Wednesday Wisdom

September 28, 2022

Learning to Learn

By Dr Kathy Weston

Learning to Learn


Last week, I delivered a talk about how we can usefully minimise children’s anxiety and stress in the run up to tests, assessments and exams. Years ago, if I had been writing that talk from scratch, I would have likely focused on the range of evidence-based strategies available to optimise children’s learning and attainment, and perhaps have neglected one of the most important aspects of children’s ability to thrive academically; their emotional state. Now, I wouldn’t dream of giving a talk about children’s academic success without first addressing how they feel about themselves, their learning, and their lives in general.

Today, one in six children in the UK have a probable mental health disorder. Anxiety is the largest mental health disorder affecting children and young people. Issues such as school avoidance are on the rise and the pressure on young people to thrive in all aspects of their life (on and offline) are real. Recently, I came across a blog authored by a teen who managed to succinctly summarise some of the contemporary pressures that she and her peers face:

Target grades, league tables, and the persistent question that forever echoes around school corridors (‘what did you get? what did you get?’) are intended to push students to their utmost potential, yet also cause an unimaginable amount of stress, low self-esteem, physical and mental fatigue.”

Reading that (like me), you might feel a modicum of parental guilt. Who hasn’t suggested to their child that they need to work harder? Or felt irritated when our offspring didn’t fare well in a test? Who hasn’t compared them to a more able sibling or berated them for not caring about learning? Interestingly, a great deal of research suggests that a middle ground approach is preferable for children. Eliminating stress isn’t particularly optimal. Nor is pushing children until they feel like the teen featured above.

What we do with our children matters. So often, our aspirations are strongly correlated with theirs. The extent to which they love to learn will likely mirror our own attitudes to education and the extent to which we engage with their learning is a reliable predictor of their academic outcomes. In other words, it’s a good thing that we parents and carers care about learning, attempt to instil aspirational thinking and introduce study habits into our children’s lives. However, we must always consider our children’s mental health and wellbeing first. Is the child that we send to school every day well-rested? Have they eaten a nutritious breakfast? Do they feel loved and valued? Are their physical and emotional needs being met?


By paying attention both to our children’s emotional wellbeing and their emotional responses to learning, we can often get to the bottom of why they might be getting frustrated, stuck or anxious.

Are they really being stubborn if they are unwilling to do school work, or are they actually anxious, upset or unhappy? Are they giving up because they don’t know the answer, or are they genuinely afraid to fail? Attempts to master learning necessarily entail making mistakes, persevering, coping with uncertainty and picking oneself up, again and again. Our job is to create the conditions at home where learning (and mistake-making) is allowed and academic resilience fostered.

Wouldn’t it also be incredibly useful if we understood more about how learning actually works? I was helping my son to revise for a science test recently. He kept becoming frustrated about the fact that he knew something, but couldn’t quite articulate it, so we went over it again and again until retrieval became easier and easier.

Retrieval practice is a powerful tool for improving learning. Have you ever heard of that term? Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory of that information is strengthened, and forgetting is less likely to occur. There are many ways that we can nudge our children to retrieve the information that they need to learn. We can quiz them on things that they have jotted down on notecards. We can ask them the same question but in different places around the house. We can ask them to teach us. Together, make a note of where they struggle and work on that.

Revision is about retrieval, repetition and refinement; narrowing things down, identifying knots and unpicking them until we are able to understand better. When done well, it should empower the learner and build their confidence. It is a dynamic process and one that we, as parents, can get involved with, and not in ways where we have to be the ‘teacher’ – more the coach.

If we want to enable our children to balance academic stress with good mental health, the concept of “spaced practice” can provide a methodology for achieving that. It involves early preparation for exams and spreading out the learning over time. That ten minutes of revision on the bus each way can add up! Four hours spread over two weeks is better than the same four hours all at once. We can give our children confidence in this ‘little and often’ approach. It feels good and it works. Young people can feel less overwhelmed when learning tasks are broken down into smaller, more achievable chunks.

Another useful tip is to try to bring learning to life, or find ‘concrete examples’ where learning can be applied to real-life. Children may have studied states of matter at school, but can they explain what is happening when the kettle boils and when condensation forms on an object above it?

Dinner time conversations provide rich contexts for learning. Here, families discuss the day, consider what went well and where they struggled, and begin to make connections between the curriculum and real life. There is emerging evidence to suggest family chat at mealtimes can improve children’s mental health as well as bolster academic outcomes. So it is good to talk!


There are so many things to consider when it comes to optimising learning. We have talked about emotional literacy at home, the power of parental engagement and touched on optimal revision techniques, but what about considering the physical environments within which children are expected to focus and learn?

I recently interviewed researcher Gemma Goldenberg about how noise and the environment can influence and/or impact on learning. The research in this area is fascinating. Factors such as air quality, noise, light, visual clutter, temperature and window views can all be impactful. Younger children in particular are detrimentally affected by high noise levels. This is because the ability to distinguish speech from background noise develops over time and isn’t fully formed until adolescence.

Considering the context and environment within which children are learning is an important part of the jigsaw when it comes to figuring out how children might engage optimally. There are interesting snippets within the research that again point to the link between wellbeing and the ability to learn. Gemma told me about research that showed how exposure to natural soundscapes can restore children’s cognitive performance. In one study, children with depleted attention were played the sounds of waterfalls and rivers. After listening, they were able to complete tasks to a higher level. We can’t control the learning environments that exist within school settings, but perhaps we can reflect more deeply about home learning environments? 

Households are noisy places. However, not all noise has a negative impact on performance. As Gemma explained, it depends on the type of noise and the cognitive demands of the particular task. The more demanding a task is, the more likely we are to need a quieter environment. Noise acts as a stressor and increases our general arousal, but for well rehearsed, simple tasks, this might actually improve performance. If background noise is too low, and our arousal is low, we might become bored and sleepy. Optimal arousal is somewhere in the middle. Interesting eh?

Has this week’s newsletter spiked your interest in the science of learning? If you wish to find out about how children learn and thrive, download this fascinating and free A to Z of Supporting Learner Achievement, a resource by science teacher and learning expert, Liz Keable.

For teachers reading this week’s newsletter, the Education Endowment Foundation, Evidence-based Education and Deans for Impact would be my ‘go to’ favourite sites for evidence-based evaluations of best practice. Enjoy!

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up School staff are invited to listen back to Gemma Goldenberg’s webinars on the importance of the classroom environment and the impact of noise, which are already in our digital library. You may also be interested in our webinar with deaf education expert, Dr Joy Rosenberg who has created a training session just for teachers.

Tooled Up parents in ‘Tooled Up schools’, take a peek at our resources on learningrevision and exam preparation. Listen to a detailed summary of retrieval and spaced practice in our interview with Patrice Bain or watch back any of our expert webinars that contain strategies for supporting neurodiverse learners.

Liz Keable, mentioned in this week’s newsletter, will be running a webinar for parents on the theme of metacognition and effective learning on the 3rd November. Booking for this event will be open soon.

Our tip of the week? Register and come along to a Q&A session on childhood allergies with one of Britain’s leading allergy specialists. Submit your question in advance to Professor Adam Fox by emailing us:

Book your place by clicking here.