Learning How to Learn - How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens

Barbara Oakley, PhD, Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, Alistair McConville

Key Insights from "Learning How to Learn"

  1. Learning involves two different modes: focused and diffuse. Both are crucial for the learning process.
  2. The concept of 'chunking': Developing mental leaps to absorb new information efficiently.
  3. The importance of sleep: Sleep helps in consolidating and processing what we have learned.
  4. Procrastination: Understanding and overcoming procrastination is key for effective learning.
  5. Memory techniques: Tools like recall, spaced repetition and memory palace can help in retaining information.
  6. Interleaving: Mixing up different types of problems or skills in a single session can enhance learning.
  7. Exercise and learning: Regular physical activity can boost your learning capability.
  8. The role of metaphors and analogies: They can help to understand complex concepts.
  9. Test-taking strategies: Techniques to improve performance during examinations.
  10. The significance of persistence: The ability to stick with difficult tasks or concepts is critical for learning.
  11. Embracing mistakes: Mistakes are valuable feedbacks in the learning process.

Detailed Analysis and Summary

"Learning How to Learn" is a highly practical guide that uses cognitive science to explain how learning works and how to make it work for you. The authors, Barbara Oakley, Terrence Sejnowski, and Alistair McConville, have distilled decades of research into a useful manual for students of all ages.

Learning modes

The book starts with the idea that our brain operates in two distinct modes, focused and diffuse. Focused mode is when we concentrate on a problem or a task, while diffuse mode involves thinking more broadly or letting our mind wander. The authors argue that both modes play a significant role in learning. Diffuse mode helps in making connections and generating creative solutions, while focused mode is crucial for practicing and reinforcing what we have learned.


Next, the book introduces the concept of 'chunking', a process of breaking down complex information into manageable 'chunks'. This is similar to the method I often recommend to my students - breaking down a large task into smaller, manageable parts. Chunks are like mental leaps that help in understanding new information and assimilating it with what we already know.

Sleep and learning

A surprising, yet scientifically backed insight from the book is the importance of sleep. Sleep helps in processing and consolidating what we have learned. It also aids in problem-solving and creativity. The authors recommend a good night's sleep and power naps for boosting learning.


One of the most significant hurdles in learning, procrastination, is addressed comprehensively in the book. The authors explain the neuroscience behind procrastination and offer practical solutions to overcome it. They suggest techniques like the Pomodoro technique, where you work for a set amount of time (like 25 minutes) and then take a short break.

Memory techniques

The book also offers various memory techniques to help retain information. Techniques like recall, spaced repetition, and the memory palace are discussed. These techniques align with the findings of cognitive psychology about the spacing effect and the testing effect.

Interleaving and exercise

Interleaving and exercise are two other strategies discussed in the book. Interleaving involves mixing up different kinds of problems or skills in one session, which can enhance learning. Exercise, on the other hand, helps in improving cognitive functions and boosting mood, thereby enhancing learning.

Metaphors, analogies, and test-taking strategies

The use of metaphors and analogies can help in understanding complex concepts. The book provides several examples to illustrate this point. The authors also provide practical test-taking strategies, helping students to perform better during exams.

Persistence and embracing mistakes

Lastly, the authors emphasize the importance of persistence and embracing mistakes. Learning is a process, and it requires the ability to stick with difficult tasks or concepts. Mistakes, they argue, are valuable feedback in the learning process, not roadblocks.

In conclusion, "Learning How to Learn" provides scientifically backed, practical strategies to enhance learning. It is a useful guide for students and educators alike, offering insights into how our brains work and how we can make the most out of our learning efforts. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in improving their learning skills.

Jayashree  (Jay)

Jayashree (Jay) DE

Coach & Mentor (mid-level & transitioning Tech Managers & professionals), writer, photographer. Former Tech Manager.