We finally got to the end of this three-post series on how to use the Science of Learning to make learning more effective! Check out Parts 1 (ENGAGE) and 2 (BUILD) right here and here. Don’t forget to sing up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.
Ok, so we’ve discussed how you need to first ENGAGE your student (or yourself as a learner) and BUILD on PRIOR KNOWLEDGE to achieve the INTENDED LEARNING OUTCOME (ILO). That sounds great and, to be fair, we can pretty much check if our students have indeed learned by the end of that lesson, right? We normally set up a PRODUCTION phase or do a quick review by asking questions or even have them answer a quick activity or survey. There’s just one problem. I can’t remember how to calculate Torricelli’s Equation or how to explain the different layers of our planet from the surface to the innermost part. Any organic chemistry left? Nah…not much. History? More than any other subject. English? Well, I still remember a lot of that.
Catch my drift? At one point in my life I actually used to know how to apply Bhaskara’s formula (I love this example because it kinda shows how much “useless” stuff we learn at school). I could build long chains of organic compounds and discuss in detail how the Earth’s crust had been formed. And my teachers asked me a bunch of questions about those topics and I was able to answer them. They were assessing learning. It turns out that now I’m pretty much hopeless in any of those topics.
What is consolidation then? How does knowledge consolidate in the brain and what does it take? Let’s take a look at some principles and go back to the examples above. If we search the word CONSOLIDATION on Google, that’s what we get:
1. the action or process of making something stronger or more solid.
2. the action or process of combining a number of things into a single more effective or coherent whole.
Great, but how long does a particular knowledge last in our memories? I guess the examples I mentioned before didn’t consolidate properly in my brain since I am unable to retrieve them, right? I mean, I know I once learned them, but I can’t really apply them. The English language, on the other hand, is still here. I started learning it when I was around 7 and I’d say it’s pretty much consolidated. What made a difference?
Rehearsing is basically repeating or practicing a new piece of knowledge in different contexts for a long period of time. After high school, I did not have to use my knowledge on tectonic plates or the structure of benzene, erm… like… ever again! Even though these facts might still be there, I can’t really access them. The problem with rehearsing is that it must be continuous or else we really do forget. Neuroimaging studies show that people who have just learned some arithmetic (like multiplication) have a lot of activation in different areas of the brain, including the frontal areas, responsible for the WORKING MEMORY. However, after training (or REHEARSAL), less activation occurs (especially in the frontal areas) as the new knowledge becomes more automatic and, thus, more easily retrieved.
I do remember a cool physics class we had in which we observed the water volume in a tube before and after we added an ice cube in it. The level raised a little and our teacher asked us what would happen after that ice cube melted. Most of us answered that the water level would go back to where it was before adding the ice cube or that it would increase a little but not reach the level it had with the ice cube inside. We were surprised to learn that the level between a) tube +water + solid ice cube = b) tube + water + melted ice cube (also known as water). We had that experiment and discussed why it happened in class and told our parents about and, and, and… We applied that knowledge in different contexts and our brains created different representations of it, which is quite useful as we have various paths to access this memory. By the way, if you don’t believe the water level doesn’t change, do the experiment yourself or check out this explanation. That brings me to:
2. APPLYING KNOWLEDGE
This has to do with using that knowledge in several different ways and contexts so that you can access it more easily in the future. “Learning things over and over again” is a great way to add NEURAL HOOKS (different cues or associations) to help you find that information in your memory. It’s kinda finding your way to your favorite camping spot in the woods. If you have only one path memorized, what happens if you don’t go back to that place for many months or years and the bushes grow over it, covering the path? If you go back, it’ll be hard to find your way there. Now, if you have walked different paths to get to that same spot and you can’t remember one, you’ll be able to pick up another. In a study conducted on subjects learning a second language, there was a lot of activation in very specific areas of the brain in very similar patterns when they were at the initial learning stages, indicating that they were using various strategies to learn, however, once they became more familiar with the vocabulary over the course of their classes, areas in the parietal lobe were more activated (much less activation in the frontal areas) but with different patterns this time. This means that that knowledge had become more automatic and that they had multiple representations of it as the patterns changed, making it easier for them to retrieve that information.
Ok, this next step is probably one of our favorites! It’s what we spend 1/3 of our lives doing and it feels we’re not getting enough of it. You’ve guessed it right:
For those of you who thought sleeping was for the weak, well, I have great news. Sleeping is for the ones who want to learn effectively. Both our SLOW WAVE and RAPID EYE MOVEMENT (REM) SLEEP play a very important role in DECLARATIVE MEMORY (ideas, concepts, facts) and PROCEDURAL MEMORY (abilities, habits) CONSOLIDATION. If you want more information on that, check this great TED-Ed video. What does that tell us about when to do HOMEWORK or REVISION? If they are types of REHEARSAL and we need sleep to help consolidate memories, should they be done on the same day that we learned that new knowledge and not revisited in the next class? Think about it.
4. EMOTIONS & STRESS
STRESS is one of those words that got a really bad reputation, nevertheless, it is an important learning tool. Being slightly stressed, in a good way, means you’re alert and attending to the instruction. If it arouses you because it’s interesting and fun or even creepy and bizarre, this will help you consolidate that memory in a more effective way. The problem is when FEAR, for instance, takes over and our cognitive resources attend to trying to keep us alive or not exposed to something that might embarrass or harm us in any way. Having a strong emotional connection with our teacher and feeling excited about what we’re learning is a great way to make sure we are in fact learning well.
To wrap up our the last blog post in our series, let’s use the construction analogy again. Imagine a pickup truck driving to the construction site carrying bricks, concrete, wood, screws, nails, buckets, etc. The driver always takes the same route. What happens if that route is closed and no GPS, Google Maps, Waze or whatever is available? The driver might get lost trying to find another route. The pickup truck is our WORKING MEMORY and it can carry only a limited amount of things to the construction site, our LONG-TERM MEMORY. In order to get to the construction site effectively, the driver will certainly need to repeat it a few times (REHEARSAL) and, to make sure they won’t get lost, they should certainly find other routes (APPLYING KNOWLEDGE). Driving without enough SLEEP will likely cause an accident and stop those materials from reaching their destination. If the driver is excited about getting there, or even a little pressed for time (just the right amount of STRESS), they will probably pay more attention and drive more effectively to make sure they arrive OK and on time.
In neurosciencetish (the language of neuroscience), we need to give our students the chance to REHEARSE the new knowledge, APPLYING it in different contexts over a long period of time, to both automatize it and unload the WORKING MEMORY to be free for more knowledge, in an environment with the right amount of STRESS and AROUSAL, to make sure we have their attention and hold them accountable for their learning, and get a good night’s SLEEP to consolidate those memories more effectively.
So, to be fair, I’m not hopeless in any of those subjects I mentioned and neither are your students. We can always learn. We just need to REHEARSE, APPLY, SLEEP well, and be a little STRESSED and AROUSED about the right things at the right time.
The final weapons for improved consolidation and retention (and you can read them on my blog with some references):
Tough job, isn’t it? That’s why we chose to be teachers. The good news is: some types of knowledge do can be forgotten depending on the path you chose and it won’t really affect your life. Do you remember all those formulas you learned in physics and maths?
You can check out my lesson plan here and also access the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website.