6 Ways to Be a Better Learner
Date: 14 Apr 2021
Our partners at MyTutor share their top tips for teenage learning.
Teens spend a lot of their time working out what to study and how to do better at school, but few of us get taught how to develop the learning habits that will see us through school and beyond. Last week we were thrilled to be joined by Dr Barbara Oakley for our webinar, “How to Learn”.
Barbara is a world-renowned educator and the author of 14 books on learning, including “Learning how to learn: How to Succeed at School Without Spending all your Time Studying” and the upcoming “Uncommon Sense Teaching”.
Here are six top takeaways to help your teen develop their best learning habits for school (and for life).
1. It’s good to be a slow learner
Yes, you read that right. Although there are some learners out there who seem to absorb new information like a sponge, that’s not the only way to succeed. Barbara tells us,
So although it might feel frustrating not to understand new concepts right away, the process of carefully listening, studying and taking the time that’s needed to really get your head around a subject can mean that new knowledge really sticks in the brain. So if your teen’s a slow learner, you can tell them that – as long as they put the time in – it’s a blessing in disguise.
2. Poor memory can be a sign of creativity
This one might also sound like a prank, but really it’s a scientific fact, we swear (well, Barbara swears!). Just like with quick learners, there are some ‘clever cloggs’ out there who can easily remember lots of facts, but taking the time to fix new info in your brain can mean it’s more likely to stay in there for good. For those learners who don’t hold brand new pieces of information in their head very well, they often get distracted by something else as they’re learning, and what they had in their mind for a moment falls out. But, as Barbara tells us,
So we’ve got two learnings here: 1) those with poorer memories need to put more time in going over information so they can work it into their long term memory, and 2) the flipside of having a poor memory can be creative thinking, which is an awesome skill they should always value. Nice!
3. Being a genius is overrated
No offence to any geniuses reading this (but thanks for stopping by, Einstein!). What Barbara means by this is that always being right can lead to a poorer learning attitude; ‘know-it-alls’ can become less inquisitive and therefore, sometimes, less able to consider different perspectives and points of view:
And in terms of success at school, this wisdom from Barbara can help teens see that a huge part of academic success comes from a healthy attitude towards learning, rather than an in-born ability that you either have or don’t. So whatever grades, university degree or career they have their eyes on, nothing is impossible if they put their mind to it.
4. There’s no such thing as (not being) a “maths person”
At school, it’s very common for children to think “I’m just not a maths person”, and leave it at that. Barbara told us the story of how two of her daughters both felt that maths just wasn’t for them, and they whined and protested when Barbara made them do 20 minutes of extra maths a day – for 10 years! But it paid off – one daughter was able to fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor, and the other is completing her PhD in Data Science – both careers that would’ve been out of reach if they’d left maths behind. For teens up to GCSE level, Barbara recommends the learning platform for their online maths programme. also have the right expertise and recent exam experience to help teens get the best grades they can.
5. Asking for help early and often
When we asked Barbara about why and when teens should ask for help – in relation to catching up on lost learning from the last year – she was clear that they should look for help early and often. On the value of 1-1 help to support classroom learning at this time, she told us,
For teens, this could mean a teacher, their tutor, a friend, older sibling, parent (if you’re clued up on GCSEs & A Levels!). Getting into the habit of not feeling embarrassed to need help, and asking for it as soon as they need it will, as Barbara says, mean that in the long term they’ll ultimately need less help.
6. It’s important to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
On the issue of learning gaps post-Covid, Bertie asked Barbara what teens can do if they feel overwhelmed by how much they have to do to get their studies back on track. Her biggest piece of advice was for teens not to be embarrassed or afraid of what they’ve got ahead of them:
“The ones I worry about are the over confident ones who assume they’re going to do great. Feeling uneasy and uncomfortable, like maybe you’re not up to the task, will help you to be more open to trying harder and doing better. I always say, it’s best to try to accept the idea that you can grow comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, and that will serve you in good stead for many years to come.”
What Barbara highlights here is that there are always challenges in learning. She tells us that teens – and all learners – shouldn’t label themselves as either totally amazing or (most importantly) not smart enough to achieve their goals. Determination, an openness to being wrong and learning to tolerate discomfort – all with a positive attitude to challenges – will all set up your teen to enjoy learning and do their best at school and beyond.