How To Study Smarter, Not Harder

While all of us want to learn new things in order to perform well in school, work, or just to learn a new skill, we rarely stop and think about the effectiveness of our learning strategies or techniques.

To look at these methods, we interviewed Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., PE, a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan; the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University; and Coursera’s inaugural “Innovation Instructor.” (she is the co-author of the most popular online course in the world – https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn). Her work focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior.

An Interview with Barbara Oakley

How important is routine when you try to learn something difficult and new?

You don’t want to just cram and study one time right before a test. When you’re learning something new, you need to be hitting it repeatedly for a number of days. Having a bit of a routine every day will help. The routine can be to do a ‘Pomodoro*’ on that material every day. The time can differ – you can do Pomodoro in the afternoon or when you first wake up as long as there’s consistency, especially at the beginning so you can start building sets of brain links with repetition.

*The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break down work/study into intervals. To do a “Pomodoro,” turn off all distractions (cell phone off!), set a timer for 25 minutes, work as attentively as you can for those 25 minutes, and then take a 5 minute or so break.  The break is as important as the focused part of the Pomodoro session–it allows your brain to consolidate the material.

When feeling overwhelmed with school workload and tests, how should we prioritize or structure our study time, and how often should we switch from one subject to another?

First, write down a list.  This will help you to create an overview of what you need to be doing–and it will help clear all the swirling tasks out of your working memory. Then step back and ask, “Okay, how much time do I really have now, and what’s most important for me to be doing in that time?”

Pick a task, or a few tasks, from the list. If the item would take a long time (“finish writing report”), then break it into something bite-sized–for example, do one Pomodoro on the report. I like to have a big list of my tasks for the day, but then I have a sublist beside it of three to five small, doable tasks from the big list. I work from the smaller list, so I can cross it off and complete the smaller list within a few hours. Then I make a new smaller list. I try to keep my focus on the smaller list, to help prevent me from getting overwhelmed with everything I need to be doing.

You said you were not a “natural” with math when you were younger, so what was the final impulse to change? What were the first steps and how did you stay motivated?

I heard over and over that I should follow my passion, as that’s what would make me happy. So that’s what I did. I wanted to learn a new language so I did. I hated math–that was not my passion–so I avoided it.

After I enlisted in the military I began to see that following your passion is not the best advice. I mean, it’s okay to follow your passion, but it’s also a really good idea to broaden your passion.  Eventually, because I had just followed my passion and studied language, I ended up in a box career-wise. I was 26-years-old when I got out of the military with a Bachelor’s Degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. There were not many jobs available because I had just studied what I felt like studying instead of what might actually give me some skills that were needed in society.

A lot of the guys I worked with in the military were West Point engineers. They had great training–so many career doors were open for them, but not for me. I realized that I should try to retrain my brain, to  open my mind to the fact analytical skills are increasingly important.

So what kept me motivated was that I couldn’t get a very good job. It was scary to go back to university–to remedial high school algebra. I didn’t know whether I was going to be successful. But I knew if I failed, a lot of interesting opportunities would pass me by.  

When we say to kids follow their passion, we’re really saying it’s okay to be totally selfish about your wants and needs and ignore what’s going on in society. That’s not very healthy advice for a person in the long run. Follow and broaden your passion is the best advice.

Some studies suggest that young girls become interested in math and science around the age of 11, and then quickly lose interest and confidence when they’re around 15. Why do you think this is, and how can we change this trend?

There’s plenty of scientific evidence that boys and girls share equal capabilities in math and science. They’re pretty much the same. But the difference is that boys lag behind verbally where girls go ahead. So a boy will look within himself and say, “I’m better at math than I am at verbal sort of things.” And it’s true.

A girl will look within herself and say, “I’m really good at is verbal sorts of things, not math,” because on average, even though she’s just as good at math as a boy, she’s even better at verbal. When boys and girls hear “follow your passion”, that is, in essence, saying “do what comes easiest for you.” This sort of advice can cause girls to veer towards verbally-oriented jobs. They can lose out on a wide variety of job opportunities that are open for those who are also capable of quantitative skills.

What is the best way to conquer tests in an efficient and calm way?

Well, the best way to conquer tests is to study well for them. But if you have studied well, a helpful trick is to  start with the hardest problem, then pull yourself off whenever you feel stuck, which is probably going to be around one to three minutes into the problem. Then go work on the easier problems. What will happen is when you are working on the easier problems is that an alternate network in your brain (the default mode network)  is actually working in the background on that first problem. Later on, you can go back to the first problem and make progress. Your brain can work something like a dual processor.

Look on Coursera.com – there is “Learning How to Learn for Youth”. It shows you exactly how your brain is doing that.

Another technique which you can use to retain as much as possible is what’s called ‘active recall.” You don’t want to just read a page in a book. You want to read it and then look away–checking to see if you can recall the key idea on the page.  In a similar fashion, you’d never want to just look at the solution to a problem and think you could solve it yourself. Your mind fools you. You want to see if you can work that problem without looking at the answer. If you have to sneak a peek at the answer, you should work it again–perhaps over several days. Ultimately, for important problems, you should just be able to look at them and the solution should flow from your mind.

How do you tame wandering attention?

That’s a tough one and, part of the reason it’s tough is that the more you try to stop it the more it will want to keep wandering. I find the Pomodoro Technique to be the best way for me to tame my wandering.

Just set the timer for 25-minutes and, when distracting thoughts arise,  just tell yourself, “Oh, that’s a distracting thought.” Return your focus to what you’re working on because you only have 25-minutes and after that, you can wander all you want. Also, make sure to  put away distractions such as your phone, and turn off pop-ups and such on your computer.

What tricks would you recommend to memorize things such as vocabulary, historical dates or the periodic table?

Mnemonics* work. The more you can make what you’re trying to remember into something visual, the stickier it can be. The more you can learn about memory tricks, the better. A very good book is called, ‘Remember It!: The Names of People You Meet, All of Your Passwords, Where You Left Your Keys, and Everything Else You Tend to Forget’, by Nelson Dellis – that has some good advice on remembering all sorts of things.

*A mnemonic is a memory aid, such as an abbreviation, rhyme or mental image that helps to remember something.

How do you see the future of learning?

What we’ll gradually see is an increasing use of artificial intelligence in helping reduce teacher workloads in areas like grading papers and homework. I think that’s going to be a fabulous relief for teachers. Artificial intelligence will also be helpful to teach students how to write well and give  feedback on writing, which takes a lot of time. My dream would be to see more of a mastery learning approach for students that depends less on grades and more on just mastering the subject matter.

What is the best piece of advice that you ever received as a teenager?

I remember complaining to my father once about a terrible teacher I had. He said, “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the problem is you?” Learning to reflect on my own role in the learning process was valuable.

What is your morning ritual to ensure you have a productive day?

I try to get on track with a Pomodoro and identify the big task that I should be working on during that day. I find if I get started with that task, that even if I take a break and have breakfast and so forth my mind will be geared on my big task for the day.

What are your favorite failures that moved you forward?

Being in the military and being so bad at what I was doing. That was a big failure for me and yet it motivated me to turn around and become an engineer. So it was a good failure. Although at the time I just thought “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Name one book every young woman should read and why?

There’s a terrific book I just finished called ‘Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War’. I think it’s just a wonderful book about actually accomplishing something significant, that can save lives.  Women and girls–everyone, really–can benefit greatly from understanding some of the ideas that are put forth in this book.

Name a documentary, or a movie or a TED Talk that every young girl should watch and why.

“The Green Book” is absolutely fantastic. It’s about an African American man who was a brilliant pianist in the 1960s who was breaking down doors so black people were integrated instead of separated in society. It’s so beautifully done. I just think it’s a wonderful movie that helps one to understand how society can change over time.

Another great movie is “Apollo 13.” It’s a triumphant story of brave people who had “the right stuff”–and of engineering ingenuity.  


The benefits of learning a new skill include improving memory, better verbal intelligence,  building confidence, and increased social and language skills. Also it makes us happy! As human beings, we have a natural desire to learn and progress. We encourage you to explore the following link to discover how being open and curious can change your life:




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