Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive book summary of the book Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens by Barbara Oakley, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Alistair McConville. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access and a downloadable/printable version of the summary.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Essentially written for kids, but it’s of great value for people of all ages. Learning How to Learn is the missing handbook schools had to create to improve our ability to learn. Using clever metaphors and easy-to-get language, the authors explain how the brain works. What happens in the background which allows us to better engage with incoming information – learn faster, improve our memory, distill key components, stuff like that. Don’t get fooled by the funny concepts and the silly illustration. This book is not only for kids. It’s for adults, too. Adults who want to upgrade their learning skills and master subjects faster.

The Core Idea:

Our brains are capable of so much more. We simply need to know how to turn on that power. The research-based learning strategies the authors share in this insightful book will open your eyes and your mind. Show you that by acquiring a couple of learning strategies, you can learn pretty much everything – even if it feels impossible at the moment. The book is full of stories of people who did badly in school but later in life discovered that learning can be improved. Learning How to Learn will allow you to learn anything. Thus, improve the quality of your life exponentially.

Reason To Read:

It’s easy to believe that you should learn only in school. That after you enter the world of adulthood, you should immediately burn your textbooks and throw away your library card. Staying curious and inspired, hungry to increase your skills, is vital. Especially in our time. Where technologies are not only rapidly evolving and changing the world. But at the same fast pace making what we know obsolete. To continuously grow – both intellectually and financially – you need to improve your learning. And this book is one of the best resources to become a disciplined, skilled learner, who can grasp new concepts faster and better.


  • If you are only following your passion, you are missing out. There are so many other things you might be passionate about. Learning will help you find them.
  • To get the job done, use focused mode. To generate new, original ideas, use diffuse mode.
  • In the brain, learning happens by neurons talking to each other. The more we learn and practice something, the more neurons connect. But if we stop practicing, the created paths start to weaken.

7 Key Lessons from Learning How to Learn:

Lesson #1: The Problem When You Follow Your Passion

Follow your passion, they say.

Do only things you like, and there will be no resistance in your path in life.

It makes sense, of course. When we do things we like, we feel better. Work harder. Improve faster.

But we do all of these improvements in one field. And being good at only one thing is rarely enough.

Or as mentioned by one of the authors in the book:

“I realized that by only following my passion, I didn’t have many choices.” Barbara Oakley

Learning How to Learn opens with the story of the author, Barbara Oakley. She makes a confession about how she sucked at math. She was so bad, that she stopped learning and focused solely on the subjects she enjoyed. Fast-forward a couple of years in the future, and she got a degree in computer science – and you need a lot of math to get such a degree.

If we only concentrate on subjects we like. We do get better, yes. But if we go a bit off track. If we go outside our comfort zone. We can improve much faster. Broaden our passions and open ourselves to many other wonderful opportunities.

The main thing that stands in your way. The main hurdle that prevents you from understanding hard subjects. Is your ability to learn.

If you improve your learning skills, you can greatly improve your life.

Commonly, we convince ourselves that we can’t learn something. “It’s not our thing,” we say. “It’s too hard for me.”

But not the subject is hard, we simply don’t know how to learn. We don’t know how to approach different and difficult subjects.

When you acquire new mental learning tools. Understand how to approach a subject. You can learn anything, even if you failed at it many times before.

That’s exactly what the book teaches us. How to get better at learning, so we can conquer new territories and expand our knowledge map.

“It’s easy to believe that you should only concentrate on subjects that come easily for you. But my story reveals that you can do well in subjects you don’t even like. The truth is, it’s okay to follow your passions. But I also found that broadening my passions opened many wonderful opportunities. Learning new subjects I didn’t think I could do turned out to be an adventure!” Barbara Oakley

Lesson #2: We’ve Got Two Ways of Thinking

After many brain scans, neuroscientists have discovered that our brain works in two different ways.

The authors label them as focused mode and diffuse mode.

These two thinking modes are essential for coming up with fresh ideas and, more generally, improving your thinking.

Let’s look at them one by one:

Hey there, sorry to interrupt…

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