Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition Part 3

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Speaking about the Neuroscience of Learning at the Nat Geo Learning Conference

Almost two weeks ago I had the incredible honor and privilege to present at the National Geographic Learning Conference. I was invited nearly two months ago by Rosane Vidmar, whom I can’t thank enough for the opportunity. That was when I realized I hadn’t posted anything related to neuroscience since my very first entries on this blog (You can find them here and here). So, given the wonderful feedback I got from my peer Claire Venables, who also brilliantly presented at the conference about CPD and Young Learners, and, naturally, from the audience in Belo Horizonte who welcomed us in such a friendly way, I’ve decided to write 5 more tips about how we actually learn.

I must confess one thing, though. This entry will be entirely based on the works and one of the lectures delivered by the Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California (UCLA). His name is Robert Bjork and if you watch this video, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Another point I’d like to make is that his findings have been successfully replicated by other authors and should not be taken lightly even when you realize – just like I did – that we don’t really know what makes our students learn more effectively. Look at it as a chance to slowly incorporate what science already knows and to rethink the way you teach.

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1. Learning should be easy, right? The easier the better. Not according to science. Bjork mentions what he calls the “desirable difficulty”. That’s the level of challenge and effort required by us to solve a task. If it’s too easy, it won’t stick that long and learning won’t be efficient. As many of us, ELT professionals, know, the right amount of challenge is key to motivation, but we should bear in mind that it is also key to long-term and effective learning. 

Check out more here:  Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.

Or watch this video:

2. Forgetting is essential to learning. If you think just because the student had a class they’ve learned, think again. And if you think they’ve learned after the class and after the midterms or finals, considering they had good grades, forget that thought. Quick question: How much of the test content can you actually remember a week after you’ve taken the test? How about two weeks after? A month? A semester? As learners, we need to allow our brains to forget whatever we have learned in order to force active retrieval. Most of the factors involved with forgetting are directly connected with learning efficiency. 

Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. pp. 185–205.

Take a look at this short video:

3. Not making errors is a mistake – or should I say not making mistakes is an error?. Errors, incorrect choices due to lack of knowledge, and mistakes, incorrect choices due to slips, accidents, are both enemies of many educational settings around the world. However, they are fundamental if you’re after effective learning. Making an error will not only show you the wrong way, but it will also show you the right way by comparison. You’ll have more connections in your brain. Think of it as using Waze to go to an unknown address effortlessly and not really paying attention to the trajectory. If you do it, and you’re forced to drive back to the same place a week later without Waze, you might not remember how to get there. If you choose, from the very beginning, to use your knowledge of the city and build upon that to get to your destination – making the wrong turn here and there – you’ll have more connections in your brain and learning will stick more, allowing you to easily go back to that address in the future – without Waze.

Watch this:

4. Interleaved practice is better than blocked practice. Switching between tasks, or topics, when studying can be a wonderful way to improve learning. Our brains are not really programmed for monotony. Any change in the environment, the resource, and especially the content/topic is welcome. Instead of studying the same grammar structure to exhaustion before you move to something else, study it for a while, get a break, and then start something else. 


5. The last one is perhaps the most important. Performance is not learning. If your students got an A on their test, YAY! But it doesn’t mean they’ve learned. It means they’ve memorized the information to pass the test. If your students can perform a task well at any point, it also doesn’t mean they’ve learned. Knowing how to perform well can give the practitioner the illusion of mastery or learning. To make sure your students are learning, go beyond standardized tests and do more continuous assessment instead. 

Take a look at this:

Well, that’s all for today folks! Hope you find it useful.

Please give me some feedback about the post and share some of your thoughts as well.

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition Part 3”

  1. Pingback: National Geographic Learning Conference in Fortaleza – July 25th, Gran Marquise Hotel | André Hedlund

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  3. Pingback: Neuroscience of Learning 4 – What a week! | André Hedlund

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