Thoughts on learning …

At the Educators Connect Conference at USM in 2015, I was given a short book called The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek. The book is written for students and was a quick, easy read, even though it is grounded in substantial cognitive science research. I recommend it, especially to any student who wants to study smarter, not harder.  Below are a few points that really stood out to me. If you read the book, you’ll find others I’m sure.

  1. “…New learning requires a considerable amount of practice and a meaningful connection to other information in order to become a permanent paUnknownrt of memory” (p.13).  “Only when you practice, read, write, think, talk, collaborate, and reflect does your brain make permanent connections. Your teachers cannot do this for you” (p. 13).
    • I am shocked by the number of students who take 21 hours of coursework in a semester.  USM estimates that students should spend 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour spent in class. You do the math; there isn’t enough time in the day to really learn when students are stretched so thin. When you add work, long commutes, extracurriculars, and any semblance of a personal life, integrating new knowledge from class is challenging. The problem is that nobody can make someone learn. I can create an environment in which learning is likely, but a student can still choose not to learn. I hope my students will consider how much time they can realistically devote to their studies and plan accordingly. I also hope they will find peers with whom they can collaborate and problem solve.
  2. “Sleep is when the brain clears the hippocampus of unwanted information so that it is ready to learn new information the next day…  Sleep deprivation is harmful to learning and memory” (p. 31).
    • I have taught many students who come to class sleep deprived because they’ve stayed up all night studying for an exam or putting the finishing (or first?) touches on a project. They walk into class because attendance is required, but mentally they are like zombies. Students often talk about being sleep deprived with pride, as if they’ve won the competition for getting the least amount of sleep. I know sometimes sleep deprivation is inevitable, but we have to do a better job of spacing out our work. I tell my students all the time that they must make incremental progress on projects, in part because sleep deprivation is so detrimental to learning. I’m guilty too of waiting until the last minute (especially when it comes to grading), but as I’ve aged, I’ve begun to develop strategies for making incremental progress on larger projects.
  3. “Getting exercise is the best thing you can do to improve your learning… The neurochemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are released in greater amounts during exercise, improve your ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate. They also improve motivation, mood, and self-discipline” (p. 43).
    • When you feel better about yourself, you learn better. My wife tells me all the time how much better she feels after exercise. I’m not sure I have that same high, but I’m convinced that the absence of a healthy lifestyle is part of the reason learning is sometimes difficult. Students notoriously fill up on Doritos, Cokes, and other vending machine quick fixes, sometimes during class. I would challenge anyone to simply monitor what they eat and then track how they feel afterward. Without fail, I can hardly stay awake after eating Cane’s or Chickfila, both of which I love. When we combine a poor diet with the lack of exercise, it is easy to understand why paying attention in class or persisting when confronted with challenging tasks is difficult.
  4. “Don’t take classes back-to-back. Postexperience rest is important in creating memories for recent experiences” (p. 82).
    • I typically teach a Tuesday night classroom management class from 6:30 to 9:15 pm. I have students every semester in this class who literally take classes all day on Tuesday.  They start at 8:00 am and are in class or a music ensemble until my class at 6:30 pm. By that time, their brains are exhausted, and they sometimes lack the mental capacity to process what we’re doing. I get that scheduling is an issue and that sometimes taking classes back to back is unavoidable, but we should avoid this pattern whenever possible, mostly because we need mental breaks to learn effectively. Sometimes sitting on a bench or taking a walk for 30 minutes is the best thing a student can do to improve learning.
  5. “Elaborate information to improve recall. The more ways you practice new information, the more memory pathways are made for recalling it” (p. 82)
    • When I was an undergrad taking tons of advanced history classes, I used to type out my handwritten notes. I did so because I wrote so much during class and wrote so quickly that it was important for me to clean them up afterward. I also tried to organize the notes more clearly, adding structure, and sometimes even adding questions I needed to ask the professor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing was elaborating on my learning. When I would study for exams with friends, we tried to anticipate questions the professor might ask. Doing so, again, forced me to elaborate on the information I had learned. Some students get this principle instinctively and so devote substantial time to making sense of what they are learning. Others seem to assume learning occurs by osmosis. Learning something new is hard work, sometimes even painful work. Like I tell my daughter all the time, the people who she sees succeeding around her succeed because they put in the work, not because they are smarter.
  6. “Don’t shift tasks when doing tasks that require thinking or energy. When it comes to learning, your brain is at its best when it is doing one thing at a time” (p. 82).
    • This one is my favorite. The current generation of college students, who have grown up with mobile devices and persistent notifications on every app, believe they can multitask. The truth? Multitasking doesn’t exist. Instead, the brain is task shifting. Every time students look at their phones during class, or during an online module, they’re shifting attention to something other than the learning that they should be doing. Such task shifting leads to more errors and saps more energy. If the shifting occurs while studying, the studying will take longer for it to serve as effective preparation. I try to take a very pragmatic approach with technology in my classes, but the struggle is real. I hope students will think carefully about ways to reduce task shifting so that their brains are at their best. Personally, I have found it helpful to close my email, silence my phone, and to put the program I’m using on my computer in full screen. Doing so helps me to cut out distractions and helps me be more productive. Of course, I still do have those days where every knock, email chime, and text seems to be conspiring against my productivity. At least now I recognize that it is keeping me from being productive.

I hope my students will pick this little book up and read it for themselves so that they can learn ways to learn and study smarter. We know a great deal about how people learn, and this book is a really helpful and readable introduction to many of those ideas.

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