What does “brain science” actually tell us about learning?

Human head with wheelBy Laura Sumner Coon — You can barely escape the lingo these days in education.

It usually begins, “Brain science tells us ….” followed by some prescription for education linked with what scientists are discovering about how we think and learn. The phenomenon is frankly …  mind-boggling.

How do we know what is credible and has value in our roles as educators or future teachers?

A team of three people – two cognitive psychologists and a storyteller – have collaborated to write a book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, that attempts to set us straight. They reviewed, and in some cases conducted, empirical scientific research undertaken in the last 40 years that can boldly claim how we learn. The work, co-authored by Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel and Peter Brown, was published in 2014 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. And although reading just one more book in this season of finals may make your head spin, I guarantee you it would be well worth your while – grade-changing, even.

Learning, they argue, is vastly misunderstood, and we approach it all wrong. Learning, they say, is all about “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.”

With that in mind, they are pretty emphatic about a few things. Learning requires memory. This may be a challenge for those who think rereading notes and books under the flicker of the midnight oil and studying blocks of subject material to cram for an exam is learning. That kind of “learning” is misguided and very temporary.

Rather, these scientific folks say that forcing yourself to retrieve material presented to you by memory and making certain you have made some cognitive connection of this new material with previously learned information is real learning that stays with you, like the ABC’s or the i-before-e grammar rule.

If you want to uncover some sound cognitive tips for learning as a student or for teaching students, this book is a precious resource. While I’ll let you discover its full benefits, let me leave you with a few tips from the authors that may improve your performance on this semester’s finals.

  1. First, know that this kind of real learning is difficult and takes more time, but that you certainly have the ability to master this kind of learning.
  2. Practice recalling the things you have learned from memory first. Quiz yourself. Use flashcards. Make yourself write it out in an understandable paragraph. Then, check yourself for accuracy and repeat. But here’s the catch …
  3. Repeat this “memory retrieval” process after a little “forgetting” has set in. This forces us to nudge that new material into our long term memory. And…
  4. Don’t study just one subject or type of problem at a time. Try to clump related subjects together and interlace your study of them, making connections when you can. This kind of “interleaving” recall is much more difficult, but has much stronger staying power.
  5. “Elaborate” about what you’ve learned. Put it in your own words. Relate it to a story or something you already know in order to lace it up in your memory.
  6. To do that, you have to be “reflective.” Take some time to mull over your new learned information and ask yourself – what went well, what could go better, of what does this remind you?
  7. Have some tricks up your sleeve that prompt your memory. These are called “mnemonic devices,” ways that assist you in remembering theories, facts, or new information. You might even try making up stories in a setting that helps you remember a process or sequence of facts. “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” is a mnemonic device just about every new music student committed to memory in order to learn the lined notes in the treble clef, for instance.

While theories may abound about the best learning strategies, the authors of Make It Stick have boiled learning down into an understanding way that offers readers an abundance of simple, accessible tactics to teaching and learning.

Pick up a copy of the book or try some of these simple strategies. I think they are bound to make a difference. Happy learning!

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