Neuroscience Based Learning Strategies

Neuroscience-Based Learning Strategies for Teachers and Students

by Betsy Hill, originally published in STEM Magazine, on the value of brain-based learning strategies

“We covered all of the material but they just can’t remember it when it comes time for the test.”

“They all passed the test, but now it’s like they’ve never seen the material.”

Learning – which we often think of as the ability to recall and apply information on a test and as the basis for future learning – is supposed to be happening at school, but often it just doesn’t seem to be happening the way anyone wants, students or teachers.

There’s a lot we can learn from neuroscience about the learning process and how to get learning to stick. Teachers need to understand some basics of neuroscience so that they can help students learn better.  Students also need to learn about their brains so that they will be able to utilize strategies to be more successful, whether it is school-related or not.

First of all, what is learning?  Students are supposed to be learning in school, but it is likely that few of them can tell you what learning is.  And their teachers may not do much better.  When I ask teachers what learning is, I get a variety of answers, often to do with acquiring knowledge and skills, or applying new knowledge, or recalling information. None of those is wrong really, but it skips over what they really need to know.

Learning is a biological activity.

Learning is the process of creating and strengthening connections among neurons in our brains.  Neurons are the cells that communicate with electrical and chemical signals at junctions called synapses.  And it is the connections among these cells, formed into maps or networks, that give rise to all human behavior.   When we have an experience, groups of neurons (networks) are activated (talk to each other).  The more often those networks are activated together, the more likely they are to activate together the next time – a phenomenon the neuroscientists call “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Remembering or recalling involves reactivating the networks of neurons that were activated in the earlier learning process. It is not like pulling information out of a vault or a file cabinet.  There is no single storage place for memory in the brain. Memory is all over the brain in the places that experienced the learning previously.

Given that learning is about connecting neurons, and strengthening the connections among them, then what both students and teachers need to understand is what helps that process work most effectively.

We can think about learning as three stages:

  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

What we will do in this article is discuss, at a fairly basic level, what is happening at each of the stages of learning and what neuroscience and educational research tell us about how to enhance each of those stages.

Encoding

When we take information in through our senses, it is represented by a pattern of activation of a network of neurons.  That pattern of activation is like the code by which that information can later be retrieved.  The information is then stored, by connecting it with other networks that represent prior knowledge and abilities, and through consolidation and strengthening of those networks.  When it comes time to retrieve the information, a cue triggers the reactivation of the networks so that we can experience it again and remember it.

In order for information to be encoded in memory, it needs first to get through the processes our brains use to decide what to pay attention to,  Most of the information we are exposed to does not actually get to the stage that we are conscious of seeing, hearing or feeling it.  Our brains filter out most of the information and let through the specific information our brains decide is important enough.  If something seems important, particularly if it is threatening, our neurons will send strong signals to each other.  If not, the information will simply be discarded or the signals will be weaker.  We ramp up and down the power of the signals based on how relevant and important the information seems.  So, whatever increases the signal will help with encoding.  Three important factors that can amplify the signal are attention, meaning and multiple modalities.

  1. Attention: When teachers say, “Pay attention,” students may or may focus on what the teacher wants. The fact of the matter is that our brains are always paying attention to something, but it is not always what the teacher would like for them to be attending to.  And even when students are paying attention to the teacher, they may not be focused on the specific information the teacher deems important.  So, for example, students may be focused on the rhyming scheme of a poem when the teacher means for them to focus on meaning or vice versa.  Being mindful of which signal we are trying to ramp up is important because what we think the signal is may not necessarily be what the students think it is.  We can ramp up the signal by saying, “This is important and rhyming patterns will be on the test,” or we can do it by making it intrinsically interesting (like turning the poem into a rap).
  1. Meaning: When it comes to meaning, we need to make sure our students have prior knowledge to connect the new knowledge to and see its relevance. I too frequently encounter teachers who can’t explain to students why they need to learn some aspect of the curriculum. If the teacher doesn’t know, in most cases the students will be equally clueless. Teachers are told to make subject matter relevant so that students will be motivated to learn it. But on the biological level, if that newly formed network of neurons has no other networks to attach to, it is like being on an island with no one to talk to.  It can’t stick if it doesn’t have something to stick to. 
  1. Multiple Modalities: The notion of learning styles and the concept that some learners are visual and some are verbal is erroneous. The evidence strongly supports the use of multiple modalities. If the only signal is auditory, the brain will activate parts of the auditory system.  If it is only visual, the activation will be in the visual system.  If the learning process engages multiple modalities, the experience is represented in different parts of the brain.  When the brain is called upon to retrieve that information later, it will have multiple pathways by which to activate that network.

Storage

When our brain store information, signals from different parts of the brain converge on the hippocampus, so named from the Greek because it resembles a seahorse.  The hippocampus orchestrates the processing of those signals and their reactivation, at least until the memory becomes so strong that it is independent of the hippocampus’s mediation.  Thus, when it comes to storage of information, whatever supports the hippocampus is likely to result in more stable storage,

Here, teachers and students want to keep in mind the following:

  • There is an old Russian proverb that says, “Repetition is the mother of learning.” (повторение мать учения – it rhymes in Russian.)  The analogous dictum in English is “Practice makes perfect.”  To be precise, from the brain’s point of view, practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.  When we practice something over and over again, it reactivates the neural networks involved in the original learning and strengthens those neural connections.
  • It is also important that repetition vary the conditions of the rehearsal of information within a range. As a simple example, kids who practice basketball free throws from a distance of 6 feet and 8 feet perform better than kids who practice only at 7 feet (the actual free-throw distance for the age group).
  • Remember too that repetition does not always mean rote repetition. The kind of “repetition” or practice that will help store the information most securely in memory depends on the type of memory involved.  We now know that there is a difference between procedural memory (which includes tasks like typing, playing the piano, tying your shoes and riding a bike) and declarative memory (which includes tasks like remembering the events of the Civil War, or explaining the steps of the Scientific Method). Building procedural memory requires more rote practice; building declarative requires more elaborative practice (journaling, simulations and role plays, experiments, etc.).
  • Sleep, exercise and time are also critical for information to be stored in the brain. Our brains actually consolidate memory while we sleep (and you thought it was just taking a vacation).  When your students fully understand this principle, they will never again pull an “all-nighter” preparing for a test.
  • Don’t teach too many things at one time. There is a phenomenon called “interference” which simply means that when our brains are first learning something and haven’t yet had a chance to store it securely, new incoming information can actually interfere with that storage process.

Retrieval

If you can’t remember (retrieve) the information, you can’t truly be said to have learned it.  There are so many things we learn for “a moment” – the test, the performance, the science fair.  Have you ever heard a student run into class the day of the test and say, “Don’t talk to me. I just want to take the test while it is fresh in my mind.”  Fresh in one’s mind and deeply learned are two entirely different things, as far as our brain are concerned.

Things that will make retrieval easier:

  1. Make learning and retrieval harder. Yes, that is an oxymoron.  But what we know is that effortful retrieval of information reinforces those precious neural connections and later makes it easier to retrieve the information.  This has very practical implications for teachers and students.  Reading over your notes leverages short-term memory.  Quizzing yourself with flash cards or something similar is FAR more effective.  It is also important to test yourself on what you don’t know rather than what you know well. And embrace those weekly low-stakes quizzes (rename them “retrieval practice!”) as opportunities to strengthen those neural connections through effortful retrieval.
  2. Make it harder. Again! Start your presentation with “when we finish the presentation I’m going to ask what are the three most important things that you’ve learned – that are the most important for you.”  Don’t forget to ask them at the end!
  3. Spread the practice out over time. Once is not enough. Exposure to information and retrieval practice needs to be repeated over time.  The most effective is if you wait for some forgetting to occur.  Then the learner can see what gaps there are in the knowledge that has survived and focus on that.
  4. Practice interleaving. Imagine that you have just picked up (maybe hefted is a better word) a big book of maps.  Between the pages of the book are sheets of tracing paper so that you can trace a map and take it with you.  Those sheets between the pages are interleaved.  Now imagine how that would apply to learning.  If we mix up related but different topics, it will help encourage more flexible thinking with a variety of ways to activate the information and stronger interconnected networks.

As Dr. Melina Uncapher from the University of California San Francisco recently told a group of educators and other brain enthusiasts, “Make learning harder to make retrieval easier!”

Whether you are a teacher or a student, understanding what ramps up the signal that gets new information encoded in our brains, knowing how to ensure that the information is stored and consolidated over time (and with sleep), and using the strategies will make it easier to retrieve that information when and how you want it, can dramatically change how well learning happens in school.

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