6 Ways to Be a Better Learner

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).

An illustration of a schoolgirl leaning against a target board. There is an arrow in the bullseye.

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,

“Some people are really fast learners, they’re like race car brains, they can get to the finish line really fast. Other people are more like hiker runners, they can get to the finish line, but it’s a lot slower. As they’re walking though, think about what they experience. I mean they can reach out, they can touch the leaves on the trees, they can smell the pine in the air, see the birds. It’s a completely different experience and in some ways far richer and deeper.”

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,

“When something falls out of your brain, something else comes in, and these individuals are often very creative. So poor memory can often go with creativity, and you don’t want to give that up. Do you have to work harder to keep up with the intellectual Joneses? Absolutely. But as you will see it works very well.”

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:

The problem with geniuses is they’re so used to learning quickly and always being right. Jumping to conclusions means they don’t look carefully at what’s going on in the real situation and can’t change their minds when they’re wrong. So if you are no genius, rejoice, because sometimes you can do things that even geniuses cannot.”

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 Kumon for their online maths programme. MyTutor online tutors 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,

“Every day when you start running into a challenge, try to get someone to lend you a hand and you’ll see that as you become better at it, you won’t need so much hand-holding.”

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.

If that’s not enough inspiring Oakley wisdom for one day, you can watch the full webinar: “How to Learn: MyTutor with Barbara Oakley”.

To help you navigate this tricky life stage, we share seven bite-sized practical steps to consider when preparing to care. 

Whether you know your family is entering the realms of caring for elderly relatives, you’re already in the thick of it, or you can see the phase just looming on the horizon, hopefully you’ll find these seven steps helpful.

1. Face the Near Future Together

  • Prepare ahead for the difficult conversations, think about the language you use, and enabling your elderly relative to still feel they have a say and control over their decision-making
  • Ensure family members are on board - this can be difficult, but as much as possible, agree on a common purpose and goals for the best welfare of your relative
  • Do your research - it will help you to be reassuring and knowledgeable
  • Choose your moment; it has to be right for your relative, not on the doorstep when saying goodbye or when surrounded by grandchildren!
  • Give them time to prepare their thoughts, don't rush them, and expect delaying tactics
  • Gain their acceptance that they need support
  • Reassure them about their future - it is a scary time and most people dread this life stage, so try to have empathy for their situation
  • Be honest with yourself about what will work for them

2. Understand Costs, Procedures & Legalities

  • Ensure that you put in place Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) for health and welfare as well as property and financial affairs and register it before you are concerned about any mental incapacity
  • Ensure there is an up-to-date will in place
  • Find and consult with a specialist financial adviser - with a Society of Later Life Adviser Qualification that's registered with the IFA - this will be invaluable when trying to calculate costs and budgets for care
  • Explore costs & arrangements for different types of care
  • Connect with their GP and other medical specialists as necessary to ensure you are aware of what needs your loved one currently has - and importantly - may have further down the line
  • Keep and share vital contacts and information
  • If necessary take legal advice from a recommended law firm

3. Explore & Evaluate Options

There are many different types of care and it's important to understand what each one is and the costs involved. You can get expert help with this or research the following:

  • Retirement Villages
  • Assisted Living
  • Home Care
  • Live-in Care
  • Respite Care
  • Residential Care (with/without Nursing care provision)
  • Dementia Care

4. Anticipate Longer-Term Care Needs

It's important to evaluate their current physical and mental well-being as well as seek advice from their medical professionals on how any conditions are likely to progress as you will need to pick a care choice that can accommodate any deterioration.

  • Do they have any established health conditions?
  • What treatment or medication is needed now and what is likely to be required on an ongoing basis?
  • Is there any family history of degenerative conditions?
  • How do they typically react to illness or pain?

These questions will help you evaluate which care solution will be best for the longer term or establish that you may need a combination to cover the shorter term, then the long term.

5. Avoid a Crisis

Getting older and needing care is often a scary and daunting process with the feeling of loss of control a major anxiety-inducing factor. Planning ahead means that crises can often be avoided - and where unavoidable - at least you have contingencies that reduce any last-minute distress or panic.

  • Develop a plan - be proactive rather than reactive. It's hard but try to anticipate the unforeseen!
  • How can you keep them safe in the short term?
  • Consider personal alarms to raise the alert in case of an accident when alone in their home
  • Prepare for access in emergencies - who has keys, what's the best way to let medics in?
  • Consider outdoor and night time safety such as motion-sensor lights and indoor safety - locks and home alarms

6. Look, Listen & Learn

  • Try to develop a heightened sense of awareness - pick up on little details and read between the lines of what your relative is saying. Take a look around their environment to see if what they're saying holds true - are they really coping or actually struggling?
  • Explore without pre-judging; be open-minded about options
  • Show you're willing to listen and put yourself in their shoes to understand what they want ...but recognise it has to work for all of you
  • Be resourceful, persistent, but also realistic and accept there will be uncertainty and limitations
  • Keep talking - there's a lot of information out there but it can be confusing - talking to experts and widening your network helps. Also keep talking to your relative as their needs and thoughts may well change along their journey

7. Back to You

You won't be much use supporting your loved one if you've run yourself ragged, so it's important you look after yourself and create a network to help you navigate this period - as it can last for several years.

  • Establish a support network and communicate with them. Ask for help when you need it, whether that's professional or personal
  • Know - and play to - your strengths, be clear on what you can do, and accept your limitations
  • Try to keep the practical and emotional separate
  • Accept that this is an uncertain time and things won't always go to plan
  • And finally, eat well, take moderate exercise, sleep regularly, and take time for yourself - without feeling guilty. Don't be hard on yourself!