Learning to learn

To gain self-confidence and become resilient.


From the beginning of our childhood, we learn. First to recognize shapes, colors, sounds, smells, then to interact with our environment, manipulate objects, perform tasks of increasing complexity such as moving (by foot, by bike, on skates) or communicating. This helps us to adapt to the environment in which we evolve, and possibly influence it. Our learning experience continues before/after school, through our relationships and our daily activities. From an ecological point of view, learning to learn saves time, energy, and helps us adapt effectively to new situations. Learning to learn therefore allows people to work on self-confidence and to develop a form of resilience (I don’t know, but I can learn).

What does it take to learn?

In Spinoza’s metaphor of learning, a horserider symbolizes reason while his horse symbolizes emotions. Learning mobilizes the head but also the heart and the body. Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul, wrote Rabelais in Gargantua in 1534. Thus, learning will be all the better if the apprentice has a healthy and balanced diet, gets restful sleep, engages in regular physical activity, and enjoys healthy relationships. Well-being is central to learning. 👉🏾 If something is bothering you, talk about it, communicate with your parents, your friends, your teachers…

Math, like sports, requires a form of flexibility to progress, which comes by training and stretching regularly and the more we take pleasure in learning, the more we have fun acquiring new knowledge/skills and giving meaning to the world, the more these trainings are fruitful (by reinforcement, thanks to dopamine). Learning less to learn better is possible, over time. This requires curiosity, patience and to invest regularly time and energy, for example 15 minutes per day (rather than 3 hours per week), like learning a new language and exploring the unknown.

Memory and attention can be strengthened

Memory and attention help us to learn. Memory works partly by associations. For example, if we hear a bark, we can think of a dog from our childhood, which we saw barking in the past (here hearing activates sight). Our memory is imbued with our senses - hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste. Mobilizing these senses allows us to record and activate memories. Some examples to experiment with to actively memorize what you learn:

Memory and senses, illustration of visual, auditory and tactile/kinesthetic memory.
Memory and senses, illustration of visual, auditory and tactile/kinesthetic memory.
  1. Visual memory - Print and annotate your course; make drawings or colored summaries to remember key ideas.
  2. Auditory memory - Learn with music or mnemonics.
  3. Tactile/kinesthetic memory - Use your hands, fingers, movements, or learn by dancing.

Fish memory

🐟 Our short-term memory helps us remember the name or birthday of someone we meet for the first time, or even a list of things to do for the day. It can be strengthened at any age, in a fun way, with games like Sudoku or Memory. However, it is limited in terms of stored information (cognitive limit of 7±2 concepts). Thus, it becomes difficult to remember a list of 10, 20, 30 names without resorting to techniques such as grouping in pairs (eg: 06 xx xx xx xx). Short-term memory is useful but only mobilizing it, for example by studying the day before exams, is not optimal.

Elephant memory

🐘 Our long-term memory allows us to really store our impressions, our memories, in the long term. We detail below three methods to strengthen it:

  • Hide / complete sentences. The idea is to hide an important word to remember in a sentence, or an entire sentence, and try to repeat (or rephrase) it from the context. We learn by mistake and by imitation.
  • The recall technique. The effectiveness of studying depends on the time elapsed between each reminder. Reviewing your lessons the same day and the next day for 30 minutes rather than 2 hours the following week is more effective.
  • Attentive listening and active participation. The idea is to read the course (or appendices, related documents) before the course, without necessarily understanding everything and preparing your questions. The classroom course then helps to clarify points of doubt and can help you to be more attentive or active.
Long-term memory can be trained, like a muscle.
Long-term memory can be trained, like a muscle.


Concentrating and rereading carefully requires energy and a day of learning can be tiring. It is therefore important to take breaks, set goals to motivate yourself (time limit, deadline before going to play) and sleep well to recharge yourself.

Choosing a quiet place to work, putting your phone on silent or airplane mode (or better, in another room) will help you to avoid being distracted and to be more effective in your learning. Here are some exercises that can help you concentrate if you are agitated:

  • Close your eyes and breathe deeply three times to come back to the present moment
  • Pay attention to your physical sensations to let go overwhelming thoughts
  • Put on your glasses or dress differently, change style.

Do we learn in our sleep?

Yes! You can try learning poems, vocabulary or proverbs before going to bed. It is also recommended not to spend time on screens one hour before going to bed for a better quality of sleep.

Do we learn better alone or with others?

We all have something to learn and teach others. Teaching is also one of the best ways to learn. Working as a team, learning and teaching, can be learned and will help you to become more tolerant. For example, you can help a friend with math while he or she helps you with French, or play different roles: an assessor asks questions, a candidate answers them, then reverse the roles.

To go further

Michel Deudon
Michel Deudon
Professor, animator, independent

My research interests include ecology, psychology and language learning.