MyTutor for Parents

8 top takeaways from, ‘Uncommon Sense Parenting’– with Prof Barbara Oakley

Reading time: 4 minutes

Professor Barbara Oakley is a world renowned educator and an expert on teen learning. She’s famous for her online course “Learning How to Learn”, and more recently, “Uncommon Sense Teaching” on Coursera. We were delighted to have her recently speak to our MyTutor parent community. She gave lots of insights on how to guide teens so that they fulfil their potential in their studies– and in life.

Here are  8 top pieces of parenting advice that Barb shared at the event:

  1. Encourage your teen to work ‘retrieval practises’ (like flashcards) into their study routine.
  2. Have them look over key learning areas before bed.
  3. Breaks are important for  learning.
  4. Spacing out learning is better than cramming for hours.
  5. Encourage them to study in different places.
  6. Slow learners can learn more deeply.
  7. Starting off with rewards for learning isn’t as bad as we think it is.
  8. Calm exam stress with breathing exercises.
illustration-weekly-routine

1. Encourage your teen to work ‘retrieval practises’ (like flashcards) into their study routine.

The best way for teens to learn a new topic is through retrieval practise. ‘When you’re first learning something, there’s faint links forming between neurons in your brain,’ Barb explains. ‘The more you retrieve that learning– the stronger the links become.’ 

So if your teen’s just learned about the stages of mitosis in Biology, for example, they can make that information stick with these memory activities: flashcards, practice tests, quick fire quizzes–with someone else or alone. Repeating these study techniques helps make the links even stronger.

2. Have them look over key learning areas before bed.

Lucky for us, the brain is hard at work even when we’re sleeping. Barb says that during sleep, ‘neurons are connecting.’ So telling your teen to glance over their notes right before bed for 2-5 minutes, helps consolidate their learning. So when your teen is sleeping, by building “neural connections”, their brain will actually work to keep this new information in their memory. Who knew sleeping could double as revising?

3. Breaks are important for  learning.

Like sleep, breaks are important in making learning stick. Barb explains that short study breaks are actually vital for the part of the brain that stores new information. She says the best way to organise study time is by using the Pomodoro technique. It’s really simple: you turn off all distractions, set a timer for 25 minutes of focused study, and have a 5 minute break once the timer goes off. That makes one Pomodoro round–Barbara recommends doing 3 over the course of a study session. 

She says it’s key for teens to avoid any focused activity in their break time– and that means they shouldn’t go on their phones where distractions might pop up. Staring into space or petting the cat are both a good use of break time. Having a snack and stretching works too.   

4. Spacing out learning is better than cramming for hours.

This might seem obvious, but we’ve all heard of someone we know (maybe even ourselves…) who’s pulled an all-nighter. ‘Learning takes time,’ Prof Oakley says. ‘Just like a weightlifter developing their muscle, it takes time to build neural structure.’ 

Your teen needs time to learn from direct instruction (so from their notes, textbooks, teachers), and then they need to go back over what they’ve just learned. Ideally, all the way up to exams, they’d repeat this cycle: study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, and so on…

5. Encourage them to study in different places.

Studying in different places, Barb tells us, can help refresh your teen’s brain and actually boost their memory. So if they normally study in their room, try giving them the option to set up shop in the kitchen, a quiet corner of the house, a library or even a cafe (if they don’t get distracted). They could try making mind maps in a noisier space, and keep the library for past paper practice. Having different places to travel to can also help motivate them too.

6. Slow learners can learn more deeply.

There are two kinds of learners: declarative learners–or as Prof Oakley likes to call them– ‘race car learners’. And there are procedural or ‘hiker learners’. Declarative learners pick up things quickly, but they might be less flexible. Procedural learners take longer and are often more accurate. 

Both fast and slow learners are just as good– one is not better than the other. But often in schools, fast learning is rewarded. If your teen’s stuck on their Maths homework, encourage them to take time to work it out. That’s where home learning can be so valuable – it’s where your teen can learn at their own pace, and go over things as many times as they need to until they get it. 

7. Starting off with rewards for learning isn’t as bad as we think it is.

Barb explains how her daughter was not a big reader in school. To encourage her along, she would give her little rewards every time she finished reading a book. Over time, it was easier for her daughter to read and get into a book. ‘She eventually became internally motivated,’ Barb says. This is a perfect example of how starting with small rewards– like pocket money or a treat on the weekend (to get things going)– can help them get over their fear of difficult subjects and become more self-motivated in the long run.

mum-and-son-doing-yoga

8. Calm exam stress with breathing exercises.

As we all know, exams can bring on stress. Barb shared a useful tip for teens to use if they feel panicked when they’re revising or during an exam. It’s called “box breathing”. She recommends teens to try breathing in for 5 seconds, holding for 5 seconds, and breathing out for 5 seconds.  She explains, ‘When you get very nervous you do shallow, panicked breathing. It doesn’t give you the oxygen you need.’ Practising this deep breathing technique a few days or even weeks before exams–so that it seems normal– will help your teen relax. If they feel panicked in the exam hall, using this technique can help them refocus and remember what they’ve revised too.   

And there you have it– Barb’s brilliant insights into teen learning! You can watch the full webinar here.

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