Learn a better way

This site aspires to be a useful summary of all the best-practices related to learning, as taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski in Learning How to Learn (Oakley & Sejnowski, n.d.).

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To be able to learn effectively it’s important to understand some basic fundamentals. How does our memory work? Are we doing something that is not optimal for our learning process, or worse yet, even counterproductive? How our emotions and internal beliefs interacting with this process?

TL;DR we strongly recommend to go through the following (short) pages to understand the concepts and internalize them better, but if you read only one page, read the TL;DR.

Why we struggle

We’ve all been there. There is this important subject we have to study and possibly master, but it seems an uphill battle. We spent a lot of time on the material, reading and re-reading the book multiple times. We even highlighted and underlined most of the passages. But the moment we had to use that material - be it a school test or a real-life situation – we could recall only fragments. It’s so frustrating that the prospect of having to study another subject and feel the same is almost hurting. We end up postponing this as much as possible, and then doing another long, extenuating study session. Often with the same results. And the cycle repeats.

If we think about it, it can be rather depressing. But, is there a better way?

Fortunately the answer is positive: yes, there is. The reasearch in neurobiology and cognitive sciences in recent years has uncovered a lot of ground in how our brains and minds work. Now we know with much better confidence what works and what doesn’t when approaching the learning of new subjects. And often, the strategy that we use when studying is far from optimal.

These old-fashioned methods – long intense study sessions, re-reading, underlining, … – are very ingrained because there is a strong teaching tradition handing them down from generation to generation. These are the ways we’ve been exposed during our first years of school.

Another reason these methods continue to be popular, is that they are pretty good at creating what is called an Illusion of Competence. From a psychological standpoint, having spent long hours on book, even doing the physical act of highlighting and underlining, satisfies our need to know that we have done our duties on that task. But more often than not, we are only tricking our minds and not really learning in depth as we could.

Another issue is that often we are taught to focus on the result of our work. We are praised for our intelligence when we do well, and scolded when the results are less satisfactory. Little consideration is given to the path we took to reach that result. This often has the result of making us fear the result, and loose confidence in our abilities. To top it off, our minds are not good in focusing on distant outcomes, while are quite capable at anticipating the pain involded in upcoming tasks. This leads us to postpone the work on the subject we have to study, often tackling it at the very last moment. But as we’ll see, our minds need time to learn effectively. This procrastination mechanism is satisfying an immediate urge, but doing us more harm than good.

Our plan

Our objective is to help spreading the knowledge on the most effective learning methods. But the ability to learn is greatly enhanced by an understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

Thus, in the following pages we’ll give a look at how our brains think in the Focused vs Diffuse modes section, to continue then with a glimpse into Memory and Chunking. We’ll learn then how to fight Illusion of Competence and Procrastination.

At the end, we’ll provide a brief set of practical tips on how to study effectively, in our TL;DR page.


  1. Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Coursera. Coursera. Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn