November 28, 2021

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Connecting the Dots: Dr. Barbara Oakley on the Science of How We Learn

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The science behind how we teach others and how we learn ourselves is nothing short of a fascination for many of us. As much of the world moved to online work and study out of necessity and safety, that fascination has only grown deeper. 

While it’s tempting to call online learning a necessary but secondary replacement for face-to-face learning, Dr. Barbara Oakley disagrees, and she has the science to prove it. Oakley focuses on the fundamentals of how people learn, combining neuroscience and social behavioral analysis to pinpoint the exact learning processes that lead to stronger outcomes. She believes that when online learning is done well, it not only matches the outcomes that are possible in a classroom but has the potential to surpass it. Oakley thinks that the way educators should teach when online is no longer just an option; it’s the only option.

Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University and the creator of “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects”, one of the most popular courses on Coursera. Recently, we hosted a webinar with Dr. Oakley to learn more about her research on the science of how we learn. We sat down with Oakley to learn a bit more about her path, and ask how teachers (and students) can apply these neuroscientific insights to learn better.

Tell us about your teaching journey. How and why did you get into the field?

Teaching is the last thing that I would have ever thought I’d get into. I’m a shy person, and I remember looking at my professors and wondering how they could speak in front of people so calmly. While I was finishing my Ph.D., I applied for a teaching job, not thinking I would get it. Then, I got it—and there I was, teaching a class that had been one of my worst when I was a student.

Those first few teaching years were tough. My initial approach to teaching was to get the information as clearly and efficiently as I could. I found that when I was very clear in my teaching, I could run away more quickly after class—which inspired me to explain even more clearly. 

I would also make bad jokes to break the ice. To my surprise, the students seemed to enjoy them—and they then forgave me many an error in my teaching!

All teachers start somewhere; not everything comes naturally. There are many solutions  available to teach yourself how to be a better teacher. An upcoming specialization we’re developing will explore these techniques. 

Why did you decide to pursue a career that uncovers the connections between the brain and how we learn? 

I initially started working in the area of learning because of one of my engineering students. He’d found out I had flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science and had received my first Bachelor of Arts degree in Slavic Languages and Literature—he wanted to know how I changed my brain. I thought my students’ question was a good one—so good that it inspired me to begin researching the neuroscience and cognitive psychology behind how we learn.

I remember back when I was first trying to learn calculus, saying that I won’t turn the page until I understood that page. I spent three hours poring over those words. Then I accidentally turned the page—and there was the answer! I thought, “Can’t someone teach me how to learn better?” Little did I know that I would become a person to write the kind of books on learning that I wish I’d had.

Plus, part of my turning to this new path was just the lucky confluence of being able to work with Terry Sejnowski [who’s researched neural networks and computational biology]. Together, we’ve wanted to explain why different teaching approaches work or don’t work and look at the science behind it. I want to combine the research from cognitive psychology and neuroscientific findings on learning and explain them in a way that’s easy to understand.

There have been some great revelations about learning from neuroscience. For example, direct instruction—a mixture of lecture and student-led active learning—is the most effective way to teach (rather than all lectures or all student work). How can teachers combine these approaches effectively?

When you’re learning something, you connect neurons together, and they become better connected as you practice more. The brain learns through the declarative system and the procedural system, with each system making neural connections—but neural connections that work slightly differently in your long-term memory.

The declarative system takes information from your working memory through the hippocampus into your long-term memory. The procedural system, on the other hand, puts information into your long-term memory via the basal ganglia. Declarative type learning is faster to do, but later on, it’s slower to use (think of cramming for an exam). Procedural learning, on the other hand, takes more time to learn, but once you’ve got it, it’s very fast to use (like speaking your native language, or a foreign language you’ve learned very, very well—you don’t even need to think about it). You may have a hard time explaining something you’ve learned procedurally, like how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. But once you know something procedurally, it can become as easy as tying your shoe (tying your shoe, after all, is learned procedurally!). The declarative system might be able to recall the complicated steps of a proof with difficulty, while the procedural system can allow you to speak your native language without even thinking about it. 

A teacher can best teach using the declarative system through explanations, such as a lecture. The procedural system is taught with student-led active learning, such as through homework or active class exercises. A good instructor knows how to naturally combine these two learning systems in the classroom. I think teachers feel guilty about explaining material in a lecture, but they shouldn’t. It’s a crucial way to share information. Lectures are as important as active exercises.

In an online setting, having main room lectures and then breakout rooms for smaller, active-learning assignments is one of the best ways to combine both procedural and declarative forms of learning. You can engagingly present your materials and then have students take part in active-learning exercises. This approach can work even better online than in person, thanks to advancements in teaching and video conferencing tools.

What about the concept of “working memory capacity”? How can a teacher best assess a student’s working memory capacity and help them succeed?

Everyone is born with a certain working memory capacity, and there’s little change that can be made to this. I like to think of “working memory” as an octopus with four arms because people have, on average, four arms in their working memory. Your working memory can reach in and gather sets of neural links, holding them as you’re manipulating information to solve a problem. You can also think of your working memory as holding balls of information—that is, sets of neural links. Working memories vary in size. Some people may be able to juggle five balls of information at a time (in other words, they have a high working memory capacity); others may only be able to juggle three balls. The trick is to be able to accommodate both sizes of capacities in your classroom.

But it’s important to remember that higher capacity working memory is not necessarily better than lower capacity working memory. A person with a smaller memory capacity may need to consume smaller chunks of information at a time, but they can still move that information into long-term memory. They just need more practice. Once they’ve got the neural links of learning in place and in long-term memory, they can recall this memory just as well or even better than the student with a higher-capacity working memory. 

Your research also dives deeply into why taking or giving little breaks during the learning process is actually a very big deal. How can teachers administer breaks effectively, especially with remote learning?

Your hippocampus needs small breaks to be able to unload the information in the long-term memory through the declarative system. Short breaks in classroom teaching allow students to retain the information better. Even just breaking up a lesson for a few seconds with a small joke can be enough time for the brain to reset and let more information make its way into long-term memory. 

You can break up your learning with active learning sessions, where students practice with the material.  Practice is sometimes denigrated as “drill and kill,” but we should perhaps instead call practice “drill and chill” because this procedural, habitual type of learning through practice ultimately means you don’t even have to think about what you’ve learned. Practice-based learning is also handy because once you’ve learned something procedurally, you can focus your declarative learning on the new and more complex aspects of the material.

What is one area that you would like more educators to focus on to enhance their teaching effectiveness?

I would like to see teachers inserting bits of insight about how to learn effectively into their instruction. A little effort to improve students’ abilities to learn has a significant impact. When I was at a high school in Qatar, for example, I discovered the teachers had worked with an AP biology class, taking three days at the beginning of the course to teach students how to learn effectively. Teachers interwove ideas related to learning through their entire course. It paid off in spades.

Why do you think online learning platforms like Coursera are a useful resource for teachers? 

It’s terribly time-consuming to create all your own course material, but it’s fantastic when you  have someone that has really taken the time to construct the materials. Then you can put the material into your own class and devote your resources to helping the students learn it. There is a big payoff to having quality online materials and pulling from the work of others who have done the hard work to create those online materials. 

We, teachers, do this “pulling from others” all the time with books, so it shouldn’t be different with other multimedia materials. With online learning platforms, you have economies of scale in online learning that teachers just don’t have, such as creating video content. We want students to become engaged with the materials, and there’s evidence that content such as well-made videos can lead to higher engagement. Using well-made videos is also one of the easiest ways for students to learn materials.

What advice do you have for faculty who are just starting to teach online? 

If you’re a teacher going online for the first time, you should be stealing ideas from other great teachers. I would first watch some online teaching from platforms like Coursera because you’ll get ideas on how to improve your abilities in doing this virtually. In doing this, when you see strong material, you should note and use this material in your own teaching! 

Finally, I would say to go and make a video of yourself first, just for you, before you have to get in front of a whole online class. You can’t do everything live; practice makes (almost) perfect, after all! I didn’t start out as a strong teacher—it took practice, and that same mindset can be applied to online learning. You’ll get there!


Interested in embracing resilient teaching with online learning? Join thousands of educators who are giving students free access to top courses from world-class institutions and hands-on learning by signing up for the Coursera for Campus Basic plan. 

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