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The one about Learning


The aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible.

Paul Ramsden (2003)


Learning is one of those things that are so fundamental to what we do on a daily basis, that it’s seldom something we even stop to think about. What, exactly, do we mean when we talk about ‘learning’? Do we all have the same conception of what we’re doing when we say that we’re ‘teaching’? Is there as strong a link between learning and teaching, that we think there is?

In this edition of the In Beta newsletter, I’ve tried to gather a few useful resources that have been foundational for my thinking about how I teach, especially as it relates to my understanding of how students learn. I hope that you find them as useful as I have.


Parrish, S. & Oakley, B. (n.d.) Learning how to learn. The Knowledge Project podcast.

In this fascinating interview, we cover many aspects of learning, including how to make it stick so we remember more and forget less, how to be more efficient so we learn more quickly, and how to remove the barriers that get in the way of effective learning.

Some of the highlights from the conversation:
– What neuroscience can tell us about how to learn more effectively.
– The two modes of your brain and how that impacts what and how you learn.
– How to “chunk” your learning so new knowledge is woven into prior knowledge making it easily accessible.
– Whether memorization has a place in learning anymore, or simply a barrier to true understanding.

I’m a big fan of both Shane Parrish and Barbara Oakley, so I really enjoyed this conversation. I think there’s a lot we can change in the classroom, if we aim to provide students with a few basic skills that we know with confidence will improve their learning.


Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners. Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned. Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.

I don’t often recommend books here, simply because it’s a lot to ask of someone in what is meant to be a collection of resources that are fairly easy to engage with. However, this is one of those books that have had a profound influence on how I think about my role in the classroom. It has enough underlying evidence to support the claims being made, without being overly formal. I think it’s an engaging, straight-forward, and practical book that is likely to change how you think about teaching. If you’re pushed for time, you can skip to the last chapter for all the most important bits.


Oakley, B. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Coursera online courses.

This course gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines. We’ll learn about how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information. We’ll also cover illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.

I completed this course a few years ago and it still influences some of what I do on a daily basis. It’s free and if you use the Coursera app it’s pretty convenient (I used to listen to the videos on my commute). Like the book recommendation above, it’s a bigger time commitment than simply listening to a podcast, but I think it’s well worth it.

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