Greater understanding of our brain’s functioning, abilities, and limitations allows us to constantly improve our teaching skills and the productivity of our Brainscape study sessions and working hours (and after-work hours, for that matter).
Now this article shares some of the most significant breakthroughs that recent research has made on the science of learning, providing valuable insights on how to make the best use of your brain without wasting energy.
8 critical discoveries about learning
The brain is perhaps the most mysterious of our organs. And for a long time, we've really misunderstood what it is and how it works.
We're still a really long way from understanding everything about it, but we've made a ton of really important breakthroughs in the past few decade. This is especially true for learning: we now have a much better understanding of how we learn, organize, remember, and retrieve information.
Let's explore what we know about how students learn so that you can design your students (or yourself) the most effective study program:
Processing information takes resources. That means that the brain has to do work to understand. This is the reason you can't simply present more information to your students and expect there to be a corresponding linear increase in learning.
Brain 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? There are two main ways.
- The quantitative method. Here, you simply provide less new information. You allow students to understand most of what they learn before presenting new information.
- The qualitative method. Here, you change the way you present it so that it is less overwhelming.
Brainscape's digital flashcards actually account for cognitive load in our algorithm. As users rate use the platform, they rate their confidence in how well they know the information on a flashcard. They rate it a "5" if they know the information really well, or as low as a "1" if they do not know the information at all.
Brainscape's algorithm ensures that the student does not see any new flashcards until there is a relatively low amount of "1"s in the cards they've already rated. This ensures that don't get too much new information before they've got a good grasp of the information they have already seen. It ensures that the cognitive load doesn't get too high and that they are not overwhelmed.
The take-away: do not present so much information that you overwhelm your students (or yourself!)
Learning is affected by a number of things. It's not just about how smart someone is, but also how they feel. Research demonstrates that our emotions affect everything from how we perceive information, how we pay attention to it, the way we remember it, and how we solve problems. This is especially true for children, who are less able to regulate their emotions.
The worst emotional states for learning are feeling anxious, stressed, ashamed, or fearful. These emotions activate the limbic system. Activation of the limbic system seems to interfere with how memory is generated. This is why we develop trust with children and create safe learning environments. It doesn't just make kids feel more comfortable, it also helps them learn better.
The take-away: help kids feel comfortable in your class and they'll learn better.
No one aims for failure. It's something we generally want to avoid. Certainly, as a teacher, you're hoping all of your students pass their exams. But the science of learning is showing us that making mistakes is actually 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 academic subjects: making mistakes is essential to the learning process.
Not only that, but the pressure to succeed may inhibit learning. Some research finds that students actually learn and perform better when they are told that failure is a normal and expected part of learning. Part of this may be that feeling less pressure leads to better performance. Another part may be that when we emphasize errors, students focus on those errors rather than focusing on what they should be learning.
The take-away: create an environment that emphasizes that, rather than being avoided, making mistakes is normal and expected. (And check out this list of famous people who failed a bunch before they succeeded).
Boredom may not actually kill your students, but it can kill their attention and willpower to learn. As teachers, we often repeat material because we know that "practice makes perfect" (or, as I am more fond of saying, "practice makes progress").
But it turns out that what the brain really craves is 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 rewarding. Dopamine turns out to play a huge role in motivation for learning. That's not to say we shouldn't get our students to practice the same things, but doing that practice in new ways can improve learning outcomes.
The take-away: present information to your students in interesting, novel ways. For example, many teachers reinforce their Biology lectures with Brainscape's digital flashcards for a novel way to present the same information.
You'll remember all that stuff about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning. You probably have even participated in an activity or test that was supposed to "diagnose" your learning style. This idea made sense to us: some people may learn better if they learn in different ways. We've held onto this idea for decades.
While it's true that we have preferences for learning (some people like reading more than listening), it turns out that there's little evidence for the idea that these preferences lead to better learning. Learning styles just may not work.
That doesn't mean that all learning activities are created equally. A ton of learning science finds that some techniques are much 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 knew that).
This is precisely why Brainscape is designed the way it is. It uses active recall together with spaced repetition to maximize learning.
The take-away: the way we teach matters, but don't worry too much about learning styles. Instead, build active recall into your teaching and space learning out over time.
This one is related to the brain shifting. It's constantly building and re-building neural pathways. Those pathways that are used the most often get stronger and more well-established. Those pathways that aren't used get built over.
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 does that mean for your teaching? It means having your students repeating the material before they forget it.
One of the most important concepts to come out of the science of learning is spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is the idea that you space out learning so that you repeat something just before you would have forgotten it. It's the best way to optimize learning and remembering. That's why our flashcards are built on a spaced-repetition algorithm.
The take-away: You need to repeat the information you want your students to remember (and Brainscape can help with that).
It's true that some students do prefer to sit closed off in a quiet corner of the library. But the majority of people actually learn much better when that learning is done through social interaction.
Collaborating with peers turns out to lead 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 a number of neural networks functioning together at the same time. Still other research finds that we learn information very effectively through social cues like recalling the words of others or emulating their actions.
The take-away: 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.
8. Learning happens best through teaching
If you're a teacher, you'll be familiar with this: you never understand something as well as after having taught it. There's actually some research for this: teaching others is one of the most effective study methods.
In fact, one very effective study technique, called the Feynman Technique, is designed on this principle. It suggests that to learn something new or study for an exam, students take their subject, and then write about it as if they were teaching someone else—even a child. Figuring out how to explain something complex using simple, non-jargon language, and briefly, consolidates the learning that's already there and identifies gaps in 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 a wall.
Understand how students learn
Understanding how students learn is one of the most important ways to ensure that their learning is 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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