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Curriculum & Materials
Learning How To Learn

Learning How To Learn

February 15, 2015
What do frogs have to do with learning?

What do frogs have to do with learning?



The learning behaviour of some of our Foundations students indicates that they do not have the study strategies which would make their uptake of English language easier and more long lasting. While we have embraced the iPad in Foundations and all the wonderful applications that make learning interesting and fun in class, focus on study techniques to use outside the class quite often becomes a low priority given the time constraints imposed by a heavy curriculum and exam deadlines. I wanted to redress the balance in my own classes and see if I could make a difference by directly teaching learning strategies to my students which they could use out of class and become more effective learners.



I am a great fan of MOOCs and I enrolled in a Coursera MOOC called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski at UC San Diego. It required just four hours of study per week for four weeks and delivered content through videos, readings and discussion board threads and our learning was tested with three quizzes plus a final as well as two written assignments.


Half a million people have taken this Coursera MOOC.


My learning

A lot of what I learned on the MOOC seemed to be commonsense but it was all backed up by recent neurological research. And it is clear to me that some of our weaker students don’t apply even the most basic learning strategies suggested by Dr Oakley and Dr Sejnowski. Listed below are the ones which I think our Foundations students would most benefit from and which I believe should be taught directly so that our students are equipped to study effectively outside our classrooms.


Practice is important for any area which we want to master. We shouldn’t just think we know how to solve a problem without actually trying to do it. (How many times have students in our classes claimed that the answers are in their heads or that they are still thinking?) We need to actually work through the task or problem step by step and solve it ourselves before looking at the solution. This way the neurons in our brain will become linked together through repeated use, allowing for better learning.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a powerful strategy for learning. It involves setting a timer and focusing intently without any interruption for around 25 minutes at a time. That means no checking Snap Chat, no Instagram posts, no emails. Just us and our learning task! At the end of our focused 25 minute effort on our task, we should give ourselves a reward such as checking our Instagram, a piece of chocolate or a cup of coffee. We should aim to do a series of Pomodoros until we have achieved learning.


The Pomodoro Technique is simple but extremely powerful.

The Pomodoro Technique is simple but extremely powerful.

Spaced Repetition

Research suggests that if we space our reviews over days with increasingly longer intervals between those reviews, we will remember more effectively than doing one review for the same amount of time in one evening. The brain likes repetition. It helps information pass from working memory into long term memory. Waiting until the last minute to study does not allow for permanent or deeper learning but I would say a significant number of our students still adhere to this technique.


Surprisingly the research suggests we should work on different types of activities or problems in our study sessions. For example, we should do some vocab recall first, followed by some maths problems perhaps and then end up with a grammar exercise. Mixing activities is known as ‘interleaving’ and helps us learn more deeply as well as knowing ‘how’ and ‘when’ to use a technique. It may be difficult at first, but then deeper learning does require effort.


Taking practice tests boosts learning. Tests that make us recall the information we have just studied help us to remember that information for longer. And if we don’t recall the correct answer in a practice test, that failure signals that we need to study the information again. Flashcards are great for this. Or we can just close our eyes and test ourselves mentally. Recall is a very powerful mental tool for learning and tests are the best way to improve learning.

Eat your frogs first!

We should do the most difficult or uninteresting task first, early in the day when we are fresh. Nothing else we do afterwards will seem as bad.


Nothing we do will be of any benefit whatsoever if we don’t get enough sleep. Sleep:

  • Sorts out ideas and concepts
  • Strengthens memories that we want to remember
  • Allows the subconscious brain to go over the more difficult things we want to learn while we sleep.
  • Encourages different parts of the brain to connect, helping to find a solution to a problem
  • Improves our ability to understand a new idea through dreams

And here is some behavior our students should avoid:


We should not multi-task. Every distraction means we have less brain power to devote to learning. We will have more trouble organizing our thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information. We will also be slower at switching from one task to another. This is because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. We can’t learn deeply when we are distracted.


We procrastinate things we don’t like – the pain centres in our brain actually light up and we avoid them. The good news is that once we start working on something we don’t like, the discomfort disappears after a few minutes.

Bad Habits

To overcome bad study habits and avoid procrastination, we should follow these steps: a) Recognise what triggers the bad study habit – is it a noisy location, feelings of boredom or time of day – it’s lunch time & we want to eat, not study? b) Make a plan to develop a new routine / habit – study in the quiet library after lunch. c) Give ourselves a new reward for completing the new habit – check Instagram! d) Believe in our new system!


Sitting passively and running our eyes back over a page does not help learning. Unless we can prove that the material is moving into our brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, rereading is a waste of time.


Highlighting a text can fool our mind into thinking we are putting something in our brain, when all we’re really doing is moving our hand. A little highlighting here and there is okay—sometimes it can be helpful in flagging important points. But if we are using highlighting as a memory tool, we should make sure that what we mark is also going into our brain.


Class implementation

I have created three Pinterest boards which focus on different aspects of effective learning. Each pin on the board has a brief description of one aspect or strategy and a link to an article for further reading or a fun video to watch. I intend to use some of the pins as class activities and others can be set for homework. I have started creating simple online quizzes (BB9, SoftChalk, Kahoot etc) to test key concepts and I will also have students make journal entries or respond to discussion board questions to encourage them to apply some of the techniques to their own learning.

I see this as a semester long project and I am hopeful that some of the strategies may be adopted by some of the students in my classes. If nothing else, I hope that I will have raised awareness of what makes a successful learner and that language learning especially takes time and effort.


Links for further information:

Coursera MOOCs:

Three ‘Learning How to Learn’ boards on Pinterest:

Recommended strategies for students to use:

Test taking:

The importance of making errors:

The Pomodoro Technique:


Written by Felicity Green, SMC.



February 15, 2015
Curriculum & Materials, Lesson Plans & Ideas
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Felicity Green
Felicity Green

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1 comment

  1. Rachel Scott says:

    Thanks Felicity!