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Here’s how to learn absolutely anything, according to a world expert

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It’s easy to get discouraged when we’re trying to learn a difficult new subject. But according to the creator of one of the world’s most successful online courses, almost anyone can learn anything—with the right technique.

Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, is the creator of “Learning How to Learn,” a massive open online course (or MOOC) that’s already been taken by approximately 2.3 million students across 200 countries. The course draws on neuroscience research to offer practical advice for anyone struggling with a tough subject or a procrastination habit. Now she’s co-authored a new book, Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying, that offers advice for children and young adults just in time for back-to-school season.

Quartz spoke with Oakley about some of her best tips for learning, whatever your age—from why you shouldn’t study in the same place every day to how the “hard start technique” can improve your performance on tests.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Why, and how, do you believe that anyone can learn anything?

Oakley: My philosophy is that, because people often don’t know how their brain learns, they tune out to learning.

Knowing a little bit more about how your brain works can really help to be a little more compassionate with yourself when it might take you a little more time than another [person] to learn a topic. And, if it does take you a little more time, you might actually be able to learn it more deeply than the person who is a speedy learner. It’s very valuable to learn more about how your brain operates, because then you can use it more effectively; it becomes a more effective tool.

What got you interested in this?

I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. I really loathed those topics. It’s kind of ironic, in that I’m now a professor of engineering, and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

I didn’t begin studying remedial high school mathematics until I was 26 years old. I learned math as an adult, and it wasn’t easy. But then I applied ideas from language learning to learning mathematics: Plenty of practice and repetition. And, it worked!

[Math] didn’t come naturally to me, and so that makes me much more aware of what a typical learner faces when they are trying to learn something new and difficult, rather than what a gifted learner thinks. And that means I approach learning with somewhat of a different eye than many who have gone through a standard, pedagogical program.

So thinking about learning differently was beneficial to you?

I think so. If you look at Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he talks about substantive innovations in science, and they’re often made by either really young people, who haven’t had time to be indoctrinated into the typical viewpoints, or individuals who originally were trained in a different field, and came and look at this new field with a fresh perspective.

Let’s talk about something that a lot of people struggle with: Procrastination. How can people avoid procrastinating on their studying?

One of the best ways to tackle [procrastination] is the Pomodoro technique, which was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. The brilliance of this technique is, it’s so easy. You set a timer for 25 minutes, and then you focus as intently as you can for those 25 minutes. Whenever you catch your thoughts wandering, which they will, you just bring them back and continue to focus, because anybody can work for 25 minutes.

The most important part of all is, when you’re done, be sure to take a little break. Reward yourself. The break is extremely important because we always used to think that you just learn when you’re focusing; but you actually continue to learn when you’re taking a break. That’s when your brain begins to make sense of all of this.

Moving onto another important and popular topic: Sleep. Why does sleep matter so much to learning?

There’s two reasons why sleep is important. One is that, when you go to sleep, your brain cells shrink, and this allows cerebral fluid to flow past your cells and wash out the toxins that accumulate during the day. This means that, if you try to go with minimal or no sleep before a big test, for example, you’re actually allowing yourself to take a test with a poisoned brain. You may know the material really well, but you’re certainly not going to be as effective as you would be if you had enough sleep.

The second reason that sleep is important is because [that’s when] the neural architecture of learning really is taking place, not so much when you’re learning during the day. So, if you’re shortcutting your sleep, you’re actually making it much tougher for your brain to learn.

Are naps a good idea?

Napping can be beneficial, and it does seem to refresh, and it does seem to help with learning. Experts recommend around eight hours of sleep a day, but that’s for most people; there’s a tiny percentage of the population that has what’s known as the “short-sleep gene,” and they can get by with four hours of sleep a day. But, odds are, you are not one of those people, especially if you’re feeling really tired if you don’t get enough sleep. Can napping make up for missing sleep? It depends on the person, and they have to watch themselves. If you’re only getting two hours of sleep at night and maybe a nap or two during the day, that’s probably not catching you up on everything you need.

Should people listen to music when they study?

It’s probably not bad, as long as you’re not listening to really loud music or music with lyrics. But also be aware that, if you are studying for a test, you can get used to the music and you’re probably not going to be hearing that music when you’re taking the test, so it might turn into a missing environmental cue that makes it just a bit tougher when you are taking the test.

What about cramming. Good or bad?

Cramming is not a good thing. And we know really well that, if you space out your learning … you will learn far more and it will stay with you far longer. And that makes sense, because if you harp back to sleep, and when the neurons are growing, if you have 10 nights where you have new synaptic connections growing and consolidating the new information, you’re going to have a really nice neural architecture. If you’re trying to do it all in one day, you have one night of synaptic growth, and it’s just not going to build you as strong of an architecture as you think. And more than that, most normal human beings can only truly focus intently for about four hours a day, which is not to say you can’t work for 10 or more hours a day. But the stuff that’s really toughest, we can only focus on for a limited period of time.

Four hours? So does that mean we should just give up doing any intensive work after that?

Not at all. It’s just that you want to do the things you find most difficult, earlier. Try to do the hardest stuff first. Your mind can get tired a little bit. It’s more like saying every student probably has four hours of prime time a day, but they can still make good progress with the rest if they use them effectively.

What are some tips you can give to build a better memory?

For our purposes, there are two different ways that you can store information in your long-term memory. One is as facts and the other is as pictures.
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