Future of learning blog

The habits you need to be a better learner

We’re known for fresh thinking at Stellar Labs, so this month we’re mixing things up. Rather than interviewing a learning professional, we’re gaining perspectives from the other side of the process with insights from a learner. 

Julie Delhem is a veterinary student in her third year at the University of Antwerp. She has struggled with some aspects of learning and needed a toolkit of strategies to help her continue her learning journey. She came to us with the question: how do I learn? And that’s just the sort of challenge we love.

“I really needed to change my learning habits.”

With exams looming, Julie felt overwhelmed by the prospect of reading reams of text. “I couldn’t get the information in my head and wasn’t making any connections between one chapter and the next,” she explains. The mounting pressure was taking its toll on Julie’s health. “I was stressed, not sleeping, and really needed to change my learning habits.”

Step one to becoming a better learner was to find her motivation. Stella asked Julie to identify the elements of learning she enjoyed. “Drawing,” came the answer. “I like depicting animal anatomy.”  So Stella challenged Julie to apply this to her wider learning by capturing text-based content in a visual form.

Making the link: from text to sketch

“The link with drawing made it a lot more fun for me to learn,” she says.  “For example, when we had to study bacterial diseases in food, I drew an apple to represent food and added a worm to show disease, then reconstructed the text around it.” This technique helped Julie make better connections and absorb the information. 

And she didn’t stop there. Julie marked key words and phrases in different colours so that, when it came to exam time, she made the link back to information in the ‘blue chapter’ or the ‘red section’. This habit of chunking text into smaller pieces and adding a graphic element proved to be a breakthrough. 

“When my teacher gave me 20 pages of information, my initial reaction was: how on earth am I going to learn this? But combining it with something that I love – drawing – and then dividing it into shorter blocks of colour-coded text made it more manageable.”

Repetition for recall

Julie’s preference for visual prompts also led her to write key phrases on Post-its and stick them around her room. “When I needed to recall the information, I’d say to myself: you’ve walked past it a dozen times – you know this.” 

Simple repetition like this can be very effective at moving the learning from short-term to long-term memory. Another technique to embed new knowledge is to try explaining the information to someone else. 

“My best friend is in a completely different line of work and has no experience of veterinary science,” says Julie. “He’d ask me what I’d been studying that day and I’d explain it in a way he could understand, which helped me to retain the new learning.” 

Julie’s final challenge was to get a handle on exam nerves. When we feel stressed, we tend to hold our breath and tense our muscles. Julie practiced some simple breathing exercises to reduce stress hormones and calm her heart rate, which helped her to think more clearly.

Mentoring support

So did we meet the challenge? With techniques to relax, approach academic study in a new way and then embed that knowledge, Julie is better equipped for her learning journey. “I didn’t know where to begin, but the conversations we had gave me the starting point,” she tells me. 

Which is why we include mentoring and feedback as part of our training programmes at Stellar Labs. Conversations that stretch, challenge and refine a learner’s skills help to embed knowledge and transfer new behaviours to daily life. 

“Studying is a lot more fun than a couple of months ago,” says Julie. “People say: how can you find studying fun? But now that I combine it with these new strategies, it’s easier to throw myself into it.”

We’re proud to have helped Julie become a better learner. And you’ll be pleased to hear that, in contrast to her initial expectations, Julie passed her exams with flying colours – literally. 

To learn more about learning agility and becoming a better learner, see our Learning Agility: Conscious Learning course