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Friday, 20 February 2015

How Do We Learn?

Written by Rebecca Forchuk, Director of Staff Development

I had the opportunity to attend Making Lasting Memories: Using Brain Science to Boost Memory, Thinking, and Learning (check out the "The Brain and Learning" link under Other Conferences) which consisted of several brain researchers sharing the latest brain science and its implications on student learning.  In his session,How Do We Learn, Dr. Arthur P. Shimamura shared his MARG acronym to remember the four basic principles of efficient learning.  Below you will find a synopsis of the brain science (as best as I understood it) as well as practical strategies to use in the classroom.
The Science: The prefrontal cortex looks for real life connections and is the brains reward/pleasure circuit.  It is the prefrontal cortex that sends messages to release dopamine, the feel good hormone.  The trouble is making learning, specifically book learning, pleasurable.  

The Classroom: Dr. Shimamura suggests teachers can stimulate the prefrontal cortex and instill intrinsic motivation by: 
  1. being enthusiastic and interested in the topics we teach
  2. being playful, entertain
  3. making connections with students real life experiences
  4. being as hands on as possible
Sorry to everyone out there who say they can check email and listen to a presentation at the same time.  According to brain research, multi-tasking is a myth!  Students self report that they are texting, Facebooking, and emailing during class; there is also a correlation between the amount of time spent texting and on Facebook to lower grades. 

The Science: Your attention allows you to select relevant information and filter out distractions.  And memory is a whole brain thing.  The prefrontal cortex is your CEO that oversees processing.  It tries to select the important information from the environment and can only focus on one thing at a time (if we want the CEO to send it into long term storage).   It then takes what is important and activates posterior areas of the brain.  So, your CEO simply cannot process reading an email while listening to a presenter at the same time.  Similarly, students cannot listen to you, check texts and remember both.  Another interesting fact for teachers to consider: after 30 minutes, people forget up to half of what we heard.

The Classroom: In order to help students attend to information, teachers can:
  1. Provide an overview of the lesson or the bigger picture. Use learning targets to help students attend to what is important and review them at the end of the lesson.
  2. Direct students to relevant information.  Explicitly tell them This is important!
  3. Make goals specific. Tell them what they are to learn/know.

The Science: The posterior areas of the brain take what is important and send signals to the Medial Temporal Lobe (aka hippocampus), which is critical for memory storage. It binds what we are paying attention to so we can retrieve it later on.  It makes memories stick.  So, efficient learning requires taking new learning and relating it to knowledge we already have. 

The Classroom: Teachers can make memories stick together by:
  1.  using analogies/metaphors
  2. organizing concepts by comparing and contrasting
  3. relating classroom concepts with real-world situations

The Science: According to Dr. Shimamura, the more parts of your brain that are activated and linked together, the better they bind together so information sticks.  The Generation Effect, which finds that we better remember when information is generated on our own rather than simply read, seems to activate more parts of the brain. 

The Classroom: To help students self-generate information, teachers can stop every 15 minutes in class and have students engage in generating what was learned by:
  1. having students say it in their own words by writing it down
  2. having students tell someone else
  3. having students think about how one concepts relates to another
One strategy, which can be used for any text reading, has been used for years, and supports the four basic principles of efficient learning is the SQ3R.  

Taken from: https://umanitoba.ca/student/academiclearning/media/Summary_of_SQ3R_Reading_Strategy_NEW.pdf