The science of learning is essentially the study of how the brain absorbs and understands new information, and then stores it away for use whenever needed.

Why is this important?

Well, understanding the science behind learning equips anyone with a brain—that would be you and me (hi!)—with an instruction manual that says: "Here's how to feed your brain information in a way that will optimize its understanding and retention."

Armed with this understanding of how we learn, you'll have a much clearer path to constantly improve the efficiency with which you attack new learning challenges, bridge your knowledge gaps, and onboard (and retain) new information! It'll also make you a much better teacher, whether you're delivering a lecture to a study hall full of law students or showing your kid how to cut up carrots for the evening meal.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Good! In this article, I'll be sharing with you some of the most significant breakthroughs humans have made in the science of learning to give you tips on how to optimize your brain for learning while minimizing mental inertia and burnout!

8 Critical discoveries about the science of learning

Even after all of humankind's breakthroughs in the science of learning, we still don't have a deep and thorough read on this pink noodle of an organ. That said, we do have a much better understanding of how we learn, organize, remember, and retrieve information. So let's explore what we've discovered about how students learn so that you can engineer the most efficient and effective study program for yourself, your kids (if you're a parent), or your students (if you're an educator)...

More information doesn’t mean more learning: Breakthrough in understanding how we learn # 1

Processing information takes resources. That means that the brain has to do work to understand. This is the reason you can't simply cram more information into your noggin and expect there to be a corresponding linear increase in learning.

Cognitive scientists refer to the point at which a person's brain becomes overwhelmed by new information as "cognitive overload". Too much new information results in cognitive overload, and this ultimately reduces learning.

How can you reduce cognitive overload? Two ways:

  • The quantitative method: Provide less NEW information. You make sure that you or your students understand most of what they've learned before presenting new information.
  • The qualitative method: Change the way you present new information so that it is less overwhelming.

One way to automate the intentional, systematic delivery of information to your brain in a way that avoids cognitive overload is to use a flashcard app like Brainscape, which uses confidence-based spaced repetition.

How it works is as follows: every flashcard asks you to rate—on a scale of 1 to 5—how well you knew the concept it presented. If you knew it really well, you'd rate it a "5". If, however, you didn't know the answer at all, you'd rate it a "1" as you'll see in the following animation...

Brainscape how students rate flashcards gif
Students rate flashcards based on how well they know the information. Our algorithm ensures that they do not see too much new information before they've got a good grasp of the old information. This reduces cognitive load.

Depending on your rating, Brainscape's algorithm will repeat the concepts you struggled with more often, while saving you time reviewing the concepts you do know very well. Moreover, the algorithm will ensure that you don't see any new flashcards until there is a relatively low amount of "1"s in the cards you've already rated.

This ensures that you don't get too much new information before you've got a good grasp of the information you've already seen. This ensures that the cognitive load doesn't get too high and that you never get overwhelmed.

[Pssst! Here's another hack for improving your learning!]

Emotions influence the ability to learn: Breakthrough in how students learn # 2

Research demonstrates that our emotions affect most aspects of our lives, from how we perceive information and prioritize it to our ability to remember information and solve problems. This is especially true for children, who are less able to regulate their emotions.

And so, a significant breakthrough in the science of learning—and particularly how students learn—is that feeling anxious, stressed, ashamed, or fearful has a dramatic and deleterious effect on learning. These emotions activate the limbic system, which interferes with how memory is generated. This is why it's so important to develop trust with children and create safe learning environments: not only to help them feel more comfortable but also to help them learn better.

Mistakes are an essential part of learning: Breakthrough in the science behind learning # 3

No one aims for failure. It's something we generally want to avoid. But the science of learning has shown us that making mistakes is essential for learning. We don't all learn to ride a bike the very first time we get on it—we get better with practice. It's the same with any learning curve, whether it's academic or skills-based: making mistakes is essential to the learning process.

Moreover, the pressure to succeed may inhibit learning. Research finds that students learn and perform better when they are told that failure is a normal and expected part of learning. Naturally, feeling less pressure leads to bolder, more confident decision-making, which often leads to better performance. It also helps us absorb the lessons in failure rather than allowing shame to take center stage.

(Just check out this list of famous people who failed many times before they succeeded).

The brain needs novelty: Breakthrough in the science of learning # 4

Another huge breakthrough in the science behind learning is that boredom kills your attention and willpower to learn. Okay, that might sound obvious but boredom is kinda unavoidable when you consider the amount of repetition and deep-diving of the more technical aspects it takes to master any subject.

(In college, I was deeply fascinated by severe weather phenomena but even I had to learn a ton of boring physics and maths to be able to understand the mechanics of how hurricanes are formed over the world's equatorial regions.)

According to the science of learning, the brain craves novelty. Novelty—being exposed to new ideas and things—releases dopamine, which is a neurochemical that's part of the pleasure center of our brains. We find it intensely rewarding. Dopamine plays a huge role in motivation for learning.

The key point here is not that you should prioritize novelty in your approach to learning—practice, and repetition will always be necessary in the pursuit of mastery—but finding ways to perform that practice in new ways could improve your learning outcomes!

The takeaway here is to present information to yourself or your students in interesting, novel ways. For example, many teachers reinforce their lectures with Brainscape's digital flashcards, which is a novel way to present the same information.

Learning styles do not matter as much as we thought: Breakthrough in understanding how we learn # 5

For decades, we've held onto the idea that—like horoscopes—everyone has a different learning style: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. But, again, like horoscopes, this belief doesn't align with the actual science of learning. The brain, with few exceptions, is designed to learn optimally the same way.

What differs from person to person are our preferences for learning. Some people prefer reading over listening to lectures, some prefer watching videos to listening, and others prefer working with their hands to all of the above. But across the board, there's little evidence that any of these preferences lead to better learning. Learning styles just may not work.

That doesn't mean that all learning activities are created equally. A lot of research finds that some techniques are more effective than others.

For example, using active recall, where you reach back into your brain to search for an answer, is much more effective than re-reading, highlighting, concept mapping, or recognition of the right answer in later recall. Similarly, spacing learning out is better for recall than cramming it all in at once. (But you probably already knew that, right?)

This is precisely why Brainscape is designed the way it is. It uses active recall together with spaced repetition to maximize learning.

The science behind Brainscape
Brainscape is designed on the science of how students learn to be the most effective study tool out there.

The takeaway here is that the way we teach matters, but don't worry too much about learning styles. Instead, build active recall into your learning and space it out over time. (Read about the different spaced repetition systems and which one would be best for you!)

Brains operate on the “use it or lose it” principle: Breakthrough in how students learn # 6

As we learn, the brain is constantly building and re-building neural pathways. The pathways that are used the most get stronger, while those that aren't fade away.

This is the reason your French gets rusty when you don't use it, or why it'll take you a while to work out an algebra problem if you haven't done one in a while. With the brain, that old saying is true: if you don't use it, you lose it.

What this highlights is the importance of spaced repetition...

The science behind Brainscape
The best way to defeat forgetting and actually remember what you learn is by spacing out the learning so that you see it again just before you would have forgotten it.

One of the most important breakthroughs in the science of learning is spaced repetition, which involves spreading out your learning so that you repeat a concept right at the point you otherwise would have forgotten it. This cognitive science learning strategy is proven to be the most powerful and efficient way to learn and remember information, which is why it's so integral to Brainscape's study algorithm.

Learning is social: Breakthrough in the science behind learning # 7

Some students do indeed prefer to study alone in a quiet corner of the library. However, the majority of people learn much better when it's done through social interaction.

Collaborating with peers generally leads to much better learning outcomes. This is reflected in brain imaging studies as well: when information is presented by other people in a multi-sensory way, neuroimages show several neural networks functioning together at the same time. Other research finds that we learn information very effectively through social cues like recalling the words of others or emulating their actions.

The takeaway message here is to create opportunities for collaboration. This includes group work or peer teaching strategies. It can even be getting your class to work together to create flashcards.

Learning happens best through teaching: Breakthrough in the science of learning # 8

If you're a teacher, you'll be familiar with this: you never understand something as well as after having taught it. The science supports it: teaching others is one of the most effective study methods.

In fact, it has a name: the Feynman Technique. This technique suggests that the most powerful way to deeply learn new information is to write or speak about that subject in simple terms, as though you're teaching it to a sixth-grader. Trying to explain a subject simply, yet eloquently, consolidates what you already know, while identifying any gaps you might have in your knowledge.

The take-away: create opportunities for peer-teaching because explaining something reinforces knowledge. Get your students to teach new information to each other. Or even to their pet dog or potted plant.

A final word on understanding how students learn

Understanding how we learn is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your learning—or that of your students—is efficient and effective. It can keep you focused on what activities will really enhance learning, and what activities may not have much benefit at all.

Because it's built on principles of learning, Brainscape is a particularly effective tool for learning. Don't hesitate to contact us if you're interested in learning more about bringing Brainscape to your school. And be sure to check out our complete guide on how teachers can help students study more efficiently.


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