Pennwell web 205 200

What the evidence shows with respect to how we learn

July 14, 2011
With new knowledge of how the brain functions and how physiology impacts memory and attention, we have a growing amount of evidence on how learning works. Thus, much like we practice evidence-based medicine, we too should follow evidence-based education advocates Adam Persky, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor; Director, Center for Educational Excellence in Pharmacy, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. Persky offers nine learning styles.
By Adam Persky, PhD
There are thousands of articles and books on teaching, learning and assessment. With new knowledge of how the brain functions and how physiology impacts memory and attention we have a growing amount of evidence on how learning works. Much like we practice evidence-based medicine, we too should follow evidence-based education.1. Mix it up. The brain loves novelty. Think about how much time you spend playing with your new cell phone. When students are presented with novel stimulation in the form of learning activities they pay more attention; no attention, no learning. Utilize a variety of instructional techniques for your courses from mini-lectures to cooperative learning strategies ( to self-directed learning activities.2. ‘Less is more.' One of the instructor’s goals is to help move information from working memory into long-term storage. The problem is while long-term storage is limitless, working memory is finite and generally holds 5 to 9 chunks of information. If you tax working memory by providing too much information (including both content and sensory information), some of that information will be lost. To overcome this, present a small amount of new material for 10 to 15 minutes then have students apply or practice what they learned. Finally, summarize the learning and have students reflect on what they just learned. The practice and reflection helps move that information out of working memory into secondary memory and long term storage. You are now ready to move on to new material and repeat the cycle. 3. Rest. It is very difficult for individuals to sustain attention. Giving cognitive breaks allows the information in working memory to be processed which helps with long term retention. This is why sleep is important for learning because sleep is a prime time to process new information.4. Distribute practice. Learning is not a one and done deal. New learning should be repeated and practiced. The more times information is recalled, the more learning takes place because more neuronal connections are generated. As such, give more cumulative assessments.5. Build interaction. We are naturally social beings. Students teaching other students is one of the most powerful instructional strategies we have at our disposal. Increase student-student interactions and instructor-student interactions to improve learning. Remember, communication gives us feedback on our learning and feedback may be the most powerful instructional strategy. 6. Provide feedback. We need to monitor our progress, what we understand and what we don’t. Assessment techniques, especially formative assessment such as classroom assessment techniques ( can help provide this feedback. This feedback can be done before new learning to assess prior knowledge or during new learning to assess what students understand. Feedback is most effective when it communicates to students some specific aspect of their learning relative to the desired goal, and when it provides information that helps the student progress toward the criteria. For example, giving simple feedback like “good job” or “needs improvement” is less helpful unless it is coupled with specifics like what needs improvement and what can they do to improve.7. Give the big picture. Provide learners with a roadmap or framework for the new learning because how students organize knowledge influences how they learn and their ability to apply what they know. The major difference between a novice and expert is how we organize information. Start new material with the big picture of how the new content relates to other aspects of their learning. 8. Use visuals. The majority of our brain is somehow connected to interpreting our visual world. In some classical studies, subjects who viewed thousands of pictures for only a few seconds could recall 90% of the pictures days later. Pictures can provide structure, elicit emotional responses, and most importantly, can consolidate a lot of information succinctly. If your PowerPoint slides are full of text, swap out some of that text for graphs, figures or other visual information (e.g., concept maps).9. Treat students like colleagues-in-training. We often ignore the affective part of instruction, that is, the classroom climate. An overly stressful or hostile environment impairs learning. Even subtle hints of exclusivity or hostility can impair student motivation and learning. Research has found high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, during learning impair memory formation and recall.References
Medina J. Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. 1st ed. Seattle, WA: Pear Press; 2008.Ambrose SA. How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Willingham DT. Why don't students like school?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2009.
Adam Persky is at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where he is a clinical associate professor and director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Pharmacy.