Behavior is driven by coordinated activity across a population of neurons. Learning requires the brain to change the neural population activity produced to achieve a given behavioral goal. How does population activity reorganize during learning? We studied intracortical population activity in the primary motor cortex of rhesus macaques during short-term learning in a brain-computer interface (BCI) task. In a BCI, the mapping between neural activity and behavior is exactly known, enabling us to rigorously define hypotheses about neural reorganization during learning. We found that changes in population activity followed a suboptimal neural strategy of reassociation: animals relied on a fixed repertoire of activity patterns and associated those patterns with different movements after learning. These results indicate that the activity patterns that a neural population can generate are even more constrained than previously thought and might explain why it is often difficult to quickly learn to a high level of proficiency.