Michael J. Friedlander et. al. took a look at a couple of decade’s worth of Neuroscience research and came up with a useful “Ten” points about the biological basis for learning that all students and teachers would do well to know. In this particular case they focused it around learning in medical schools, but this holds true for all disciplines, especially ones in which a great deal of material must be learned (or memorized).
We get good at what we do! The more we do something, the less energy it takes to do it as our neural pathways become more efficient at doing the work. This means that less energy is used, resulting in more rapid neural execution, which in turn allows the off-loading to lower-order pathways leaving higher-order pathways available for additional cognitive processing). There is also considerable evidence for the importance of spacing of repetitive review of material to allow for something called memory consolidation. This is where basically we make sense out of all the material.
Key Point: Long-term and easily accessed memories are created by learning a fact, then not thinking about it long enough to “forget” it, and then trying to recall it and, if needed, relearning it.
Reward and Reinforcement
The neural circuitry of the human brain engages in something called “temporal discounting” — that is, the calculation of the relative value of a choice to realize a minor reward in the immediate future versus a reward of a greater value in the more distant future. Medical students have mostly long-term rewards ahead of them.
The students who derive joy and satisfaction from the more immediate goals of understanding as they proceed through their medical education may have a greater chance of using the brain’s capacity to provide rewards on an ongoing basis, thus effectively facilitating their learning process. Learning that engages the student in smaller, more frequent rewards may be more successful than those that rely only on sparsely distributed and high-stakes opportunities for reward. This is increasingly seen in the efficacy of game based learning.
Key Point: Build multiple, frequent, small rewards into your study plan or better yet, actually enjoy the information you are studying. A handful of your favorite snacks, or taking time for a workout is likely to be as reinforcing as the promise of helping your fellow man and/or making six figure income.
Ever heard of “Mirror Neurons”? One of the major breakthroughs in the last decade was learning that your brain can and will learn by seeing someone else doing something or even imagining itself doing something. It is likely that doing it physically yourself is still more effective since it engages the motor neurons in a way that only seeing it or imagining it cannot do. But lets be clear, when athletes and artists visualize doing something perfectly, they are truly learning how to do it perfectly.
Key Point: After someone shows you how to do something, visualize yourself doing the procedure step by step a few times.
There is considerable neurobiological evidence that functional changes in neural circuitry that are associated with learning occur best when the learner is actively engaged (doing it rather than watching or hearing it). The neural activity during “engagement” is simply higher than when learning passively (lecture, slide show etc.) If there is one thing we are sure of it is that the more parts of your brain that are “lit up” the better your access to memory, the better you will be at making connections to that information when you need to.
Key Point: Go to a Problem Based Learning (PBL) class. Also, see one, do one, teach one.
Too much stress… BAD for learning; a moderate amount of stress… GOOD for learning. When the brain is placed in a moderately stressed state, the ease with which the neurons of the brain fire is increased. This is called synaptic potentiation improving memory (which as we all know is nothing more than a series of connected neurons).
Key Point: Create mildly stressful study situations, perhaps some minor competition in study groups, varying your study locations so you don’t become comfortable in one place, or creating little tests for yourself.
There is increasing evidence of the importance of rest/sleep for the consolidation of memories and the enhancement of their representations from working memory stages into long-term stable form. This research suggests that it is important to have appropriate downtime between intense problem-solving sessions or group venues where detailed quantitative reasoning skills are requested.
Key Point: Getting enough sleep and taking breaks will improve your learning performance.