How to Learn - According to Your Brain

March 18, 2021
Exams & Revision


What does it mean to really learn something? Is it by how well you performed in your class test? Or maybe how well you can recall the facts?

The book Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn by Sanja Sharma (The Head of Learning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) goes into detail about how the science of how our brains learn does not match up with the teaching methods established within our current education system. 

In his book, Sharma points out that the traditional teaching methods that have been used for hundreds of years haven't changed with the developments in our understanding of how the brain works.

Firstly, and perhaps most controversially, Sharma points out that our default approach to teaching is based on a false impression of how our memories are formed.

The classic set up of one teacher reciting their knowledge to a class of 30 students is one of the most ineffective teaching methods according to how our brains process and retain information.

However, this current method is based on the principle that students simply have to absorb knowledge provided by the teacher. Teaching in this way ignores the key methods by which our brains form memories and consequently fails to take into account the most effective way to learn.

Forgetting is a natural part of the learning process

One of his most interesting points is that forgetting is a natural part of the learning process. 

Forgetting is a useful filtering mechanism your brain uses to remove the high-frequency noise of facts you don’t need. The reason we forget in the first place is because our brains are constantly flooded with (mostly) useless information. 

When we forget a piece of useful information and then are reminded about what we have forgotten, our brains form a type of reinforced neurological pathway. This means that our brains grasp hold of that piece of information with renewed strength, making it far harder to forget in the future.

Funnily enough, the best time to enact this reminder is when we are about to forget. Sharma suggests that we should listen to this fundamental neurological concept and incorporate frequent, test and recall sessions at varied times throughout the school year for more effective teaching. 

Furthermore, Sharma emphasises the importance of contextualising and interweaving information across various subjects. Learning information with an awareness of the time period, history, geography etc further prevents information loss and leads to advanced understanding. 


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How educators can help students learn in the best way possible

Have you noticed how you or your child tend to tune out after 10 minutes? This daydreaming or mind-wandering is a completely normal behavioural pattern of the brain. This can be avoided by repeatedly coming back to topics at intervals. 

Spacing out and reminding is essential to true learning. By spacing out the learning process over a number of days, our brains can better form strong neural pathways for the new information by forcing the mind to connect the dots. 

Another tactic that Sharma promotes is retrieval learning. Retrieval learning involves the student having to actually recall and write down and answer in their own words. This active process forces the student to recall facts and content. It is this active process of recalling information and applying it in practice that increases the student’s memory of that knowledge.

Curiosity is another key player when it comes to learning. You want to get your students curious about a topic even before you offer them a lecture or content to learn. This curiosity improves memory by tapping into the brain's reward system. Much like the connection between hunger hormones and eating, curiosity about a subject and going on to discovering the answer releases the brain's dopamine. It is this chemical in the brain that strengthens memories, making curiosity-driven learning extremely effective.

By introducing these teaching strategies into the classroom students face a far better chance of fully grasping concepts, leaving them better able to call upon the information in assessments, coursework, and exams. 

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Elise Pearce

As our Head of Content, Elise’s role involves everything from email campaigns to web content; if you spot a typo, you know who to blame. A lover of all things creative, she studied History of Art at St. Andrews enjoys running and painting in her spare time. At home, when she's not busy chasing after her two Labradoodles, Flossy and Rupert, you'll catch her doing handstands on her yoga mat.

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