Learning to learn: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

'Learning to learn' is a concept that all of our students can benefit from, this article outlines how schools can create cultures of independent learning.

What is learning to learn?

'Learning how to learn' is the talent to seek and persist in learning. It shows the ability to organise knowledge, by way of effective time and information management, both at personal and group levels. As the amount of information available to us increases, the ability to understand how our memory works has become more important than ever. Ideas such as a memory palace have been around for awhile and organisations such as the EEF are providing more insights than ever into the domains of metacognition. We believe that any student in school has the capacity to develop and use insights into the mind to improve how they approach learning. Whether you are working with a child in a primary school or students in University, there are key principles that will enable us all to advance learning outcomes.

A diligent student might know how he she can learn best and how to direct learning. A diligent student might also guide his/her way through the wide variety of available options in school and beyond.

The process of learning is crucial to our existence. We eat food to nourish our bodies, and we seek knowledge and continued learning to feed our minds. In this article, we will attempt to demonstrate that learning is indeed learnable. Children can learn how to chunk information into semantic categories that improve memory. There are also exercises design to switch modes of thinking for students. The bottom line is, intelligence is not static, if we are going to challenge some of the misconceptions about attainment then we must first dig a little bit deeper into some fundamentals about how the mind works.

Some key ideas about Learning to Learn

'Learning how to learn', is specifically crucial for developing independent learners, when the educators are no longer the main source of knowledge and information. According to the academic experts — Dr Terrence Sejnowski (Francis Crick Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies) and Dr Barbara Oakley (of the University Of California, San Diego), the following are some of the most valuable learning techniques to build competence in learning and managing time more effectively.

  1. Diffused and Focused Mode: During the process of learning, sometimes we allow our mind to wander and sometimes we are focused. Dr Barbara Oakley states that the diffused or unfocused time is just as important as the focused one, as it allows our brain to learn new things. Therefore, we must meditate, have breaks, focus on other things, and give ourselves a sufficient amount of time in both learning modes. An effective learning session is to take regular breaks by applying the Pomodoro technique. In this technique, we work for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5 minutes. The lengths of work and break time can be adjusted depending upon what works best for the learner. But, the most important aspect is to take a regular break.
  2. Chunking: Dr Barbara Oakley believes that what we want to learn should be broken into solid chunks of smaller concepts. Here, the main objective is to learn in mental chunks and all the mental chunks serve as notable puzzle pieces. For instance, to master a Social Sciences concept, we must also know how to break the concept into mental chunks and how does this concept fit into the larger picture. The first step of chunking is survey and priming, which involves scanning the syllabus or book to get an idea of the larger picture. The next step is to observe an example. The third step is to do it yourself. And, lastly, repeat the process in different contexts.
  3. Illusions of Competence: Sometimes we feel as if we have “understood” a concept. For instance, during online courses, we may look at an answer and feel that we already know how to come to that solution. These are the most common illusions Of learning. Underlining or highlighting the most important parts may also result in an illusion of learning. Instead of using these techniques, it is more beneficial to write brief notes summarising the key concepts in the lesson.
  4. Recalling: Dr Barbara Oakley highlights Dr Karpicke’s analysis about retrieval practice to furnish scientific support for spending a few minutes to recall or summarise the topic we are trying to learn. It is an effective way to transfer something from short-term learning into long-term memory. Also, deliberate practice of recalling concepts in the different physical surroundings can improve learning outcomes and help us understand the concept independent of any physical cues our mind may have.
  5. Bite-Sized Testing: To avoid illusions of competence, it is suggested that we must use Bite-Sized Testing as mental tools to assess ourselves as we read new material. Mini-tests are amongst the most useful learning mechanisms that can be accomplished through recalling any concept. Even if we fail to pass this bite-sized testing, we must correct all the mistakes and solidify the learning.


Help students chunk information into schemas
Help students chunk information into schemas

What learning to learn techniques work best?

Depending on the learning task and the period of time available, there are numerous strategies and techniques to improve outcomes. Within the last few years, researchers have provided us with insights about learning that we did not have 20 years ago. This knowledge has enabled educational institutions to develop invaluable learning techniques that helps a student in school to 'think for themselves'. The Internet is littered with courses that claim to improve our memory.

To become a lifelong learner, all we have to do is adopt a few simple ideas that can be transformational for our thinking. At Structural Learning, we develop mental tools that are built on insights on education. An education professional is bombarded with new information every day and it's not always easy to keep up with the latest concepts. Our passionate community of readers and contributors are continually adding to our tool box of resources and ideas.

Articles to read and concepts to try:

  • Oracy: this is the idea that we can learn to talk and learn through talk. Language helps explore different kinds of thinking that we might not otherwise engage in.
  • Graphic organisers: these simple tools enable children to chunk information into organise packets of knowledge. The chunk or 'schema' forms the basis of our understanding.
  • Universal Thinking Framework: concepts such as blooms taxonomy and solo taxonomy help educators think about the level of learning. This new classroom instructional tool enables teachers to plan for a deeper level of learning.
  • Mind maps: Learning efficiency is based upon how well we utilise our available cognitive equipment. Mapping out our ideas into an organised chunk is a great way for developing conceptual understanding.
  • Learning Journals: Spending time in college documenting tasks, schedules and new ideas is time well spent.

Enable students to organise knowledge with the Universal Thinking Framework
Enable students to organise knowledge with the Universal Thinking Framework


Adopting learning to learn strategies

Like any new idea implemented in a school, it is best to drip feed new ideas and techniques into an educational ecosystem. Providing too much too soon can be problematic for teachers and students alike. The following strategies are evidence based techniques that might prove a good starting point.

  1. Over-Learning: This means we must not spend extra time learning the same material in one sitting. To overcome the challenges of overlearning it is suggested to spread out the learning in different modes and many sessions. It is better to learn a new concept for 30 to 60 minutes each day and gradually increase the depth of learning and skill levels. This spaced repetition of concepts will not only lead to successful learning but would also shift the learning to our long-term memory.
  2. Interleaving: After gaining basic knowledge of the concepts, interleaving can help in mastering the concepts. By practising problems using different practical techniques, we may solidify our knowledge of the concepts and we may learn how to apply these in different situations. Knowing how to use a particular concept is an active process, which is as important as knowing when to use it in a learning experience.
  3. Process over Product: Each learner has a unique learning style. When experiencing procrastination, it is suggested to consider process over product. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed, in those times we procrastinate. When we are facing a delay in the entire student experience, we must try and  begin to enjoy the learning process. Dr Oakley's insights about education suggest that it is better to enjoy the process of learning and the time in college rather than feeling the pressure of improving learning efficiency or learning the concept.
  4. Analogies & Metaphors: These can lead to insights about education and adult learning experiences. Metaphors and analogies are frequently used by teachers and education professional mentors as they communicate in everyday life. Metaphors and analogies serve as a translational tool in the learning process, that may have a strong impact on a learner's understanding of a new or complex concept. Analogies and metaphors are used as long term memory techniques for pointing towards the similarities between our previous knowledge and what we are still trying to learn.
  5. Teamwork/ Study Groups: A group study session is considered an effective way to uphold continued progress in difficult subjects. Finding the perfect group is key to learning about challenging subjects. Whatever and wherever we are learning, it is always better to learn with fellow learners in a group. The entire student experience of 'proper learning' with different people can shift the knowledge to long term memory systems and makes the learning process more memorable.

Use graphic organisers to help students think through complex topics
Use graphic organisers to help students think through complex topics


Developing learning to learn cultures

The entire student experience of becoming lifelong learners should prepare individuals to perform critical duties in everyday life. Being able to learn effectively constitutes the most important part of any modern organisation in every industry. Dr Barb Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski are experts in the art and science of learning. Should you be interested to find out more on this topic, their insights on education and key takeaways of their learning strategies are available in mobile apps in a Chinese version, Portuguese version and Spanish version. You can also hear their thoughts on all things learning in the various podcasts they are featured in. Study skills, or learning to learn skills are a significant aid to children as they teach them 'how to learn' and be successful in school. Metacognitive skills play a necessary part in developing the critical thinking skills necessary for becoming a lifelong learner and academic success. It's not another quick fix and it does require a clear vision but we are sure you'll soon reap the benefits.