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Learn to learn: three habits of good learners

These three keys are the crucial takeaways for learners from this series

developing habits

If you are reading this article, you should hopefully have read the previous 15, which have walked you through my Learning How To Learn series.

This article is your summary of all that has gone before and, as ever, it starts with a video.

What students have learned in these videos will help them for the rest of their lives. Why not encourage them to share what they’ve learned with others?

What are the key things they should take away?

Nobel prizewinner Santiago Ramón y Cajal went from being a poor learner to becoming a great scientist. He won the Nobel prize even though his memory wasn’t very good and he couldn’t learn very fast.


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.


But we know now that Cajal’s learning challenges also gave him advantages that sometimes helped him to do even better than geniuses.

He admitted he wasn’t a genius. So, what was his magic? How did he become such a successful learner?

There are three keys:

1. Cajal kept his options open. Originally, art was his passion. But he realised he had boxed himself in by thinking he could only do one thing. He expanded his passion to include maths and science.

So, encourage students to be like Santiago as they grow up. The world is becoming more complicated. We need people with broad skills and interests.

2. Cajal was persistent. When he decided to learn maths, he went back to the basics. Slowly, he worked his way upwards. It was hard but he just kept at it.

Persistence is key in learning. But remember that persistence doesn’t mean working without stopping. It means that, after you’ve taken diffuse mode breaks, students should keep returning to their work.

3. Cajal was flexible. Racing-car-brain learners can be right more often than others, but this also creates a trap. Some super-smart learners can end up jumping to conclusions. When they’ve made an incorrect conclusion, it can be hard for them to admit it and correct it because they’re not used to making mistakes. 

Since Cajal wasn’t a genius, he got a lot of practice correcting his mistakes. When he became a scientist, he actively looked for ways to determine whether he was right or wrong. When he was wrong, he changed his mind.

A flexible approach that allows students to admit and correct errors can allow them to do great work of any kind. It can also help them to lead a happy, successful life at work with colleagues, and at home with friends and family.

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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