I just finished watching a Lynda.com course called The Neuroscience of Learning (link) presented by Dr. Britt Andreatta. I found it pretty interesting and insightful, so I wrote a summary that covers the main points, mostly to serve as my own reference, but you may find it useful as well.
Why do we learn? We learn to realize our potential.
People tend to have two mindsets, fixed and growth mindset.
- Fixed mindset - Characterized by thinking: I can’t change what I’ve got. For example: if you’re bad at math, you can’t change that.
- Growth mindset - Thinking: I can get better!
The truth is that people can learn and grow at any age. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy - people who believe they can improve actually do.
To maximize employee performance, companies should evaluate employees based on their improvement, instead of comparing them to others.
Dr. Andreatta presented her own 3-phase model of learning:
Now let’s explain each one of them in more detail.
There are three important points:
- Learning happens in levels
- There is a cycle
- Focus is very important
The model that described the levels of learning is called Bloom’s taxonomy. There are four levels:
- Creating, evaluating and analyzing (for example innovating variation for context, measuring ROI, recognizing the problem and adjusting).
I previously mentioned that learning occurs in cycles. The model that described this cycle is called Kolb’s learning styles model.
In this model, there are two dimensions: the perception (think/feel) continuum, and the processing (do/watch) continuum.
These two dimensions create 4 stages in the cycle:
- Concrete experience (feeling)
- Reflective observation (watching)
- Abstract conceptualization (thinking)
- Active experimentation (doing)
The part of the brain that plays a key role in learning is called hippocampus.
To be able to learn, we need to focus. People are overconfident about multitasking. In reality, we can focus on only one thing at a time.
One fact that I found very interesting was that if you’re surrounded by people who are distracted, it can also affect you negatively.
Brain can maintain the state of intense focus for only 20 minutes. You need to split learning into chunks.
Taking notes helps remember things. Handwritten notes are better than typed because writing is more kinesthetic, which activates more parts of the brain.
There are 3 concepts that are important when it comes to remembering things. They are:
When we want to remember something, we want to hook onto something we already know. This helps integrate new knowledge, and it also makes the retrieval easier.
Things that help with making associations:
- Meta cognition (thinking about thinking)
- Self reflection
- Remembering peak performances
- Acronyms, mnemonics
- Insight - once you have an insight, it virtually stays in your memory forever.
A few other things that help with memory:
- Quiet time: Sometimes people have an insight when taking a walk or in the shower.
- Social learning: When learning in a group, the social parts of the brain turns on, which facilitates learning.
- Music: Music is stored in many areas of the brain so it’s nearly indestructible. Music without lyrics is most effective because it doesn’t confuse the brain.
The part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions is amygdala. It’s connected to hippocampus and can tell it to store things in the long-term memory.
3 things that matter most to amygdala:
The things related to any of those are more likely to be remembered.
As far as types of emotions, slightly positive feelings work best for learning.
Retrieval matters more than repetition. We grow memory - neural pathways actually get physically thicker.
Retrieval in different contexts and environments makes it more effective.
Three retrievals are most effective, and every subsequent one after the first three is less effective. For long term retention, doing a retrieval every 3 months would be a good idea.
For optimal effectiveness, retrievals should be done once a day with a full night’s sleep in between. Sleep plays a major role in memory persistence. During sleep, especially rem sleep, the brain reactivates the circuits, determines which memories should be persisted in the long term memory, and persists them, while discarding the unimportant ones. Most of this work is done during the last hour of sleep, so it’s very important to wake up naturally, instead of using the alarm.
In addition, sleep is when your body gets rid of toxins, which can cause diseases when accumulated. So make sure you get enough sleep!
The magic of 3
When teaching, Dr. Andreatta recommends using:
- 3 levels of learning to deepen the understanding
- 3 different concepts to explain the point
- 3 retrievals spaced by sleep to memorize better
To make learning complete, we need to change our behavior in some way. This is where habits come in.
Think about driving a car for the first time. You needed to pay attention and do so many things at once. Now you just drive. This is because the knowledge about how to drive has moved to the basal ganglia, and now we can do it without much thinking.
There are 3 components in every habit:
- Cue - the trigger that signals that we should start doing the behavior
- Routine - the actual behavior
- Reward - the stimulus that reinforces the habit
Probably the most interesting part of the presentation, in my opinion, was a story about the speeding tickets in Stockholm, Sweden. They used to collect tickets in the traditional way, but the people were still speeding.
So they started thinking about how to motivate people to respect the speeding signs. They came up with a device that they placed on an interesection, that reads your speed, and if you’re speeding, it would give you a thumbs down and take a picture of the license plate and you’d get fined. But if you’re not speeding, the device would give you a thumbs up and it would still take a picture of your vehicle and you’d be entered to win the fines!
Pretty awesome! And it turned out to be effective as well.
So how do we establish a habit? We need to pay attention to those 3 components we mentioned earlier.
- Cue - It’s most effective if it’s something that we can see or hear. Feelings change all the time, so they should not be used.
- Routine - Break it into baby steps. One day, do one simple thing, the next day add another simple thing, and so on. Build up the behavior gradually so you don’t get discouraged.
- Reward - Could be monetary or social or something else that’s pleasurable (like chocolate). Neurons that fire together wire together. The goal is to associate the behavior with pleasure.
How long does it take to establish a habit? Here are some general numbers:
- When you do something 20 times, your brain creates a neural pathway.
- Do it 40 times, and the habit gets established.
- After 60 times, the neural pathway gets measurably thicker!
That’s all folks! I really enjoyed this course. It has provided me with a framework to learn and teach more effectively.