If you feel like you often sit down and study only to completely forget what you learn, you’re going to want to hear this.
Dr. Barb Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, has taught more than two million students on Coursera how to make the most of their study time.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Barb Oakely’s thoughts on:
- If you should study something you love or choose a degree that can get you a job (4:13)
- Why you forget things you learn and how to overcome that (7:19)
- How to study so you can recall information for a test (10:08)
- How long should you study each day and the maximum hours one can study in a day (12:17)
- More study tips (13:34)
- How to remember what you learn (14:53)
Want to hear more from Dr. Barb Oakley?
Enroll for free in Learning How to Learn (or one of Barb’s other classes).
Or if you’re a member of the press, set up an interview with Barb or learn more about the topics she can speak to.
Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today I’m talking to Barb Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University.
And while you might guess that an engineering professor has always been good at math and science for Barb, that wasn’t the case. In fact, she loved languages and swore growing up that she could not learn math and science.
So, how did she change her brain and pivot — and go from learning language and struggling with math to being an engineering professor?
That and more in the following.
I’m really intrigued to hear more about how you made that transformation. When I know growing up, that learning was something that was tough for you, and it didn’t come naturally.
So, how did you go from a student who struggled with how to learn to being a professor who specializes in helping students learn material better?
[00:01:00] Dr. Barb Oakley: When I really think carefully about my learning journey, originally, I thought, “Oh, I just can’t learn in math and science.”
And so, I, sure enough, did not learn in math and science all the way through high school. And it was just going into the military. I enlisted out of high school and then was in the military for about seven years– both in the Reserves as I was going through school and active duty as an enlisted officer.
But that also gave me a great impetus when I finished my army commitments. Oh, the army was really good to me, but I never wanted to be in a situation again where if I was assigned some sort of job that I didn’t particularly care for. In the army, that doesn’t matter. You just have to do it.
And I wanted to be more in a position to call my own shots. And so that was a great motivator for me to go back to the university, and what I was aiming for was to get some kind of a background that would make me very broadly employable.
And I was so grateful. My first degree was in Slavic languages and literature, which is why I can do a Russian accent, and I actually just adore Russian.
[00:02:21] And looking at the future, I could see that what I’d done in the past by following my passion alone, I’d put myself in a box.
I hadn’t really broadened the possibilities that I could have as far as career potential. And so what I wanted to do when I got out of the service was broaden my career potential, and I decided that the best way to do that — since I already had a humanities background with my degree in Slavic languages and literature, which recruiters did not seem to be too interested in — was to broaden that by getting some sort of technical expertise.
Because I had worked with West Point engineers, and I could see that it’s not just that having a diploma that says you’re an engineer is what is going to get you your job in the job place.
I mean, it’ll help, but what’s really behind that is when you get engineering training, you actually begin to become a very, very perceptive problem solver.
So, it’s almost as if engineering training can help make you smarter. Just in the same way that if I had only been trained as an engineer, language training would have helped me make me smarter.
[00:03:44] Coursera: And I really think there’s so much value in studying a diverse range of subjects. As you know, even if it doesn’t relate to what you do daily, if it’s a passion, if it’s something that piques your interest, it’ll change how you look at everything else.
But students are becoming a lot more aware and critical of ensuring that their degree has a return on investment. That whatever they’re going to pay is going to benefit their career.
Studying Something You Love or a Degree That Will Get You a Job
[00:04:13] How do you advise students who have a passion and what they’re most interested in isn’t what’s going to get them that big-dollar job out of college? What are they to do? What advice do you pass along?
[00:04:26] Dr. Barb Oakley: I’m really, really leery of professors who are like, “Just follow your passion. You know, that’s what’s really important.”
Because what professors are really saying is, “Take my subject. Support me.” I mean, it’s actually what’s in it for them, and they’re not really thinking about what is in the long-term best interest of that student.
[00:04:50]But I do think that a combination of whatever your passion is, just try to couple with that was something.
So, for example, our older daughter wanted to study medicine, so great. We didn’t have to worry about her. Our younger daughter is the family artist, so she wanted to just study art. That was it. That was all she was interested in.
And so we said, “Get something else as well. Just couple it with that. So you can study art, but just do something that can get you, you know, a job.”
[00:05:24] And so she studied marketing, and low and behold, do you know that marketing is actually a great asset if you are an artist?
And I think she’s really grateful now, as an artist, that she’s got a good background in marketing.
Think of it this way. Following your own passion is being selfish to the world because the world has its needs as well.
And so, by sort of opening yourself to your own desires, but also what the world is looking for and needing is being more welcoming and will actually help you in the long run.
[00:06:05] Coursera: I think it’s really interesting how you’ve talked about how learning math and science was difficult for you.
And instead of shying away from that forever, you faced the problem head-on, and you went into engineering — an area that you knew was weaker for you but that you wanted to learn.
What skills did you develop that allowed you to do that?
[00:06:29] Dr. Barb Oakley: The reality is if you can get any tricks to help you speed that learning — make your learning less frustrating; to make that time be more efficient — so you still do have time to go off and just goof around and spend time with your family and things like that. That’s really valuable.
And so, that’s what we tried to share in Learning How to Learn. What are some hacks that are practical, that are based on solid science, but they can really help you use your brain more efficiently?
And it’s not like it’s going to make learning super easy. It’s all fun.
It can be hard, but it helps you have more efficient use of your time. And I think that’s just invaluable for everyone.
Why You Forget Things You Learn
[00:07:19] Coursera: Well, that’s the perfect transition to what we’re talking about today, which is how you can make the time that you spend studying and learning as fruitful as possible.
So, I know one common and incredibly frustrating aspect of learning is when you sit down, you say, “I’m going to study for an hour.” You open up your book. You get your highlighters out. You read. You read. You study and focus for that 60 minutes. And then you get up, and you completely forget what you learned. Why does this happen?
[00:07:53] When you study, you put the time in, and then you just forget what you were learning?
[00:07:59] Dr. Barb Oakley: That’s such a great description of how we think we learn, but it’s actually how we fool ourselves in learning.
When you learn, you are creating links between neurons in your long-term memory.
But when you are sitting and glancing at a page and your eyes are moving over that page, are you creating links and long-term memory? Absolutely not. You may be very faithfully creating a few sets of links.
[00:08:35]But the reality is the best way to get information into your long-term memory is by trying to see if you have it there.
So, in other words, let’s say you’re learning a vocabulary word. Okay, put a flashcard. Flip it over now, see if you can recall it from your own mind.
It goes to those sets of links and says, ” Oh, are those links there? Are those links in your long-term memory?”
So, whatever you can do to test yourself by checking to see if you can work a problem yourself if you’ve got that information in long-term memory.
If you’re reading a page, what you want to do is you do not want to sit there highlighting or underlining because the motion of your hand on the page is fooling yourself into thinking that you’re doing something physical in your brain. But you’re actually not, at least related to learning that material.
[00:09:47] Your best bet is to look at that page. Look away and see if you can recall the key idea or ideas of that page. That actively checks to see, “Are those links there in long-term memory?” And it helps strengthen those links in long-term memory.
How to Study So You Can Recall Information for a Test
[00:10:08] Coursera: So, it sounds like the problem when you sit down, and you study. And you read, and you reread. And you highlight, and you underline is that it’s not really sticking with you. It’s not going to the right part of your brain.
So, if you were to study for an hour, the best use of your time would perhaps be to study and read for 30 minutes and then spend the latter half of that hour actually recalling, doing practice problems, describing in your own words, and then that would help it stick in your long-term memory?
[00:10:41] Dr. Barb Oakley: Oh, I see. That’s a very good synopsis. You can do it that way. You can do the first half as you know, reading and the last half as active, or you can do bit by bit.
So you read a page, then active recall, and then summarize, “What was that key idea?” Read a page, then active recall, summarize, and then maybe at the end of the exercise do a sort of a meta summary of recalling everything.
[00:11:10] But inserted in there, you don’t want to go too long like I love the Pomodoro technique. With this technique, you just turn off all distractions, so you will not multitask during this. You are just going to focus on one thing and set the timer for 25 minutes. Focus intently for 25 minutes, and then give yourself a reward for five minutes or so.
That reward part is also very important because you are learning not only during those 25 minutes when you’re focusing, but when you take a complete break and get your focus off of that.
Your little hippocampus has time to offload information into the neocortex, so it’s actually a quite efficient use of your time. You’re just simply not aware of the fact that your brain is actually working.
And in fact, the most effective way you can take that five-minute break is to just either go for a walk or close your eyes and do nothing.
How Long Should You Study Each Day (and the Maximum Hours One Can Study in a Day)
[00:12:17] Coursera: But even if you’re using breaks like that to your strategic advantage, is it true that the more you study, the more you forget?
Is there some sort of cutoff where you shouldn’t be studying for eight hours a day, 10 hours a day, four hours a day — whatever it is — even if you’re taking these breaks and doing it in a smart, science-backed way?
[00:12:38] Dr. Barb Oakley: I do think that there’s pretty good evidence that people have about four hours of optimal time where they can really focus and get stuff done.
But I think you can still learn — even if you’re doing more than that. I mean, just looking at evidence from medical school students, if you’re studying more than eight hours a day, you’re probably not getting much more bang for your buck.
You can focus longer if you are older. The rule of thumb is you can focus about your age plus one. So, if you’re 14, you can focus pretty intently for about 15 minutes.
But once you reach about 14 years old, your working memory is pretty much the same as what it’s going to be when you’re an adult.
More Study Tips
[00:13:34] Coursera: That’s really interesting. What are a couple of tips that you have for retaining information when you’re studying?
I know we talked about the importance of recall, about taking breaks, about not overworking yourself. Are there any other tactical tips that you want to pass along?
[00:13:53] Dr. Barb Oakley: Let’s see. Coffee helps, but be careful with coffee in that it has a long afterlife. So, it’ll stay in your body for about eight hours. So, just be aware that that can affect your sleep.
Interestingly enough, chocolate. Well, chocolate is just really helpful cognitively. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a very good publication on how chocolate actually can help your cognition. So, it tastes good, and it can help you, too.
Exercise. Getting enough sleep. Interestingly, naps during the afternoon can help you in your later in the day studies.
How to Remember What You Learn
[00:14:39] Coursera: And I know you shared a lot of great little hacks and tips as people are going in the school year for how they can improve what they’re already doing.
Are there any other pieces of advice about how to study or how to better retain information?
[00:14:53] Dr. Barb Oakley: Well, so, of course, sort of visual things. For example, if I’m trying to remember the word duck is “pato” in Spanish. I just imagine this duck that’s in a pot-o of water — relating a word in one language to another.
There’s a wonderful book by Nelson Dellis called “Remember It” that has a lot of these memory tricks, like the memory palace and using visual associations to help you remember.
[00:15:23] Coursera: Because like you said, you start with school, you see your schedule. Nowhere on there is there going to be a class on how to learn, how to learn. But it’s those tips that could change your world and make every single other class you take this semester or this year much easier because you understand how your brain works and how you can help it retain what you’re learning.
[00:15:46] Dr. Barb Oakley: I just hope our conversation is helpful for those who are learning.
[00:15:52] Coursera: Want to keep the conversation going with Barb?
Go to Coursera.org and enroll in Learning How to Learn for free. You’ll learn more learning hacks like this so that you can do even better in school this year.
Well, that’s it for today.
Thanks so much for listening and happy learning.