Issue 37

Learning to Learn

A person jumping from one stack of books to another

Go to any online bookshop and you’ll find hundreds of guides dedicated to exam preparation. ‘How to revise’ and ‘How to get that A*’ are familiar titles. But one genre is less common: how to teach yourself. In this short article, David Martindill describes some of the tools found in your teacher’s toolkit. These tips can help support your own learning if you cannot go to class.


Teachers put a lot of effort into planning your lessons. They pay attention to three key strategies among many others. Knowing a little about these can help support your independent learning. After all, understanding how to learn is just as important as knowing what to learn.


hand holding piece of paperAlbert Einstein once said that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.’ He was right: being creative while you work is one certain way to accelerate understanding. Rather than simply reading a textbook or browsing through online tutorials, be active. Tally count every mention of a key term or idea. Predict how sentences will end. Try converting information contained in text into a diagram, or transfer a picture into a list. Craft questions for which phrases and words you encounter could be the answers. Sketch Venn diagrams to compare different factors. Scribble scruffy mind maps that summarise new information. Being creative in this way forces you to think deeper, rather than passively receive. It keeps you motivated for longer because it gives you ownership of the learning process. For more information, take a look at Prof. Howard-Jones’ STEM Learning feature. This reflects on the pursuit of understanding as an active process that must engage, build and consolidate in order to be effective.


Lots of evidence suggests that we learn by linking our existing ideas with new information. This prior knowledge can also be real-life experience. You can exploit this by taking a moment to pause before you begin your study. Ask yourself ‘what do I already know about this topic?’ Go further and make some predictions. What are you likely to discover in the next hour or two? Be active and jot down a few words or short sentences on slips of paper. At the end of your study session, record a few summary sentences on different slips of paper. You may even wish to build a paper chain to show how your learning journey happened. Did your predictions come true? If not, why not? For really effective learning, regularly review your new knowledge and break it down into different parts. Join ideas together to build a bigger picture. Your new knowledge should resemble how a house is formed from many bricks, each cemented with many others. ‘Thinking up’ as well as ‘thinking through’ new information is incredibly important for a deeper understanding.


two people talkingLearning doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, students who talk about new information as they encounter it can make the fastest progress. Creating dialogue with another is a very important education tool. Consider working with others online to collaboratively complete an essay, or produce a ‘perfect’ response to an exam paper. Perhaps even design a TED Talk to present to others online. Otherwise, simply ask a friend or a family member to listen to what you have to say about a topic after you have studied – do they understand? Challenge them to ask you three questions about it. Can you answer them? As often as possible, ask ‘have you caught what I just taught?


A person outside looking at two treesBelieve it or not, it’s even possible to do some practical work at home. STEM Learning has an expansive range of support materials that are freely accessible to students, families, and schools. You will find instructions on how to make indicators, biodegradable plastic and even pop rockets using everyday chemicals. For biological studies, go outside: living things can be used for ethical experimentation. Project ideas, which include survey sheets and ID guides, are available to download. There are also plenty of ways for you to investigate physical phenomena at home, using simulations and short video guides. For instance, why not try making your own motor? As with all hands-on science, don’t forget to focus your mind on why you are doing something, not only on what you are doing.


Finally, during your efforts to learn, don’t overlook the importance of taking care of yourself. It is important to remember that distance learning cannot take the place of being in a real classroom. School is a society in which you forge friendships, expand your experiences and make memories. Try just as hard to develop and maintain these, too. As a popular educational slogan says: “you must Maslow before you can Bloom!” Your homework is to work out what this phrase means.

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David Martindill
Teacher of Science

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Learning resource

We have created learning notes to assist students and educators to further investigate the topics covered in this article. You can download the learning resource here »

In addition, you can explore a collection of remote science lessons for young people on the STEM Learning website. The free sessions are curriculum linked and cover a variety of topics. You can access the science sessions here »

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