Barbara Oakley

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Barbara Oakley
Barbara Ann Grim

(1955-11-24) November 24, 1955 (age 68)
Alma materUniversity of Washington
Oakland University
Philip Oakley
(m. 1984)
Scientific career
FieldsEngineering, learning, altruism bias
InstitutionsOakland University
McMaster University
Barbara Oakley
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1974–1981
Rank Captain

Barbara Ann Oakley (née Grim, November 24, 1955) is an American professor of engineering at Oakland University and McMaster University whose online courses on learning are some of the most popular massive open online course (MOOC) classes in the world.[1][2] She is involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to learning practices.

Oakley co-created and taught Learning How To Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, the world's most popular online course.[3] She also wrote a book, A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).[4] This is a standalone book, though it companions the ideas presented in the MOOC.

Oakley has authored op-ed articles about learning in The Wall Street Journal[5][6] and The New York Times.[7]


Oakley was born in Lodi, California,[8] in 1955 to Alfred and Constance Grim. Alfred was in the US Army Air Corps as a bomber pilot during World War II. Oakley moved frequently with her family as a child, moving to ten different places by the time she was in tenth grade.

After leaving high school, Oakley enlisted in the U.S. Army. The Army sent her to study at the University of Washington, where she completed a B.A. in Slavic languages and literature. She also received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute.[2] Oakley went on to serve as a signal officer in Germany for four years, achieving the rank of captain.

After her Army duties ended, Oakley decided to challenge herself and see if her brain, more used to the study of languages, could be 'retooled' to study mathematical subjects. She chose to study engineering, in order to better understand the communications equipment she had been working with in the Army.

Oakley completed a B.S. in electrical engineering at the University of Washington in 1986. While she was studying for the degree, Oakley worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea. She also wrote a book about her experiences during this time, entitled Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler.[9]

Oakley went on to spend a season as the radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. It was here that she met her husband-to-be, Philip. They married shortly afterwards on February 1, 1984. They have four children; two daughters, and two adopted sons who were previously refugees from Kosovo.[10]

Oakley moved to Detroit with her family in 1989. She worked for Ford briefly, and then began attending Oakland University while doing consulting work. She received an M.S. degree in electrical and computer engineering in 1995. Oakley continued her education after that, and received a Ph.D. in systems engineering in 1998.

Academic career[edit]

Oakley became a professor of engineering at Oakland University in 1998, after graduating with a Ph.D. at the school. She continues to be a part of the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at Oakland.

Oakley participates in several areas of research. These include STEM education, engineering education, general learning, online learning, MOOCs and their effects, and studies of empathy and altruism.

Oakley has co-created (with Professor Terry Sejnowski, a neuroscientist) and teaches Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, a MOOC offered on Coursera. The course had its first three runs in August and October 2014 and January 2015, respectively, when it attracted approximately 300,000 students in total. It is now available in on-demand format. A total of about 1.2 million students have enrolled as of December 2015.[3]


  • Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, by Barbara Oakley, Beth Rogowsky, Terrence J. Sejnowski. Tarcherperigee, 2021
  • Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski, with Alistair McConville, Tarcher-Penguin, August 2018.
  • Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, by Barbara Oakley. TarcherPerigee 2017.
  • A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley, Tarcher-Penguin, July 2014. A New York Times best-selling science book.[4]
  • Practicing Sustainability, edited by Guruprasad Madhavan, Barbara Oakley, David Green, David Koon, and Penny Low. Springer, October, 2012. Selected for a 2013 Nautilus Silver Book Award.[11]
  • Pathological Altruism Eds Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, David Sloan Wilson, Oxford University Press, January 2012.[12]
  • Cold-Blooded Kindness, by Barbara Oakley, Prometheus Books, April, 2011.[13]
  • Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, Eds. Guruprasad Madhavan, Barbara Oakley, Luis Kun, Springer, 2008.[14]
  • Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, by Barbara Oakley, Prometheus Books. October, 2007.[15]
  • Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler, Barbara Oakley, WSU Press, 1996.[9]


  1. ^ "EdPlus at ASU partners to provide universal learning techniques to youth". ASU Now: Access, Excellence, Impact. 2019-02-26. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  2. ^ a b Schwartz, John (2017-08-04). "Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  3. ^ a b Markoff, John (2015-12-29). "The Most Popular Online Course Teaches You to Learn". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-01-03. The world's most popular online course is a general introduction to the art of learning, taught jointly by an educator and a neuroscientist.
  4. ^ a b Oakley, Barbara (2014). A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). Penguin Publishing. ISBN 978-0399165245.
  5. ^ Oakley, Barbara (September 22, 2014). "How We Should Be Teaching Math". The Wall Street Journal (paywall).
  6. ^ Oakley, Barbara. "How We Should Be Teaching Math" (PDF). (Author's own PDF reprint, no paywall). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 6, 2015. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  7. ^ Oakley, Barbara (2018-08-07). "Opinion | Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She'll Thank You Later". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  8. ^ "Barbara Oakley Interview: Learning the Math You Need to Succeed in Life and Business - Expensivity". 2021-12-30. Retrieved 2023-12-15.
  9. ^ a b Oakley, Barbara (1996). Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler. Washington State University. ISBN 0874221358.
  10. ^ Wyatt, Rebecca (2005-02-14). "Oakland University - News Archive - Two families call OU students 'sons'". Archived from the original on 2021-03-08. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  11. ^ Madhavan, Guruprasad; Oakley, Barbara; Green, David; Koon, David; Low, Penny (20 October 2012). Practicing Sustainability. Springer. ISBN 978-1461443483.
  12. ^ Oakley, Barbara; Knafo, Ariel; Madhavan, Guruprasad; Wilson, David Sloan (5 January 2012). Pathological Altruism. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0199738571.
  13. ^ Oakley, Barbara (2011). Cold-Blooded Kindness. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1616144197.
  14. ^ Madhavan, Guruprasad; Oakley, Barbara; Kun, Luis (30 September 2008). Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. Springer. ISBN 978-0387764948.
  15. ^ Oakley, Barbara (2007). Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1591025801.

External links[edit]