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Top 5 Paradoxes of Learning – Is Your Usual Method Backfiring?

Sometimes we charge into learning something new full of excitement. But as the weeks go by, our passions sometimes fly away. What seemed exciting at first can grow tedious—even frustrating. Why? Because we aren’t aware of the fundamental paradoxes of learning! Surprisingly often, the very things that we should be doing can also end up getting in our way. Here’s a roadmap to help you be aware of the paradoxical pitfalls of learning, and how to avoid them.

Persistence: We’re often told that to be successful learners, we’ve got to be persistent. That’s true in the long run—but not in the short run! Here’s what neuroscience is telling us. When you’re learning something new, the best way to approach it is to focus and do your best to understand it. But if you get stuck, you need to stop focusing. By temporarily taking your attention off the problem, you allow other neural modes of thinking to attack the problem in the background. Later, when you try again, new understanding can suddenly appear! Good learning often means knowing how to balance your persistence—stop when you get frustrated, and return later after your other thinking modes have had a chance to work on the problem in the background.

Success: We always want to be successful in our learning. But this means that we sometimes shy away from making mistakes. As it turns out, however, if you make a mistake when you’re studying—and just catch it with a tiny chagrined “ouch”—that’s one of the very best ways to learn! As you’re learning, celebrate each mistake. The goal is to make those mistakes before your high stakes tests. (And also keep in mind that the ones who never make mistakes are the ones who never do anything! Go for it.)

Concrete learning: We often want to learn something in concrete terms. If you’re learning math for a professional program, for example, you often want to be able to apply your learning directly to the type of problem you’ll be expected to solve on the job—calculating doses of medication, for example. But instructors often want us to first step back and learn ideas more abstractly—they want us to understand the fundamentals behind the concrete problems. It turns out that the instructors have a point. Being able to solve not only concrete problems, but also to understand the abstract ideas behind those problems, helps us to transfer our thinking to new situations. Sometimes the real world throws problems at us that we’ve never seen before, and it’s important to be flexibly ready! Take the time to understand the abstract concepts that are being presented; ironically, this leads to solving problems in more concrete situations.

Study with groups? Or alone? Some people like to study with groups—the give and take of learning with others can make everything more fun, and can also allow them to catch errors in their thinking. Other people like to learn alone—the quiet lack of distractions allows them to focus more fully on their learning. Which is best? Both! By alternating your ways of learning, you get the benefits of both approaches. Resist the idea that one or the other is best: use both.

Memorization: We’ve often been told that memorization is bad for us—that understanding alone is the essential key to learning. While it’s true that understanding is important, it turns out that memorization can also be very helpful when you are learning something new. Experts in any domain generally have great swaths of memorized information directly at their fingertips. If you try memorizing some of the key ideas you are learning about, you’ll find that the memorization process can, perhaps surprisingly, lead to deeper understanding. It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true!

Learning, as it turns out, is a paradox of contrary, often contradictory approaches. Being aware of these paradoxes can help make your path to learning much more fun—and successful!

Barbara Oakley, PhD, is the author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), (Penguin – Random House, July 31, 2014)

Dr. Oakley has been dubbed a female “Indiana Jones” for her mix of adventure, research, and wit in her writing. A Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, she is the acclaimed author of Evil Genes, Pathological Altruism, and Cold-Blooded Kindness, behavioral study books that have been lauded by Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson. Her newest release is a collection of tips, tricks, and techniques for efficient, stress-free learning.

Learn more at!


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

8 Responses to Top 5 Paradoxes of Learning – Is Your Usual Method Backfiring?

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