How We Learn: Brain Research and Classroom Practice Part I

Alex MacPhail | 11.26.2013

Teachers don’t need a deep understanding of neuroscience to take advantage of brain-based learning, but a few key ideas about how the brain receives, stores, and retrieves knowledge can a huge difference in student learning.

In this two-part post, we’ll discuss five areas of brain research that teachers should consider: the senses, memory, prior learning, emotion, and pattern recognition. Each example includes both a summary of the neuroscience as well as tips for using that research in the classroom.

1. The brain receives information through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Because humans store sensory information and memories in different locations in the brain, and information is more efficiently and completely retrieved when it is stored in multiple locations in the brain. For example, a student’s ability to generate solutions is increased significantly when teachers use multisensory presentations to introduce a problem.

In the classroom: Use multisensory activities to structure learning about concepts or topics. If you primarily rely on one sense, students are less likely to remember information than if you engage multiple senses. For example, use images when discussing vocabulary terms or visual aids when explaining data. When studying rocks, letting students actually touch and handle rocks will be even more effective than pictures. The New Jersey Educational Association has published several useful examples of kinesthetic activities that will get your students moving.

2. Experiences are stored in three primary ways:

Short-term memory holds data for 30 seconds—about as long as it takes to remember a phone number as you dial it. Experiences free of meaningful sensory detail or emotion are stored in short-term memory.

Working memory, which lasts for 20–30 minutes, is used for temporary storage and processing. Adolescents can function with up to nine items in working memory, retaining these items for up to 20 minutes after the experience ends.  Working memory is the gatekeeper to learning: superficial experiences—those not connected to past or future experiences, or that only minimally engage the senses and emotions—are quickly erased.

Long-term memory stores important or consistently used information and knowledge. When we access information, neural pathways are created to retrieve it; and we access the same information over and over again, the number of neural pathways multiplies. If we don’t access information for a while, other pathways grow and expand, potentially limiting the ability of electrochemical impulses to reach the desired storage site. It’s like getting lost in a large city because of complex traffic patterns.

In the classroom: Introductions—to a unit, a lesson, or an activity—are essential. Compelling introductions deliver cognitive dividends because the memory of an event appears to be stored in the same neural locations initially recruited to perceive an event. Expeditionary Learning calls these introductory experiences “immersions,” the Buck Institute uses “entry events” to engage students in project-based learning, and the Teaching for Understanding framework calls for students to gain experiences “messing about.” While an effective introduction doesn’t mean that teachers need to put on an elaborate performance, it does mean that thoughtfully and strategically planning your students’ first encounter with a topic will pay off.

We will continue this discussion in our next post. Please share your experience, resources, and ideas about brain-based teaching too!

Featured image via A Health Blog.

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