Learning How to Learn: Mastering the Science of Learning with Barbara Oakley

Dr Barbara Oakley is a lifelong learning enthusiast with a colourful past.

After struggling with mathematics and science at school, she joined the army, so she could get paid to learn another language.

She studied Russian for years, even working on Soviet trawlers in the Bearing Sea for months at a time.

Later, she shrugged off her struggles with the sciences at school, and retrained to become an engineer. She had such success in her new career, that she went on to become a professor of engineering, a position she now holds at Oakland University.

Fascinated by the learning process itself, Barb went on to create the most successful massive open online course (MOOC) of all time – Learning How To Learn – which has 2 million registered students.

In this conversation, we discuss Barb’s time learning Russian in the military, and how we can improve our learning as adults.


A Little About Barbara Oakley

  • Barbara Oakley grew up speaking only English, but was always extremely interested in learning another language
  • Barb joined the army after graduating from high school, so she could get paid to learn another language!
  • Studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for 18 months
  • It was an intensive, immersion-based programme
  • This was where Barb began to learn how to learn
  • Worked on Soviet trawlers in the Bearing Sea
  • She took remedial algebra aged 26, and is now a professor of engineering

“Learning another language helps you understand how the world works” – Barbara Oakley

Barbara Oakley learn how to learn



How The “Learning How To Learn” Course Came To Be

  • Learning how to learn is the world’s largest massive open online course (MOOC), with 2m registered students
  • Barb’s book A Mind For Numbers is a general book about learning that grew out of her experiences with language learning
  • But people like to learn with videos, podcasts, and other mediums besides books, so she began to create an online course
  • Barb believes the success of the course comes from the fact it connects the underlying strategies used in a variety of skills, such as math & science, music, dance, languages, etc.

“Do you think anyone will watch these videos?” – Barbara Oakley, before creating the world’s largest online course

When Do We Begin To Take An Interest In Learning?

  • 25-45 years old is the primary demographic of the Learning How To Learn course
  • College students have often never heard of a MOOC, partly because universities view them as competitors
  • Most people take 12-16 years of education, and never take a course on effective learning
  • College students rarely take an interest in effective learning, because their intensive course content leaves very little time for any kind of meta-analysis of the learning process
  • Additionally, people at a university are generally only interested in their topics. Even university professors are typically not versed in learning theory
  • However, when you leave college and get out into the real world, you’re the boss! At this stage, you begin to question what you’ve been told during your formal education

Do You Learn Languages The Same Way As The Sciences?

  • Barb believes that learning in the sciences is much more related to language learning than other subjects
  • Much research into learning acquisition comes from disciplines that are not math-based
  • They tend to devise theories of learning that are applicable in learning the social sciences or humanities, but not learning deeply and well in mathematics and maths-heavy sciences
  • Educators risk missing the commonalities between learning at a deep level in subjects as diverse and mathematics and languages
  • Any kind of expertise involves learning in neural chunks. In that sense, learning a language is much like learning to reverse a car; it seems extremely complex at first, but you soon get used to it. Similarly in mathematics, when you first meet an equation, it seems impenetrable, but after working with it for a while, it begins to make sense, and you can pull it up as a neural chunk
  • One of the most important things we’ve learnt from neuroscience is the developing of a library of neural patterns, or chunks, that we draw on in order to perform a skill or deploy knowledge

Barb’s Approach To Teaching

  • In engineering, she teaches a mix of “nuts & bolts” and broader, holistic learning
  • In advanced topics, things get so complex that you have to provide a template and work through a sample problem
  • This is done in order to reduce the cognitive load by focusing on the minutiae at first
  • Good students, having completed a sample problem, will then go back and rework the problem, attempting to generate the solution “cold”, from inside, without having to follow the step-by-step instructions
  • They will then take this learning and try to apply it to new problems, still “cold”
  • Mistakes are inevitable, but the good students will take onboard feedback, and use the feedback to improve their understanding of the process
  • In this sense, learning in science is analogous to learning to speak a new language

How Barb Learnt Russian

  • She learnt Russian in the Defense Language Institute
  • After this, she completed her bachelor’s degree over 2 years in the University of Washington in Slavic Languages and Literature
  • Then, she began working on Soviet trawlers, which is where she “really learnt to speak Russian!”

Learning Russian In The Military

“You know too much – it’s time to kill you!” – Dr. Barbara Oakley

Barb found the 18-month programme useful for a number of reasons:

  • There were lots of opportunities to listen and speak
  • There was a language lab, where students could spend lots of time listening to the language
  • Teachers that were mostly native speakers of Russian, with a class size of around 15
  • There was a very good set of books that were very well-laid out

Learning activities typically involved:

  • A certain amount of vocabulary you would learn every day
  • Drills that you’d work on together in class
  • Exercises involving sitting and speaking with one another, or with the teacher
  • Read an essay, then write a response to the topic

What level of Russian did Barb reach in the military programme?

Beginner’s Russian was a 1-year programme, followed by Intermediate Russian, which was another 6-month class

barbara oakley grammar and structure

However, most interactions in class were with other American students, some of whom were not really devoted to the language.

She got a very good foundation in Russian, but would still struggle in conversation with native speakers.

It wasn’t till she went to work on Russian ships that she really began to feel a sense of domination of the Russian language.

How Can Busy Adults Learn Languages?

Barb has recently begun learning Spanish.

Here are her reflections on beginning to learn a new language at this stage of her life:

  • Fitting language learning in around a hectic schedule is a very real problem that many people struggle with – but it’s worth it!
  • Learning a language uses and stimulates those areas of the brain that decay in old age
  • Therefore, language learning can help rejuvenate the areas of the brain that are most prone to decline
  • Barb likes using Yabla to watch snippets of video in Spanish
  • She uses iTalki to have conversations with native speakers in Spanish
  • Finding the time, worrying about progress, and feeling guilty are all struggles that Barb has

barbara oakley love the language you're learning

“What does it mean to fall in love with a language? It’s the smell!” – Barbara Oakley

Barbara Oakley’s New Book – Mindshift

Barb’s new book is about changing your attitude towards what you can learn.

The book is for anyone who wants to learn more broadly than what they think they’re capable of.

Find out more about Barbara Oakley at: www.barbaraoakley.com

There you’ll find out about things such as:

  • Links to Barb’s books
  • Learning How to Learn (online course)
  • Mindshift (online course)

What have you found out about how to learn from Barbara in this interview? How will you apply it to your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

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