Neuroscience Helps to Explain How Students Learn
April 6th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Many students believe that learning has occurred because they completed an activity, such as reading, and by acquiring information they have been able to learn something. When it’s time for a test, or when called upon during class discussions, they hope to remember the information. Frustration sets in when they are unable to recall what was read, no matter how many times they’ve conducted a review of the text or assigned materials. The field of neuroscience provides an explanation of how the brain functions and this knowledge can help students develop a more effective method of processing information and being engaged in the process of learning.
Neuroscience and Learning
As an educator I’m always interested in discovering more about students’ perspectives and the manner in which learning occurs. The goal is to increase my instructional effectiveness so that I can better assist students as they participate in the knowledge acquisition process. Many educators emphasize the need for students to demonstrate that learning has occurred. This includes the use of critical thinking skills or higher order cognitive processing; however, what are the mental processes that actually occur while students are actively learning? What makes critical thinking possible?
Neuroscience is defined as the “study of the development, structure and function of the nervous system, with a special focus on the brain and its role in behavior and cognitive functions.” To give you an idea of the complexity and immense capacity of the brain, “there are 100 billion neurons in the average brain – the same number of stars in the known universe, so we each contain a mini-universe of communicating neurons in our heads.” The neurons communicate with each other, forming a network that is responsible for transporting information.
The field of neuroscience also provides insight that better explains theories about adult learning. Within the research report Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning, the following statement sums up the relationship of education and neuroscience: “education is about enhancing learning, and neuroscience is about understanding the mental processes involved in learning.” In What Neuroscience Tells Us About Deepening Learning a connection between the vast neural network of the brain is made with the learning process:
• “Teachers are brain-changers – our daily work physically alters students’ neural networks. The more frequently a student’s brain retrieves and connects information, the better the chance that the student will recall it quickly and accurately.
• Information has a much better chance at being recalled more quickly when it has been retrieved repeatedly and connected to as many other pieces of information as possible.”
This reminds educators that learning is not a one-time event where knowledge is dispensed to students or acquired by reading a textbook. The process of learning is interactive in nature and true learning (where knowledge is stored in long-term memory) is a result of working with and processing information received.
How Students Can Utilize Neuroscience
1. Be engaged in the process of learning
William D. Waidelich, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Association for Middle Level Education, has used neuroscience to inform teaching practices for middle grades students. The strategies he’s used can also be applied to higher education. Waidelich believes that “students who are engaged in their own learning are productive, motivated, and successful,” and “when students are talking, they’re thinking.” This indicates that students need to be active rather than passive learners if learning is to occur.
Dr. Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed, a board-certified neurologist and teacher in Santa Barbara, California, also confirms that “engaging in the process of learning actually increases one’s capacity to learn.” Willis describes the difference between short-term and long-term memory:
• “Working memory, or short-term memory, involves the ability to hold and manipulate information for use in the immediate future. Information is held in working memory for only about 20 minutes.
• The challenge students face is to move information from their working memories into their long-term memories. If they don’t do this in about 20 minutes, that information can be lost.”
Willis uses the analogy of driving directions to illustrate this point. She wants you to “think about the last time someone gave you driving directions that seemed so clear when you heard them, but were lost to you once you made the second right turn.” The reason this can occur is that the information was stored in short-term or working memory. In order for any information received to be retained in long-term memory it must “enter the network of the brain’s wiring” or be processed in a way that you will remember it.
What can students do to be engaged in the process of learning so that information is stored in long-term memory? The answer is to find interactive methods of working with the textbook or other required course materials. Instead of just reading the information, use a note-taking method or reading strategy such as SQ3R that requires you to think about and process what you’ve read. You can also create flash cards to create another form of visual reminder and interpretation of the information.
2. Help Your Brain Make Connections
In The Science of Learning: Best Approaches for Your Brain, it was noted that “when we learn new things we’re simply growing new neural networks. Since these don’t just grow out of thin air we need to attach them to existing ideas. It’s easier to easier to relate abstract ideas to concrete experiences.” And in Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning, instructors were reminded that “students should be given the opportunity to reflect on their experience, draw connections to key concepts, and share their conclusions with others.” This refers to performing more than a cursory review. By making connections students may be able to comprehend the meaning of what was read.
There are two techniques students can utilize to develop connections, a journal and a mind map. A journal allows you to record thoughts and a mind map allows you to take notes, thoughts, and ideas – and make visual connections between topics, subjects, and themes. A mind map can be created in a Word document or there are many free online resources, such as MindMeister.
3. Monitor Your Working Environment
In the research report Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning, it was noted that “circumstances outside of the classroom can have significant influences on the emotional climate. For example, problems with a student’s home life can create an added emotional burden for the student and become a barrier to relaxed alertness.” Negative emotions can adversely impact your ability to be engaged with the information being processed if it becomes a distraction to the thought process.
The research and findings from the field of neuroscience will not revolutionize higher education; however, it does confirm the importance of engaging students in the learning process. Instructors need to help students find methods of working interactively with the course materials and students should consider techniques they can use to make the learning process meaningful. The goal is acquire long-term knowledge that will provide future value for students’ academic growth and development.
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