Professor Barbara Oakley - Expert Learning Adviser

​Holland Park High's Expert Learning Adviser: Professor Barbara Oakley

A highlight of last week at Holland Park High was the visit of Professor Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at the Oakland University, Michigan.  Barbara's learning journey saw her specialise in her passion for languages (Russian) and work in Antarctica, before returning to the US and deciding on a career change into engineering!  In the process she had to learn subjects she found difficult at school - such as Maths - and master them.  She also learned a lot about learning, and now works in collaboration with neuroscientist Professor Terry Sejnowski.  Barbara teaches Engineering, when she's home, and travels the world sharing her insights into learning (backed by her absolute insistence on solid research evidence).

It was a real privilege for me to meet Barbara for the first time and host her only school visit during her first trip to Australia.  It was also an honour for us to have Barbara conduct two one hour workshops for students (approximately 200 students) and support staff, and a 3 hour teacher workshop.  We all learned many things.  Here is one that struck a chord with many of us:

It takes time!

A weightlifter is a metaphor for a great learning strategy.  Would a weightlifter laze around for a few days before a competition, and then train for 5 hours the night before?  Would that be a productive way to prepare?  No - I hear you chorus.  That's what students do when they cram before exams.  The weightlifter should train regularly over several days for shorter blocks of time to develop muscle strength.  The brain and memory work like a muscle - they need to be used regularly or they waste away.  Cramming for an exam the night before is like doing all your weightlifting training in one night - it doesn't work.  The learner needs to prepare for assessment like a weightlifter - regular practice in shorter bursts over several days lays the foundations for stronger networks of ideas in long term memory.  This is called spaced repetition. With exams coming up for most students, they could spend the same amount of time studying 1 hour each night over 4-5 days for better results than a 4 hour cramming binge the night before.

Our association with Prof Oakley will continue, as she has agreed to become Holland Park High's "Expert Learning Adviser" - as Barbara said in an email "I'd be delighted..... I've a special fondness for Holland Park." We will be providing a profile and links to her Learning materials and courses on our website.​

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Last reviewed 25 March 2020
Last updated 25 March 2020