Introduction To The Neuroscience Of Learning
Flavia Belham
Chief Scientist @ Seneca Learning
October 05, 2018

Introduction To The Neuroscience Of Learning

How Do We Learn? It's All About Connections

The brain is the most complex organ in our body. And it can do incredible things. Ultimately, the brain is responsible for our thinking, learning and memory. If we want to understand the most effective ways to teach and learn, we need to begin by understanding the neuroscience of learning.

“The brain controls your ability to think, talk, feel, see, hear, remember things, walk and much more. It even controls your breathing.”

How learning happens in the bran is not entirely understood. However, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have a very good idea about how the main processes work. The main point is that our brains literally change when we learn something new. That is, our brain cells are physically and chemically changed. When we recall something we learned before, those changes are reactivated in the brain.

But our brain cells don’t act alone; they are connected to other brain cells by neuronal circuits. And this is why connections and associations are important to increase our understanding of topics. If our knowledge is isolated, we may be able to recall it, but won’t be able to use it to solve a problem. On the other hand, if we try to link new information to things we already know, remembering one of them will activate the other ones and will improve our ability to answer a complex question.

What is memory?

Before we continue to delve into brain cells and connections, it is important to talk about Memory. Memory can be defined as the process of taking in information from the outside world, storing it in our brain, and later recalling the information to answer a task, solve a problem, make a decision and other responses. There are three basic stages in memory processing.

This diagram from Queen's University illustrate the three stages of memory processing.

Seneca Learning -  three stages of memory processing


The first step involves the perception of things that happen around us. It is a selective process, as it is impossible for us to register everything that happens at all times. Some factors that facilitate encoding are emotional content, novelty, attention levels.


After an event is encoded, it may be consolidated. This happens via physical and chemical changes in our brain. These changes are called memory traces.


Retrieval is the actual act of remembering something. That is, bringing that information back to mind. We must access our stored information in order to respond to the world around us.


Every time we retrieve information, that memory trace becomes vulnerable and susceptible to further changes. This process can make memories weaker or stronger.

Types of memory

It is important to note that we have several types of memory. The distinction between working memory and long-term memory is fundamental to understand how cognitive sciences can be applied to teaching and learning.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory is our storage box. It can store unlimited information for an entire lifetime.

Working memory

Working memory is our processing unit, where we process and manipulate information to solve a problem. It has a very limited capacity.

We can think of working memory as a shoe box. It offers limited space and can break if you add too much to it. We can think of long-term memory as Mary Poppins’ bag. You can fit as much as you want there and still be able to walk (or fly!) around.

Seneca Learning -  working memory

Mastering Knowledge: What To Do To Get There

So now we have talked about working memory - where we process information - and long-term memory - where we store it. What about understanding? How can we go from processing content, memorising it to actually understanding it and being able to use it to solve new problems? A very nice model to understand this is the one created by Dr Efrat Furst.. In the model, she explains how we go from simply knowing we have seen something before to properly mastering that knowledge.

In the first stage, we can simply differentiate something old from something new. It’s like students could tell from a list of names, which ones they have already studied. That doesn’t mean they actually remember information about those historical characters - they simply recognise the name.

The next stage is to understand a piece of information, that is, to give meaning to it. In order to do that, pupils need to link the new knowledge to something they already master. For example, we can recognise a word in another language, but we only understand it, when we can relate its meaning to the word in your native language, which we already master.

But even when we understand the meaning of something, it still doesn’t guarantee we will remember it for a long time. To go from understanding to mastering, we need to use that knowledge - over and over again. Let’s go back to the example of learning a new language. If you ask someone fluent on a second language how they managed to learn it. They will probably tell you that they lived in that country, or knew someone to talk to, or some way in which they actually practiced over and over again. And if they were practising by listening to the same audio, the results would not be as effective as when they practised putting themselves in different situations and using the language in different contexts.

This is Dr Furst's model of how we learn by practicing until we master a knowledge:

Seneca Learning -  practicing until we master a knowledge

Cognitive load theory

Remember when we said working memory is like a limited shoebox? How relevant is this to teaching and learning? Well, a lot. Some even say it is the most important thing for teachers to know.

Cognitive load theory is about using techniques that optimise learning while respecting students’ working memory capacity. It has two main assumptions:

1. Our working memory has limited capacity. There is only so much new knowledge we can process at one point.
2. Our ability to use information already stored in memory is unlimited.

One aim of CLT is to manage working memory load. This term refers to how much of our Working Memory “shoebox” is being used at one moment. If the box is too empty, there is enough room to process information but there won’t be much to be learned. If the box is too full, there is a lot to be learned but we won’t have the necessary free space to do so.

Seneca Learning -  Cognitive load theory

Bridging academic research with classroom practice

Many researchers have tried to link findings from cognitive science to day-to-day classroom practice. Some famous teaching and learning strategies have little or no support in research, like learning styles. Two very influencial articles report strategies that do have a solid scientific basis. They are Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Dunlosky’s Strategies to boost learning.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

Prof Barak Rosenshine from the University of Illinois created 10 principles of instruction based on cognitive sciences, real experiences of successful teachers and academic research.

1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning
2. Present new material in small steps followed by student practice
3. Ask questions and check answers
4. Use models
5. Guide practice
6. Check for understanding
7. Obtain a high success rate
8. Provide scaffolds in difficult tasks
9. Stimulate and monitor independent practice
10. Conduct weekly and monthly review

Dunlosky’s Strategies to boost learning

Prof John Dunlosky from Kent State University thoroughly investigated 10 commonly used learning strategies and ranked them from the least to the most effective ones according to cognitive sciences. From the least to the most effective, they are:

10. Imagery for text
9. Keyword mnemonic
8. Summarisation
7. Highlighting
6. Rereading
5. Self-explanation
4. Elaborative interrogation
3. Interleaved practice
2. Distributed practice
1. Practice testing

The Learning Scientists’ 6 Effective Learning Strategies

The Learning Scientists are a group of researchers in the US and the UK that conduct experiments and liaise with schools to help teachers and pupils use the 6 most effective teaching and learning strategies. The icons were drawn by Oliver Caviglioli.

1. Spaced Practice

To use Spaced Practice, help your students plan early for their exams and important tasks. When reviewing content in class, make sure you review not only the previous lesson but older content as well. Objectively, there isn’t an optimal spacing interval. However, researchers agree that the “sweet spot” is when remembering the content is doable, but effortful, so information can be reconsolidated and strengthened.

2. Retrieval Practice

To use retrieval practice, you can ask students to put away their books and write down all they can remember about a topic. Then, they should check and complement their answers. It is important that accuracy is checked to avoid misconceptions. A very good and effective idea is to provide them with as many practice tests as possible. Students can also create their own questions and exchange them with colleagues. Frequent low-stake quizzes at the beginning of each lesson are highly recommended.

Seneca Learning - Retrieval Practice

3. Elaboration

This technique involves asking students to describe and explain the content in as many details as possible as well as linking it to other content and personal experiences. The advantage of using this technique is that they create multiple connections between the new piece of information and things they already know, making it easier for the relevant memory traces to be reactivated in the future. One straightforward way of using the technique of Elaboration is to tell students to pretend they are the teachers and try to explain the content to their colleagues.

Watch Dr Cal Newport explaining one way to use Elaboration in your studies: Dr Cal Newport explaining one way to use Elaboration in your studies

Another way to use Elaboration in the classroom is to ask a lot of How and Why questions. Why is this like this? How does this happen? What is the cause of this? What is the consequence of this? When did this happen?

4. Interleaving

Switching between topics and ideas is a way to use interleaving. Mixing up problems and questions that demand different solving strategies is also interleaving. Using interleaving when students are very new to a topic may not be effective as they may confuse the information. This strategy is best used when pupils are more advanced in their knowledge.

Seneca Learning - Interleaving

5. Concrete Examples

When teaching, use as many examples as possible, linking the content to each example. The connection between examples and concept should be made clear and detailed.

Seneca Learning - Using Examples

6. Dual Coding

Dual Coding is the strategy of using different media to teach and learn. For example, the use of diagrams, timelines, infographics, mindmaps, and colours helps students understand concepts and also remember them better. However, be careful not to use too many sources at the same time, as this may considerably increase pupils’ working memory load.

Seneca Learning - Dual Coding

Retrieval Practice

You can see that Rosenshine, Dunlosky and the Learning Scientists all recommend the use of frequent quizzes as a way to help students bring information to mind and create stronger memory traces. Every time you answer a question and actively bring something back to mind, you are reactivating the memory changes and making them stronger. This is complete opposition to reading notes or revision guides, as these are passive ways of studying, in which students are absorbing information from the book without actually thinking about it.

Here are some of the ways you can stimulate your students engage in Retrieval Practice. Give them past papers to answer Create frequent low-stake quizzes Ask them to draw mind maps indicating the connection between ideas Give them braindump tasks, in which they need to write down or sketch everything they can remember about a topic without checking notes Ask them to explain the content to others Stimulate the use flashcards

Research by Dr Megan Sumeracki shows that one way is not better than the others. Listen to her explanation here.

However, the more variety of questions you give to students, the stronger their memory traces will be. It is easier to understand this if you think about a maze where the center is the exam question and the exit is the correct answer to that question. If pupils spend their revision answering the same question over and over again, they will only have one path that leads to the exit. If they practice multiple choice answers, long answers, drawing, oral explanation, and others, it is like they create multiple paths that take to the exit of the maze. Ultimately, they will be more prepared for exams and further learning.

Your students may be frustrated at the beginning because retrieval practice will feel more difficult and less useful than using passive strategies. It is supposed to be like this! We learn better when learning is effortful. Being “stuck” and finally moving forward is a great way to learn something and never forget it.

Final Words

So there you go. Our brain learns through physical and chemical changes in the brain cells that connect to other brain cells. The more and stronger connections we have, the closer to mastering a knowledge we are. The best way to get there is by actively trying to recall information, answering varied questions, and solving problems. It is even better to space out practice and interleave subjects.

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