Neuroscience Based Learning Strategies

Neuroscience-Based Learning Strategies for Teachers and Students

The above-titles article was published in December, 2018 in STEM Magazine, authored by Betsy Hill, president of BrainWare Learning Company.

Have you ever heard a teacher say …

We covered all of the material but they just cant remember it when it comes time for the test.

They all passed the test, but now its like theyve never seen the material.

Theres 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 the strategies to be more successful, whether it is school-related or not.

We can think about learning as comprising three stages of brain functions:

  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

What is happening at each of the stages of learning and what does neuroscience and educational research tell us about how to enhance each of them?

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.

It starts with attention.  The fact of the matter is that our students’ brains are always paying attention to something, but it is not always what their teachers 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).

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.

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 work of 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 memory requires more elaborative practice (journaling, simulations and role plays, experiments, etc.).
  • Combine the two previous points to realize that the world doesn’t let us recall information in a vacuum, or in exactly the form in which we learned it. In fact, the real world doesn’t even warn us that it is asking us to retrieve certain information.  What the world does is give us problems.  We don’t know what specific information is needed for any instance of problem solving.  So the more we work with information and apply it in a variety of circumstances, the more likely it is that our brains will retrieve what we need WHEN we need it.
  • 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.

Retrieval

If you can’t remember (retrieve) some piece of 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.

One of the main things that can make retrieval easier is to make learning harder. That may seem like 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. There is strong evidence of what makes for easier retrieval.  And 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!”

Neuroscience does indeed tell us a lot about how to make learning sticky.

 

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