10 research-based insights on how the brain learns

What we believe about learning is sometimes totally opposite to how the brain actually learns. Here are 10 insights on how the brain learns. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

What we believe about learning is sometimes totally opposite to how the brain actually learns. Here are 10 insights on how the brain learns. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

I remember struggling with social studies classes in high school and college.

The content fascinated me. I loved hearing the stories of conflicts and resolutions. Wars and strategies. Politics and leverage. Power and influence.

Plus, I met my wife in a social studies class (Intro to Political Science) as a college freshman, and she’s now a social studies teacher. The subject is near and dear to my heart.

I just had no idea how to study for it. I took copious notes. I read and re-read those notes. Sometimes, when I didn’t feel like I grasped the content well enough for a test, I would cram for hours studying.

(OK, to be totally honest, that cramming didn’t just happen when I didn’t grasp the content. It happened when I had failed to study until the last second, too.)

It turns out that, according to cognitive science, much of that studying work had diminishing gains. I wasn’t getting back what I was investing in it.

(My grades showed it, too … my worst grade in college was in a different history course — History 101, of all things!)

make it stick coverThat’s the focus of “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown. He and cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel take tons of brain research and boil it down into concrete maxims about how we learn.

I’m still reading through the book, but I’ve already learned a lot from it. Some of the points are new to me (and counterintuitive). Others confirm what I’ve always thought or known about learning.

Here are 10 of my top take-away messages from the book. For more, I suggest checking it out yourself! (Text in bold is quoted directly from the book.)

1. Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. — For the longest time, I’ve thought that if I could find the easiest way to help my students make sense of content, that was best. Turns out that I’ve misunderstood that idea. A little wrestling with content is cognitively healthy. However, what’s not healthy, I’d say, is when teachers make learning unnecessarily hard on students for the sake of making it hard.

2. Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also the least productive. — I wish the college-aged me could have heard this one. It makes sense, too. They say that the more connections in the brain you can make to different experiences and prior knowledge, the stronger it sticks. Overkill with the same mode of learning isn’t providing that variety.

3. Rising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create an illusion of mastery. — This is what happens when you do too much of No. 2 above — thinking you understand something because you’ve almost memorized the reading you’ve been rereading over and over. Knowing the words in the textbook does not equal understanding the concepts it explains.

4. Retrieval practice — recalling facts or concepts or events from memory — is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. — The book quotes a research study where students learned more by reading a bit, putting the book down and reciting back what they had just read, and then continuing to read. That’s what you’ll be doing later in the class and in life (trying to retrieve that information), so it only makes sense to do it while studying.

5. When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions … retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning. — This is why the self-contained lesson, chapter or unit doesn’t produce long-term learning as well. When a topic is covered and then abandoned, when the recall doesn’t happen again and again, it isn’t stored as strongly. Therefore, reviewing can’t be given second-class citizen status if long-term memory is our goal.

6. Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt. — “But what if I let them try it and they mess it up? They’ll be creating bad habits.” Brain research proves otherwise. It makes sense to me — when I remember how I figured it out, that helps me remember the new content and gives me a new perspective on it.

7. If you practice elaboration — giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know — there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. — I think this is why I like sketchnoting (visual notetaking) so much. I can break down and organize new ideas in a way that makes sense in my brain … and then I have a custom-created visual aid to fall back on.

8. Every time you learn something new, you change the brain — the residue of your experiences is stored. — This debunks the myth that some people are smart and some people aren’t … kids and adults. The brain is constantly being remade. Even if we don’t get it now, we can get it in the future.

9. Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. — This makes me think of the SAMR model, a way of analyzing how much impact technology has on your teaching. It’s a great model, but it is very theoretical. I’ve worked with teachers in learning about the SAMR model, and the more I lean on the model and the theory, the more their eyes glaze over. When I connect it to actual practices in the classroom, it seems to make more sense.

10. Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it. — Students sometimes claim that they don’t need to learn facts because they can Google them any time. Teachers sometimes shy away from teaching facts because that kind of teaching can be considered low-level teaching. But based on this definition of mastery, having facts close at hand is still crucial for being ready to use them at a moment’s notice.

[reminder]How do these findings compare to your own experiences as a teacher and a learner?[/reminder]

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