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”.