Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Science to Boost Memory, Thinking and Learning

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Learning and the Brain Conference #LB40 focused on using brain science to boost memory, thinking and learning. Unlike many academic conferences which have academics presenting to other academics, this one placed experts in the field of learning in front of educators, administrators, counselors and others educational professionals. The goal of the conference was to provide educators from across the country with information and tools to help them enhance what they are already doing in their classrooms with the latest in brain science.

The following are three key messages that I heard repeatedly throughout the conference.

  1. Focus with no distractions (i.e. single tasking). Students today consider themselves expert multi-taskers but the science shows that learning is best accomplished in distraction free environments. According the Sandra Chapman, Director of the Center for Brain Health, “The brain is intricately wired to do one thing at a time.”
  2. Exercise is good for the brain. The brain needs down time help form new neural pathways and exercise provides that break. Also, a recent study shows how regular aerobic exercise helps boost the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps with verbal memory and learning.
  3. Sleep is crucial to learning. While we sleep, our brain consolidates memories from the day and insufficient sleep disrupts formation of long-term memories. New studies show that sleep also prepares the brain to learn and a lack of sleep impacts one’s ability to learn new material.

Check out the following selection of speaker write ups:

Learning & the brain: Sleeping, Learning and Lasting Memory

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

Sleeping, Learning and Lasting Memory, Matthew Walker

I have been hearing for years about the importance of sleep, but Matthew Walker convinced me that sleep is a crucial in our ability to learn and make lasting memories. According to a recent study, sleep impacts information processing in three key ways:

  1. Sleep after learning saves memories. One of the three steps to moving information into our long term memories is consolidation that happens during sleep. If you don’t sleep within the first twenty four hours of learning something you don’t consolidate those memories.
  2. Sleep after learning integrates and inspires creativity. You know the expression, “just sleep on it?” When you sleep it allows your brain to move into a more diffused rather than focused state allowing you to see problems from different angles or get unstuck on a problem. Turns out than in almost every language there’s an expression for “sleep on a problem” indicating the clear relationship between sleep and problem solving.
  3. Sleep before learning helps you to learn and make lasting memories. During sleep, we experience “sleep spindles” a process that takes memories from the hippocampus into the cortex or long term memory center. Without adequate sleep, the brain doesn’t have time to process what we’ve learned and impacts the hippocampus, the area of the brain that stores memories. Walker compares this process to computing with the hippocampus acting like a USB stick with a limited amount of memory space and the cortex like a large hard drive. Without sleep, the USB stick is never emptied and doesn’t have room for new memories and therefore gets in the way of learning the next day. The results are rather staggering. For students who pull an all nighter, they have a 40% deficit in the ability of the brain to make new memories.

Additionally, Walker commented on the impact of technology in bedrooms citing three implications.

  1. Technology creates more anxiety as kids wait to get get responses to texts or interact with social media
  2. Technology contributes to sleep procrastination. We all know how easy it is to write one more text, look at one more website, etc.
  3. Technology alters our biorhythms. The blue wavelength emitted by our devices prevents the release of melatonin which in turn impacts our ability to fall asleep.

Overall, I walked away with a deep appreciation of the importance sleep plays in our ability to learn and retain information and how sleep needs to be prioritized just as much as homework!

For more details, watch Matthew’s presentation below.

Learning & the Brain: How the Brain Best Remembers

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

How the Brain Best Learns and Remembers, Sandra Chapman, Director of the Center for Brain Health

Sandra Chapman argues that memories without ‘meaning’ quickly evaporates and offers seven strategies to help make memories and learning last:

  1. Start single tasking
  2. Limit information
  3. Detox distractions
  4. Think big
  5. Calibrate mental effort
  6. Innovate
  7. Motivate

Check out this Huffington Post article for more details.


Learning & the Brain: How the Body Knows its Mind

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

How the Body Knows its Mind, Sian Beilock author of How the Body Knows its Mind and Choke

Sian Beilock explores the relationship between body and mind and how what we think is intimately tied to our bodies and surroundings. She focuses on different ways in which physical movement can help with math. For example she explained how learning to play a musical instrument helps develops the corpus callosum, the area of the brain that helps both sides of the brain communicate with each other and also controls finger control and mathematical number sense. She also showed us how using one’s fingers to “move” numbers from one side of an equation to another helps students to better understand algebraic principles.

Beilock made a strong case for the impact surroundings have on our ability to focus. Counterintuitive to most teachers best practices, Beilock argues that over-decorated classrooms can be distracting to learning because the stimulus uses some of our brain’s resources that could otherwise be used to focus on the topic at hand.

Finally, Beilock shared a study that shows how writing just before a test can decrease anxiety and improve test results. She conducted a study accross and entire class of high school students in which the students were divided into a control and test group. The test group was given ten minutes before their final science exam to write down what they were feeling about the test. The control group was asked to think, but not write, about it. The students were then divided into high and low anxiety test takers based on self-reporting. Of the high anxiety test takers, those that did the ten minute free write, scored on average six points higher than the control group. And what they found when reading the journals was the much of what the students wrote about was initially their anxiety and then ultimately how it was “just a test” rather than something that was worthy of angst. The process of physically moving the anxiety out of the brain and onto the paper gave students the head space needed to perform on the test rather than unnecessarily worry. Now that’s cool stuff.

Learning & The Brain: Making it Stick

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Memory, Henry Roediger author of Make it Stick

I first heard Henry Roediger  speak on an American RadioWorks podcast. He argued that students today often study in a way that helps them remember just enough information to pass a test (i.e. cramming), but not in a way that really puts the information into our long term memories.

His solution: Spend as much time (or more) testing yourself as you do reviewing. He argues that the best way to learn something new is to practice getting that information out of your brain rather than focus only on getting it in. Students often spend their time highlighting and re-reading notes and class materials in an attempt to memorize the information. He argues that this leads to an “Illusion of Mastery” (a state in which the learner thinks they know the material because they have reviewed it multiple times), but in fact only discover once they practice it what they know or don’t know.

Rather, students need to spend more time testing themselves on the material so that they will more quickly understand what materials need further review and practice and the testing helps move the information from their short to long term memory. Testing techniques include using flashcards, writing out or talking out answers to essay questions, teaching others and working in study groups. In the ideal situation students test themselves in the way in which the teacher will assess them.

Roediger also points out that it’s best to space out study sessions over multiple days over a week rather than cramming it all in one night before. The brain has the capacity to remember information on a short term basis but without doing activities that practice getting it out that information will quickly disappear.

Teachers can support student learning by incorporating regular low stakes assessments in their pedagogy. This provides students retrieval practice of key concepts, lessens text anxiety due to increased frequency of assessments, and holds students accountable for material covered in class and at home. Regular assessments provide teachers insight into what students have or have not learned and increases student engagement because they know they will be responsible for knowing materials covered both in class and at home.


3 Tips for studying for finals

1. Start early

Most kids like to wait to the last minutes and cram everything in at the last moment. Current research shows that the best way to learn something is to review the material multiple times over the course of a week or two rather than all at once for many hours. So rather than planning one 3-hours study session for history, it’s more effective to set up three 1-hour sessions over the course of a week.

2. Mix it up

It’s good for the brain to review material and then practice it in random order so that you learn how to recognize the problem and pick the best solution. If you are using flashcards, mix up the order. If you are using study guides, review the information randomly rather than chronologically or the order of the guide. Also, it’s good to mix up subjects as well: rather than focusing for four hours on one topic, spend an hour each on four different topics.

3. Test yourself frequently

Rereading notes might help you familiarize yourself with material, but it doesn’t help you to retrieve that information from your brain when you need it on the test. The most effective way to learn material is to test yourself. You can do this by re-reading a section of your notes and then putting the material away and either summarizing what you reviewed outloud or writing it on a piece of paper. You can also ask friends or family to quiz you or ask you to explain what you are learning. Flashcards are also a great way to test yourself.

Another great way to learn is to apply the information you are learning to something you already know. This can be in the form of a metaphor or connecting something about the subject to something that is already familiar to you.

3a. Get Sleep (Should be #1)

Sleep is when the brain processes and prunes the information needed for the next day’s exam. It’s a necessary part of the learning process.

Teenagers need between 8-9 hours of sleep and while they are biologically drawn to going to bed after 11, during and before finals it’s key to make sure that they are getting to bed earlier than normal.

Want to learn more about what helps people learn?

Listen to this 13-minute podcast interview of Peter Brown, author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Listen to this 60-minute podcast on the “Science of Smart” to learn more about how the benefits of bilingual education, how tests are powerful learns for learning and how variation is the key to deeper learning.

Learning how to learn

I’m about to start Coursera’s “Learning How to Learn“4-week course. Already I’m excited. The introductory reading featured an excerpt from Barbara Oakley‘s A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) on the Top 10 Rules of Good (and Bad) Studying. As a seasoned educator, Barbara is spot on with her recommendations.

Here are the top 3 and if you want to see the rest check it out here.

1. Use recall. After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. An ability to recall—to generate the ideas from inside yourself—is one of the key indicators of good learning.

2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend. [This aligns with American RadioWork’s recent podcast on the “Science of Smart.”]

3. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Pretend it’s a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind, so the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.


Set up a homework folder to keep track of daily assignments

For students who have trouble remembering what they have for homework and/or to turn in their completed work, I recommend a very simple tool: the homework folder. The homework folder is the single place a student uses to store what then need to complete (“TO DO”) and what they need to turn in (“TO TURN IN”).

Set up is easy. Buy a bright colored folder with two pockets*. Label one side “To Do” and the other “To turn in.” (I also including your child’s name on the folder in case it’s left somewhere.) Remind your child this folder goes with them to every class!

By putting all homework in one spot this helps minimize the number of places your student needs to look to find what they need to do and what they need to turn in.  The students I work with find this to be the simpliest and most effective tool for staying on top of their assignments and turning them in.

*Some students like to buy an accordian file so they can have one folder/subject.

Planner is “command center of a student’s life”

In case you missed it, there was a great article in the NYT focusing on back-to-school organization. 

My favorite excerpt:

The command center of a student’s academic life is the planbook. Kids need one place to record all their assignments, deadlines, appointments and checklists. Some schools provide customized planbooks, but if your child’s school does not, purchase one. Kids need to have everything in one location, and, I promise, this will save you from innumerable headaches a month from now. Besides, the act of writing assignments down can be a powerful memory enhancer, and most kids need all the help they can get in that department.

Providing students with the right tools to help them stay organized and help them manage their lives contributes to their long term success in high school and beyond. I just got an email from a customer whose son is starting at Caltech.  She wrote, “He couldn’t have made it [though high school] without your planner.”

The portable desk


I’m a huge fan of the what I’ve coined as the “portable desk.” Most kids don’t really like to work at a desk so having an easy way to bring the contents of a desk to any place in the house – the kitchen table, the sofa, the floor, etc – is key to making sure your kids have what they need to get their work done, no matter where they are working. And the best thing about a portable desk is that when your kids are done, they can load everything back in it and your kitchen table is cleared for breakfast the next morning.

Think of the portable desk as vehicle for transporting everything your kid needs get work done  – pens, pencils, erasers, ruler, tape, glue stick, post-its, highlighters, colored pencils or pens, a hole punch, stapler and extra binder and graph paper to and from a work space. I recommend the Snapware Snap ‘N Stack Portable Organizer, 14.1″x10.5″x3.7″ Rectangle found on Amazon or at Target. What I like about this particular container is that is has two different compartments. You can use the top for storing pens and supplies and the bottom for paper. And the handle makes it easy to move to and from one study space to another.