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The Science of Learning: How Do Brains Learn Best?

We had another workshop at school on the science of learning – how brains learn best. In the workshop, we covered some of the following concepts.

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s amazing ability to change and adapt as a result of our daily interactions with the world around us. It allows the brain to reorganise itself by forming new connections and pruning old ones following a “use it or lose it” principle.

We can use neuroplasticity to strengthen and weaken connections in the brain. If you’re learning new material, repetition helps to strengthen recall of the material.

The following video demonstrates the effects of neuroplasticity in the brains of London cab drivers as they build an internal map of London to past “the knowledge” test and qualify to be a black cab driver.

Taxi Drivers’ Brains Grow on the Job:

  • Brain scans show that they have a larger hippocampus than regular individuals.
  • The size of the hippocampus corresponds to the amount of time they have spent on the job.
  • Scientists have found structural changes in the hippocampus of these cab drivers to accommodate “the knowledge”.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

According to Hermann Ebbinghaus, we forget 50% of what we learn in the first hour of learning it unless we put it into practice or are continuously supported and provided with access to “knowledge”.

The forgetting curve shows how information or knowledge stored within the brain is lost over time if the we make no attempt to retain it. We can halve our memory in a matter of days or weeks unless we consciously review the learned material.

The speed of forgetting depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • difficulty of learned material
  • how meaningful it is
  • how it was learned
  • physiological factors like stress and sleep
Brains learn best - Memory retention
Image Source: Infographics Mania

How Stress Affects Memory

When we’re stressed, the body releases the hormone cortisol. In small amounts, cortisol is great for helping us respond to stress. If left unchecked (such as in the case of chronic stress), too much cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory). This causes decreased attention, perception, short-term memory, learning, and word finding.

See also: How stress affects learning and effective stress management

How Sleep Affects Memory

A lack of sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:

  • impairing our ability to pay attention and learn efficiently by decreasing focus and working memory function
  • inhibiting memory consolidation – sleep allows us to move memories from short-term to long-term memory

See also: How sleep affects learning

Repetition and Review

Repetition helps us shift the learned material from our short-term memory to long-term memory. This is the basis behind Spaced Learning, a method of increasing retention of learned material.

We can overcome the problem of forgetting by reviewing the material learned at optimal intervals after learning it:

Image Source: Pinterest

Learning and the Growth Mindset

Encourage children to make themselves smarter by taking on challenges. Help them develop a growth mindset.

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset
Image Source: Talent Talks
  • Encourage children to challenge themselves and try new things.
  • Encourage children to persevere and ‘keep with it’ and to not give up.
  • Reassure that failure is OK and a valuable part of learning.
  • Reflect on disappointments and how to move forward.
  • Talk in detail about strategies used.
  • Praise the effort rather than the outcome.
Image Source: Pinterest

More on the growth mindset:

Brains Learn Best Through Active Learning

Active Learning means students engage with the material, participate in the class, and collaborate with each other. They can help demonstrate a process, analyze an argument, or apply a concept to a real-world situation. – Stanford University

Image Source: Open Learning Blog

Active learning can enhance the learning experience by helping students create stronger memories and develop a deeper understanding of the material covered.

Ways to promote active learning:

  • Case-based problem solving exercises
  • Debates
  • Group discussions
  • Peer instruction exercises – one of the best ways to improve understanding is to teach material to a peer.
  • Brainstorm learning objectives to increase  student investment, motivation and involvement in the learning process.

More ways to engage students through active learning.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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