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Learning How to Learn: my notes

I was lucky to attend a private talk with Barbara Oakley, famous for her MOOC “Learning How to Learn”. That was mostly the topic of the 1H-talk. These are my notes.


Some key elements to learning complex things are:

Goals of this talk


Julius Yego is an athlete from Kenya (javelin throw).

What is learning?

Learning anything means creating sets of links between neurons in the brain. When something is not learnt, those sets of links have not yet been created.

What is the most powelful technique to help you learn most efficiently ? Some options are:

Highlighting only allows our eyes to skim at the surface of the page. We tought for years that concept map was the best, but retrieval practice is better: every time you have to retrieve an information, you are strenghtening the sets of links you have created on something.

It is at night, when you are sleeping, that the connections are being created. We can see it happen physically. Sleep is very important. Get enough sleep at night.

spaced repetition: you have 5hours to spend on learning something ? instead of spending 5h in a row, spend 1h on monday, tuesday, wednesday, friday and sunday. That’s the same amount of time, but the strength is better. it takes time to learn something deeply, in the same way that creating a huge amount of muscle doesnt happen overnight.

procrastination: can be overcome with pomodoro technique

This rest period is the one that allow you to create those connections. If you are in the flow and don’t stop at 25mn, that’s ok, but there’s evidence that taking breaks helps in the long term. In Asia, many cultures have such focus on hard work that they don’t take those breaks, that allow for creativity to happen, so asians have the reputation of being less creatives.

Nelson Dellis has many videos about how to learn effectively.

memory palace: famous memory technique for memorizing fast many things. Challenge is that it is not very suitable in day to day life. ex: learning wavelengths for brain waves

Sounds complicated ? Picture them in your living room

By creating an image, a story, it’s possible to learn complex things quickly and for a long time.


Declarative vs Procedural learning

Learning can be done in 2 different ways, declaratively and procedurally.


As a consequence, 1 week corporate trainings are not a good solution. It’s too fast. You may need more (way more) time to grasp the concepts you want to learn in the first place deeply. Online, self paced learning is better.

Interleaving You need to play around with closely related ideas to the concepts you want to learn with

How to prioritize what to learn ? learn some key ideas about a topic first, then you’ll have notions about where to go next. Prioritization will happen on its own.

Questions and answers

So could we say the best moment to take a course would be juste before getting to sleep ?

We try to learn many things. Is it better to focus on thing for a week, then learn something else the next week ?

Is our ability to learn each day limited ?

You talked about retrieval practice, and procedural Learning, I was wondering if vizualisation can be considered as a form of practice and if some brain waves states are facilitating Learning ?

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