“Learning from a Distance: Can You Learn How to Learn?”

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Think about the last time you tried something that you had never done before — maybe you went skiing for the first time, tried to learn a new language, or how to play the guitar. You might have been frustrated that you weren’t immediately perfect, but you probably kept at it because you realized that as you practiced, you would get better.

In that process, you intuitively understood that with a little work, a little patience, and a little time, you could master that new skill. What you were acknowledging in that moment – whether you realized it or not, was that skills are built, not born.

When we take enough action (aka practice), we build new connections in our brain.  In fact, one study showed that when people completed the training program to become a London taxi driver, their hippocampus actually grew. No matter your age, ability, or background, you can literally re-wire your very flexible brain to get better at practically anything.

The rule of thumb: if someone can get better at it – it’s a skill. Which means we can get better at it too.

Can students learn how to learn?

When it comes to academic learning, “learning how to learn” is a skill too. When students first start school, teachers use games and activities to teach. They have one-page worksheets and assignments that can be quickly and easily completed.  As they get older, and the subjects, the work, and the time management become more complex, they may realize that they aren’t quite prepared with the skills needed to manage the “process” of school.  Or, like a lot of kids, they may become frustrated or anxious or overwhelmed with it all, without even fully understanding why.

Those feelings are normal, and the reason that they find themselves there is that most kids are not explicitly taught how to learn. The great news is that “learning how to learn” is a skill.  Time management, organization, planning and other executive function and study skills can be learned.  The rule of thumb:  if someone can get better at it – it’s a skill.  This means we can all get better at learning…IF we have the right mindset! Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has extensively researched how our mindset can affect our performance — academically, professionally, and personally. People who believe their qualities and skills are static — people with a “fixed mindset” — either find themselves constantly trying to prove their worth or get frustrated and anxious because they feel they never can. However, as she writes:

“There’s another mindset … a growth mindset that is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck

Learning how to learn is a skill, and it’s a skill that students (and you!) can practice until you’re great at it. By having an open mind that it is possible and by staying curious about the process of learning, you’ll develop techniques that will help lower stress, increase work efficiency, and for students, improve grades. Learning itself is a skill, and skills are built, not born.

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