diffuse mode of thinking which aids in making new connections. Discussed in passages 61, 74, 131, 135-37, 139, 140, and 200.

Memory techniques: There are many techniques to help encode and retrieve information from memory, including:

  • Focusing your attention: Paying close attention when the information is first presented. Discussed in passages 100, 101, 105, 109, and 149.

  • Visualization: Creating vivid mental images to associate with the information. Discussed in passages 99-101, 105, 109, and 157.

  • Mnemonics: Using songs, acronyms, rhymes or other tricks to help remember lists or sequences. Referenced in passage 103.

  • Repetition: Repeating or re-exposing yourself to the information to strengthen the memory. Referenced in passage 90.

  • Teaching others: Explaining the information to another person helps reinforce your own learning and embed the information into your memory. Discussed in passages 107, 110, and 158.

  • Practice: Putting information into practice or context helps to give it meaning and makes it more memorable. Discussed in passages 100, 109, and 117.

Interleaving: Switching between different topics or types of problems. This technique boosts learning by exposing you to information in a more scattered, unstructured manner. Discussed in passages 72, 147-50, 156-58, and 199.

Metaphors: Comparing new or complex concepts to familiar ideas or objects is a useful way to create connections in your memory and gain a deeper understanding. Metaphors are referenced throughout the selections, including passages 57-58, 61, 65, 106, 110, and 178.

Passion: Having a genuine interest or passion for what you’re trying to learn makes a big difference in your motivation, focus, and ultimate success. Discussed in passages 1, 7, 9,69, 198, and 203.

Deliberate practice: Focused, purposeful practice aimed at mastering skills and improving performance. Discussed in passages 146, 150, 154-57, and 201.


  • Dr. Barbara Oakley: Bestselling author, professor of engineering, expert in learning and online education. Created and teaches the world’s most popular online course “Learning How to Learn.”

  • Dr. Terrence Sejnowski: Leading neuroscientist, expert in computational neuroscience and neural networks. Co-inventor of the Boltzmann machine. President of the Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, and National Academy of Engineering.

  • Alistair McConville: Educator and Director of Learning and Innovation at Bedales School in England. Expert in neuroscience, education, and learning. Published author and speaker. Participant in the Research Schools International movement.


  • Oliver Young: Teacher of Design and Technology in English schools. Expert in design, engineering, and robotics. Appeared on TV show Robot Wars. Award winner in computer-aided design and manufacture. Writer on topics related to design and technology.

Oliver Young is a writer and woodturner based in London. He regularly contributes to the New Statesman’s magazine Designing. He is an active member of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Woodworkers and author of the graphic novel An Amoeba Called Joe. He is also the coauthor of three children, supports Arsenal football club, and plays guitar in a rock band. Learn more about Oliver’s work at

  • About 40% of people are “morning types” who wake up early, while 30% are “night owls” who stay up late. Teenagers often have late sleep-wake cycles. Schools with early start times don’t allow teens enough sleep. Some schools starting later have seen test scores increase.

  • Video games don’t actually increase your working memory. Researchers don’t know how to build a bigger working memory. A poor working memory can be a “gift” that provides unique insights, as with Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

  • Getting stuck in a “rut” of thinking in a fixed way is called “Einstellung” or “functional fixedness.” The term “rut think” is an easier way to remember this concept.

  • If you struggle with handwriting, typing notes can work, but avoid mindless transcription. Slow down and summarize key ideas.

  • A checklist for learning is available to download.

  • Shallow breathing is an instinctive reaction to “play dead” and avoid detection. It’s why people sometimes hold their breath when nervous. Look for motionless animals by detecting movement.

  • Even geniuses can benefit from Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s learning approaches.

  • A list of “10 top ideas to help your learning, and 10 pitfalls to avoid” is available to download.

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