Should You Listen to Music While Studying, The Pi Model and Learning How to Learn w/ Dr. Barbara Oakley

I recently interviewed Dr. Barbara Oakley, the author of Mindshift, A Mind for Numbers and co-instructor for Learning How to Learn, the most popular online course of all time. We talked about a number of interesting topics on how to learn effectively, pulled from the research for her new book.

Here are some interesting bits:

Scott: So I wanted to start with a small issues that I think is quite an interesting one and the research on should you listen to music while you’re studying?

Dr. Oakley: That’s an interesting question and it’s kinda funny because when I speak in public that’s always one of the biggest questions I have and I think it’s because we often hear that you shouldn’t listen to music but the interesting thing is that if you go an look at the research on whether or not you should listen to music you can find research that supports pretty much any position you’d like to have supported!

So if you don’t like music you’ll find research that says no, don’t listen to music and you’ll find other research that says that it’s quite alright!

The only things that research says for sure is that you shouldn’t listen to super loud music when you’re trying to study and if the music has lyrics and you’re trying to do anything verbal (reading) you may not want to listen to music because the lyrics will interfere with learning.

Scott:  After all the research, through your course Learning How To Learn (where you worked with millions of students) so what do you think is the most useful piece of advice that is the most infrequently applied when it comes to learning?

Dr. Oakley: It’s unquestionably the idea of chunking. Chunking is a way of gaining procedural fluency in whatever topic you’re trying to become an expert in. To explain that, let’s take something simple like backing up a car. So when you first back up a car it’s so hard, do you look behind you? Do you look in the side mirror? Do you look in the front mirror? It’s very difficult and you might be thinking, I will never be able to back up a car.

But within a few days or a week or two, you begin to learn to back up the car. In fact, after a little bit, you can do it while you’re talking to your friends or listening to the radio. It’s super easy. So backing up a car has become one united neural chunk in your mind so all you have to do is call that into your working memory. Because it’s one thing, it doesn’t block out other parts of your working memory so you can actually do other things at the same time.

For those interested in the full interview, they can watch the video above or read the transcript as a PDF here.

  • Jorge Souza

    Great interview Scott, Barbara is so kind that her kindness is almost touchable. I really liked what she said about chunking. I think almost all students don’t do it because in general they’re studying for the grades and not for the knowledge itself, so they don’t want to pay the price, in terms of effort and time, that a deep understanding would take. A hug from Brazil.

  • Eric Liong

    I think it’s more likely that the majority of students or people in general don’t know about chunking or why it’s beneficial. Millions of people have taken her course but you could argue we have 7 billion learners in the world.
    Take a cue from Barb, and give them the benefit of the doubt. 🙂

  • Caro

    Thank you dear Scott for the pointer to a truly amazing coursera. I have a general, in my humble opinion style, remark: if the power of metaphors and analogies is so tremendous, what is the reason for the best people, who teach really amazingly, for using the same analogies and metaphors that, for me, have been long time impediments to memorize anything. Instances I mean are :The car driving, the steak cooking, the hunter, etc. Thank you for any light on this. I would deem this issue one of the major issues for me as for learning any new subject and practice. A (personal: Am I the only one?) epistemological obstacle.