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Learn to learn: slow learning can be better learning

Those with poorer working memories can actually be at an advantage

Slower learning

There are so many myths in education. To be effective learners, we need to counter these.

Watch the video below before continuing. 

This video describes learning surprises: sometimes what we believe about learning just isn’t true.

For example, people often think video games are bad. But research shows that action-style video games, for example, can build the ability to focus. Games like Tetris can build spatial ability. But the downside to video gaming is that, like many other things, it can be addictive.

Common sense – and moderation – are the key to a healthy balance.


This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.


Another learning surprise is that students who write their notes out by hand do better than those who type them. This is because handwriting is slower than typing, which forces students to try to catch the key ideas.

Myths about learning 

The process of figuring out key ideas starts to pull out dendritic spines (small protrusions on a neuron that receive input from a synapse of another neuron), and that helps students to start a set of brain links. If students review their notes one last time not long before they go to sleep, they can nudge their dendritic spines to grow even better.

Whether students are fast or slow, they can still learn the material. Your encouragement as a teacher, and your belief in them, can make all the difference.

And the third learning surprise? Having a smaller working memory can provide certain advantages – students with smaller working memories can more easily see elegant shortcuts that wouldn’t occur to the person with a strong working memory.

Creative surprises

They can also be very creative. Research shows that when one thought slips from mind, another pops in. People with challenges to their ability to focus, such as those with ADHD, can be particularly creative.

Students vary in their abilities and that’s perfectly normal. But whether students are fast or slow in their learning, they can still learn the material. 

This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.

Notes by Professor Barbara Oakley and ESIC Business and Marketing School. Videos reproduced with kind permission of the Arizona State University and Professor Barbara Oakley.

For more information, see Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.

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