Learning How to Learn – An Essential Online Course for Teachers

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at Oaklands University in the US. Oakley is the co-creator of the “Learning How to Learn” MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera and the author of the book of the same name. Barbara (or Barb as she insisted on being called) was keynote speaker at ResearchEd Dublin, an education conference on evidence-based practice, which I co-organised with my colleague Julian Girdham. Professor Oakley, sorry Barb, kicked off the conference with what I can only describe as the best keynote address I’ve ever seen or heard. Starting slowly, she gradually revealed the science of learning, weaving evidence from biology, neuroscience and cognitive science seamlessly into her presentation, at all times making it easy to understand and accessible. It was genuinely fascinating, as a scientist and an educator, to see how she revealed the learning process, something often seen as intangible, as a concrete series of physical changes in the brain.

“Learning How to Learn” is one of the most studied MOOCs in the history of online learning and has transformed the way many people approach learning and indeed teaching. Developed along with Terrence Sejnowski, a biologist, this course has gained immense popularity for its practical insights into evidence-informed and effective learning strategies.

The course is designed to help learners of all ages and backgrounds enhance their learning skills and overcome common challenges associated with acquiring new knowledge. The key objective is to provide participants with a deep understanding of how the brain learns and processes information, along with practical techniques to optimise learning outcomes. One of the most significant strengths of the “Learning How to Learn” MOOC is its interdisciplinary approach. Drawing on principles from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education, the course presents a much wider and more tangible view of the learning process. 

“Learning How to Learn” is divided into four main modules, each addressing a crucial aspect of effective learning. The first module, “What is Learning?” explores the neurological and cognitive processes that underpin learning. This might seem daunting but the content is at all times accessible. Participants gain insights into topics such as focused and diffuse thinking, neural chunking, and the role of sleep in memory consolidation. There are further modules on “Chunking” (how the brain organises what we learn), “Procrastination and Memory” and “Unlocking Your Potential”. 

Having done the course (available free on Coursera), I found it fascinating to gain a deeper understanding of how my brain processes new information. However, as a teacher, it also challenged me to consider if my teaching strategies and philosophies work with or against how the brain learns. Interestingly, Oakley has developed a new MOOC for teachers called “Uncommon Sense Teaching” where the principles of cognitive science and the learning process are translated into practical, manageable teaching strategies. Again, there is a book of the same name and it’s a wonderful read. 

I would highly recommend both of these courses and the accompanying books, to teachers and students, of all ages (there is also a version of “Learning How to Learn” for young people and I often recommend this to my Transition Years).

As we deepen our understanding of the brain and the physical changes that occur within when we learn, this new knowledge must become embedded in how we teach. Our strategies must ensure the brain can process the information correctly, store it safely and allow us to retrieve that knowledge when needed. 

Shameless Plug: I will be presenting a webinar on ‘Evidence Informed Practice in Science Education, hosted by Tralee Education Centre, on January 30th 2024. During the webinar, I will try to present the basics of cognitive science and how it could and should mould our teaching practice in the science classroom. There will be an emphasis on the learning process, retrieval practice and Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. It’s free so please do come along. To register, click here.

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