Category Archives: Learning and the Brain

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.