Learning and the brain with Andrew Fuller

4 September 2019

Knowing how the human brain learns best is important for building well-being in our young people.

Last week, our Year 10 cohort had the privilege to listen to world-renown clinical psychologist and author, Andrew Fuller. Andrew has dedicated his professional life to learning about the brain, learning, and resilience. His knowledge and skills were clear as he engaged 220 students for over four hours through getting them to play, think, debate, concentrate and question.

Andrew Fuller

Following Andrew’s suggestion for consolidating information, here are the five main points I took away from this uplifting morning:

1. Know your unique self

To flourish in life, it is important you work out how your brain works. “What are you good at?”, “What do you enjoy?”, and “What do you find easy to focus on?”. Mr. Fuller stressed that building on your strengths goes a lot further in life than remedying weaknesses. In his words, success involves working out what you are good at and doing more of it. To emphasise this, students were introduced to their unique constellation of learning strengths as ways that their brains naturally function. You can find your learning strengths here.

Andrew Fuller presentation to students

2. Play with ideas

Mr. Fuller believes the basis for success is thinking differently. In an increasingly complex world, those who think deeply, flexibly and creatively will stand out. This point was illustrated when Andrew led students through a series of activities that encouraged them to play with ideas. Through this process, students were shown that for many problems there is no one correct answer. They were also encouraged to listen to perspectives other than their own, make mistakes and rearrange ideas and then connect them in original ways. Mr. Fuller clearly stated that asking questions is a sign of intelligence and is far more important than providing answers (Socrates would agree with this).

Andrew Fuller presentation to students

3. Keep the main thing, the main thing

Focus! As the world becomes more technological, the ability to fix our concentration on one thing and think deeply about it is a significant asset. Knowing and having clarity about what the ‘main thing’ is and staying focussed on it is a valuable skill in life.

Mr Fuller explained how our attention is a limited resource; our brains can concentrate in 20-minute bursts and then will start wandering. Interestingly, he noted it takes 23 minutes to refocus from a distraction. Students reflected on how social media has resulted in increased multitasking and task switching (which is cognitively exhausting). He emphasised that humans may be able to multi-task and multi-process, but it is impossible for us to be ‘multi-aware’. Students were encouraged to practice building their concentration by focusing on the things they enjoy and by cultivating activities where they experience ‘flow’.

Andrew Fuller student presentation

4. Create a system

Intentionality is key. Mr. Fuller believes creating a system and routine for how we manage our daily and weekly schedules is far more important than setting goals. It’s important for students to create the link between the means and the ends. When creating a weekly schedule, students need to ask some important questions. When do I think best?  When is the best time for me to do deep work? When will I schedule downtime?

Weekly planner

Eating well, sleeping for at least eight hours, managing technology and exercising regularly were highlighted as being important for our brain function. Mr. Fuller recognised that it is not possible to stick to a routine 100% of the time but suggested that if you miss once, don’t miss it twice.

5. Create visual notes

Leading up to the end of year exams, students were given some valuable advice as to how the brain memorises information. Students were encouraged to create visual notes. The keyword here is create. Students should not read notes – this is boring and ineffective. If you want to remember something you need to transform your notes and process them into handwriting, words, pictures, diagrams, lists or mnemonics.

One of the key ways we remember ideas in the long term is on the basis of its similarity to other pieces of information. The way we retrieve information is based on difference. For this reason, Mr. Fuller stressed that Venn diagrams are a particularly effective tool for consolidating information.

Venn Diagram

In order to remember key ideas, students were told they need to test themselves weekly and were introduced to the summary hand method, where they recall, in their own words, five key pieces of information that they need to test themselves on to remember an idea.

The learning pyramid was particularly interesting and illustrated to students the most effective ways of remembering and consolidating information. Least effective was listening and reading information and most effective was discussing, practicing and teaching others about information.

What did students have to say about Andrew’s Fuller's presentation?

  • The main thing I took away was that you cannot retain information when multi-tasking and also that the most effective way to retain information is by making it visual.

  • The information about not being able to multi-task but being able to multi-process made me contemplate how we think. It’s something I’d never thought of before. I personally loved the debates. Being able to speak my own opinion as well as listening to the other side of the story was incredibly interesting.

  • I loved how he engaged the audience. Something that I took away was doing weekly tests on the selected subject. 

  • I found the hand summary technique very useful as it has a summary, main points and a question on it. I learned that everything has to be visual or you won’t take anything away from it.

  • To create strong neural pathways, use Venn diagrams to further elucidate the similarities and differences of a concept, object or person.

  • I liked the idea of using your learning strengths to help your weaknesses.

  • It was interesting to learn about how my brain works.

  • Don’t multitask when studying and have a study timetable built around when your brain works best.

  • The visual diagrams he supplied us with are something I will definitely use in exams. What he showed us about the different ways we all see the world was also enriching and surprising.


Fuller, A. (2016) Unlocking Your Child's Genius: How to discover and encourage your child's natural talents. UK. Ebury Publishing. 

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