education learning

For students: The Learning to Learn project

Earlier this year I launched a small project in my department, called Learning to Learn. The aim of the project is to share and discuss with students a range of evidence-based techniques that improve their ability to learn. I realised that, for many of my students, learning was something that they were simply expected to know how to do. No-one had ever explicitly helped them to improve the strategies they used to learn and few had considered the fact that learning is a skill that can be improved.

Doing well at university is easy. All you have to do is work hard. But, don’t you already work hard? Maybe it’s time to work differently.

The project is in the form of a monthly face-to-face seminar series, with supplementary material shared via a weekly newsletter. Since many of my students can’t make the F2F session I also provide extended notes where they can download the slides, find additional readings and resources, and in the future, listen to short audio summaries of the topic.

The idea isn’t that these strategies will lead to better grades – although they might – but that students develop more effective approaches to learning that help them to feel less anxious, overwhelmed and uncertain. The strategies are all simple, free, and can be implemented immediately (although they may not always be easy to implement).

So far I’ve created modules on:

I’ll also be publishing modules on How to read, How to write, Preparing for tests, and Getting enough sleep.

If you think that this is something that your students may benefit from, please feel free to share the link to the project with them. I won’t be running the F2F seminars for the next few months anyway, so the project notes and weekly newsletters will be all that’s happening for now. Students (anyone, actually) can sign up for the newsletter on the project page and are free to unsubscribe at any time.

Note: The next newsletter is due to go out on Friday the 27th of March, so this might be a good time to sign up and get a sense of what it’s about.


Seven principles of learning

This is a short summary of a post by Scott Young that itself summarises the learning principles presented in Why don’t students like school, by Daniel Willingham. I’ve added the book to my reading list based on Scott’s recommendation.

Here are the principles from Scott’s post (with some of my own comments in italics):

  1. Factual knowledge precedes skill. Before you can understand complex ideas or be creative you need a sound knowledge base. See spaced repetition as an example of how to improve here. Anki is a useful app for this.
  2. Memory is the residue of thought. We remember what we think about. You can improve this skill by looking away from what you’ve just read and paraphrasing the text in your notes. It’s important not to simply copy the words (i.e. rewrite them) but to put them into your own words. will enable you to do this for most content that you access through the browser.
  3. We understand new things in the context of what we already know. This makes it difficult to learn abstract concepts, since we need to use metaphor and analogies to connect related ideas. Mind mapping might be a useful tool to think about in this context. Also, see the first principle.
  4. Proficiency requires practice. You need to be proficient in basic skills before you can progress to more complex ones. Focused repetition with feedback (see deliberate practice) is important.
  5. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. Knowledge creation (research) and knowledge acquisition (learning) are different and therefore require different approaches. We’re not training people to become academics so we need to be sure that they can learn before we teach them how to create new knowledge.
  6. People are more alike than different in how we learn. Don’t spend too much time thinking about learning styles because learning styles aren’t real.
  7. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. The genetic component of intelligence, combined with a sustained, nurturing learning environment, can see a relatively small advantage compound over time. And this doesn’t need to be in the form of complete lifestyle changes. Small, consistent changes in our habits can result in massive changes over time in how we live and learn.