We’ve recently written about “Neuromyths in Education” (scroll down on our blog page here) because we believe in steering clear of pseudoscience and instead relying on neuroscience. As one might expect, neuroscience holds a lot of crucial information about how humans learn and so is very useful when thinking about education. Cognitive science research can be used to design more effective learning techniques that improve memory retention, information retrieval and deepen understanding. It can help students and teachers alike. We consulted our resident senior cognitive neuroscientist, Alice Little, and have brought her key insights here, ready to share.
So what can we take from the neuroscience of learning?
Learn a little bit of a topic everyday, rather than all at once
Half an hour a day over 4 days is more valuable than 4 hours in one day. This is called “spaced learning” and the time intervals allow the information to embed in your brain. Likewise, taking breaks from studying is crucial for optimising your memory.
Get enough sleep
On the subject of breaks: research has stressed that getting enough sleep is vital for memory retention and effective learning. 8 hours a night is the minimum – which is totally possible: go to bed by 11pm and wake up around 8am.
Alice says this: when you sleep, your brain consolidates everything it has learnt and done that day. This embeds the important information and makes connections with other experiences.
In other words, sleep is a crucial component of long-term memory. Hours of revision can be easily lost if you aren’t getting enough sleep.
Flashcards, practice tests and mini-quizzes – any way to test yourself will be helpful for when you are sitting in an exam without any of your notes. This is known as “retrieval practice” and can be frustrating at first. If it feels like you’re forgetting a lot of information – don’t despair! The process of actively remembering helps with your retrieval skills, which will help in an exam situation when you don’t have any of your notes.
Studying one subject for a prolonged period of time is not just boring, it’s also not as efficient for learning. Try “interleaving”: switching up your study routine and learning different subjects one after the other in shorter chunks. Here’s an example:
This technique helps to keep your mind engaged and encourages that effortful remembering that really entrenches information into your brain. It also helps you form mental links between different subjects – and maybe you’ll come up with a revision technique or an essay argument you would not have thought of before!
Develop a “growth mindset”
Studies have shown that teaching and cognitive abilities are not the only factors in intelligence, learning and academic performance – your mindset matters too. We have discussed growth mindset in more detail here (scroll down), but in short, the more you understand and believe that you have the capacity to improve, the more you do achieve. In this case, you can’t fake it ‘til you make it – you have to genuinely believe in yourself if you want to improve.
Developing a growth mindset is certainly achievable. Just saying to yourself “I can do this, and I will do this” can help your self-confidence. It becomes a positive cycle of believing you can do something, which helps you actually do it, which helps you believe you can do something else in the future. Plus, science is on your side here and we know you definitely can do it!
Use concrete examples
These are particularly useful for when you don’t quite understand a concept. Collect examples that your teacher has given, or find them online, and make connections between the abstract theory and the concrete example in front of you. These connections will be unique to you – they will be how you understand something. Practice saying these out loud or writing them down, so you have a chance to really test your new knowledge.
We are just scraping the surface of what neuroscience has to offer learning and education, but we hope that you have found these techniques helpful!
Benjamin & Tullis, 2010. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), pp.228–247.
Karpicke, J.D., Butler, A.C. & Roediger Iii, H.L., 2009. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), pp.471–479.
Roediger III, Putnam & Smith, 2011. Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55, pp.1–36.
Trzesniewski, K.H., 2007. Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1), pp.246–263.