Educational Advice

6 top takeaways from “How to Learn: MyTutor with Barbara Oakley”

·// April 22, 2021

It’s easy to spend a lot of 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”. Her Coursera course, “Learning how to Learn” is one of the most popular online courses in the world, and many of the 2.5 million people who have taken it say how it improved their learning for good (including our CEO Bertie Hubbard, who might be her number 1 fan).

If you missed the webinar, not to worry. Here are 6 top takeaways to help you develop their best learning habits for school (and for life).

6 things your teen should know to become a better learner – from Dr Barbara Oakley


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 you’re a slow learner, as long as you 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 clogs 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, always being right, that they jump to conclusions, 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 normal 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! And 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 students up to GCSE level, Barbara recommends the learning platform Kumon for online Maths course. MyTutor online tutors also have the right expertise and recent exam experience to help you get the best grades you can.

5. They should ask 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 students 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 you, this could mean a teacher, their tutor, a friend, older sibling, parent (if they’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 you need it will, as Barbara says, mean that in the long term they’ll ultimately need less help. Especially if you have deadlines like coursework submissions or exams – the further in advance of these dates that you gets help, the better you’ll be placed to achieve their best grades.

6. It’s important to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

On the issue of learning gaps post-covid, Bertie asked Barbara what students 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 who I worry about are the cocky ones who think they’re gonna go and just do great. So actually feeling really 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 gets at here is the fact 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 you up to enjoy learning and do your 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” below.

Further reading & learning from Barbara Oakley

Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn“, Barbara’s 2021 book to pre-order

“Learn Like a Pro: Science-based Tools to Become a Better Learner”, Barbara’s other 2021 book to pre-order

Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending all your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens“, Barbara’s book from 2018

Learning how to Learn for Youth – Free Coursera online course for teens

Learning how to Learn:Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects – Free Coursera online course for adults (and keen teens)

Barbara’s popular Ted Talk, Learning how to Learn

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