Learn Like a Pro : Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything – Book Review

Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe

As a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering, a best-selling author, Coursera’s inaugural ‘Innovation Instructor’ and Michigan’s Distinguished Professor of the Year for 2018, Barbara Oakley may easily be considered to be naturally gifted to learn.

However, Dr. Barbara Oakley and co-author Olav Schewe admit having struggled with their learning but discovered techniques to emerge as master teachers to help effectively learn any subject.

Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe

Based on the popular course they taught online with the same name, ‘Learn Like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything’ gives you a crash course to improve your learning ability. The book lays down learning, memorization, and comprehension technique in crisp & easy to comprehend writing with drawings and metaphors.

‘Learn Like a Pro’ is easy to read and a refresher to techniques and concepts like Pomodoro technique, retrieval practice, interleaving, working memory, focused/diffused modes discussed in Barbara’s earlier work ‘Learning How to Learn.’ It further adds insights on note-taking, metacognition, and why speed-reading can be problematic. It is geared primarily towards students in school and college but has advice that would generally be useful for anyone interested in honing their learning skills and building their knowledge.

The book begins with the chapter ‘How to Focus Intently and Beat Procrastination’ and explains the productivity technique called ‘Pomodoro Technique, which is simply focusing on studying in a distraction-free environment for 25 minutes and rewarding yourself by relaxing for the next 5 minutes. The authors caution not to use cellphones during your relaxing time. The rest of the chapter explains how the Pomodoro technique is effective and how to make these sessions most productive.

The second chapter dwells on overcoming being stuck in learning by switching between focussed and diffuse modes to solve problems. ‘Focused mode’ is when your attention is directed towards a single activity, like writing or drawing a picture. You are in ‘Diffuse mode’ when your mind wanders, you are doing sundry activities and is when you can come up with new insights and approaches. The authors claim that learning often involves moving back and forth between focused and diffuse modes and suggest how to switch between these two modes effectively. They advise the ‘hard start’ technique to solve difficult problems, which involves spending a few minutes on the most challenging parts and then switching to the easier problems. They also explain how ‘Diffuse mode’ is appropriate for writing first drafts, while the ‘Focused mode’ is better for editing.

Focused Mode and Diffuse Mode

The next chapter dwells on ‘Deep Learning’ and how learning occurs in your brain by connecting neurons. The role of active engagement (making your brain work hard ) while learning, retrieval ( recalling the previously learned content), interleaving (varying or mixing different concepts), elaboration (explaining a concept in your own words), spacing your studying sessions (several shorter sessions over several days), sleep, exercise and cautious use of cognitive enhancements such as coffee or tea, along with a healthy diet, are discussed in this chapter.

In the chapter ‘How to Maximize Working Memory—and Take Better Notes,’ the concept of working memory which can only hold limited information temporarily, is introduced. Techniques like simplification, chunking (breaking information into smaller groups or chunks), and making a list (offloading information from working memory to paper or secondary storage device) are explained to maximise the use of working memory.


For note-taking, scanning the material beforehand, split notes ( notes are written down in the right field and are later supplemented by summarizing keywords or headings on the left), concept mapping (organizing information to see how ideas and concepts relate to one another), and timely review are vouched to yield best results.

Split Notes and Concept Map Image Source: Wikipedia

In the chapter on memory, the authors argue that memorization remains relevant even in a world where information is available online. Among others, the most important reason for thoughtful memorization is that it can help with complex problem-solving and also help acquire a deeper understanding.

“This memory-understanding relationship goes both ways: It’s easier to memorize information when you understand it well, but it’s also easier to understand information that you have memorized.”

Excerpt from the Chapter : How to Memorize

Memorization with mnemonics (acronyms and sentences) is not only easier but also ‘stickier.’ They stay in long-term memory and can be more easily drawn from there into your conscious working memory when required.

As almost half of the human cortex is involved in visual processing, our brain has a great visual memory. Hence, the authors advocate utilising visual memory aids like vivid images( creating an image representing the concept) and memory palace (creating an image for every concept and then anchoring these images to familiar physical locations, often inside a building) to enhance memorization. Metaphors are also suggested to be used for quickly grasping new concepts

The chapter on internalizing learning and intuition introduces the ‘declarative learning system’ and the ‘procedural learning system’ through which learning occurs. Your declarative system functions alongside your working memory when you practice a new skill, while your procedural system works when you internalize elements of skill and can use them reflexively. Both types of learning can occur side by side and can reinforce each other. The importance of retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving is reemphasized in internalizing learning.

The latter chapters are dedicated to cultivating self-discipline, motivation, effective reading, and test preparation.


The final chapter revisits all the tools and techniques mentioned earlier to become a pro learner. It introduces the concept of ‘metacognition’ which authors define as a supplementary brain that thinks about how you are thinking (metacognition means “thinking about thinking”). Metacognition allows you to learn when to use the tools and improves your ability to use those tools. By reflecting on how to think, learn, and improve at new skills, you can uncover valuable sources of feedback and make excellent progress. 

There is only a little more to gain if you have already completed Barbara Oakley’s earlier books or courses. Nevertheless, the book is a concise read with an end of chapter summarization and a book summary of all tools and concepts at the end.  Numerous citations of neurological research and cognitive psychology are referenced with the authors’ suggested tools and techniques. The concepts are accompanied by metaphors and drawings and have actionable advice for anyone seeking to improve their learning prowess.  


Barbara Oakley & Olav Schewe, Learn Like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything

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