How the Brain Learns?

Key points from How the Brain Learns by David Sousa


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Recent Research in Brain-based learning show:

  • Neuroplasticity: Experiences the young brain has in school and at home shape the neural circuits and determine what and how the brain learn in school and later.
  • Neurogenesis –growth of new neurons – may be strengthened by diet and exercise and weakened by prolonged sleep loss.
  • Brain cannot multi-task. Alternating between tasks always incurs a loss.
  • Movement and exercise can improve mood, increase brain mass, enhance cognitive processing
  • Sleep deprivation and stress are detrimental to learning and memory
  • Intelligence and creativity are separate abilities and may be modified by schooling and environment

Window of opportunity: important periods in which the young bran responds to certain type of input in order to create long-lasting structure.

Babies, whose parents, especially fathers, talked more to them, had significantly larger vocabularies.

Is it possible that students have become so adapted to task switching that they have not developed the cognitive discipline necessary to read complex texts?

Bauerlein (2011) suggests that successfully reading complex texts demands:

  • A willingness to probe an author’s writing for literal and inferred meanings
  • A capacity for uninterrupted thinking
  • An openness for deep thinking.

He suggests that schools devote at least an hour a day to research assignments that use print matter, require no connection to the Internet and include complex texts.

Emotions affect attention and learning

  • Students must feel physically safe and emotionally secure before they can focus on the curriculum.
  • How a person feels about a learning situation determines the amount of attention devoted to it.
  • People will participate in learning activities that have yielded success for them and avoid those that have produced failure.


Active Learning involves choices and actions that the learner finds pleasurable and effective for developing an understanding of the big picture as well as the relationship amongst the components.

  • Teachers should make clear what the students should be able to do when the lesson objective is accomplished
  • Include provocative ideas and challenging activities
  • Involve students in developing the criteria used to assess their competency
  • Demonstrate the connection between the content and the real world
  • Give students choices in selecting activities and questions
  • Establish accountability
  • Provide feedback

Time Limits of Working Memory: Keep the number of items in a lesson objective within the capacity limits of students. Less is more.

Information is most likely to be stored if it makes sense and has meaning.

If teachers want to test whether information actually has been transferred to long-term storage, the test needs to:

  • Be given no earlier than 24hrs after the learning
  • Test precisely what should have been retained
  • Come as a surprise

Rehearsal deals with the repetition and processing of information whereas practice generally refers to the repetition of motor skills.

There is almost no long-term retention of cognitive concepts without rehearsals.

  • Rote Rehearsal: store information exactly as it is entered into working memory
    • Simple Repetition
    • Cumulative Repetition
  • Elaborative Rehearsal: associate new learning with prior learning to detect relationships
    • Paraphrasing
    • Selecting and Note Taking
    • Predicting
    • Questioning
    • Summarising

Retention varies with Teaching Methods (in descending order):

  • Practice and Teaching Others
  • Learn by Doing/Practice
  • Verbal and Visual Information
  • Visual Material
  • Lecture/Direct Instruction

Teach new material first. We remember best that which comes first and second best that which comes last.

A block of four 20 minutes segments will often be much more productive than one continuous lesson.

Teachers are more likely to keep students focused during the lesson segments if they go off task between the segments.

Learning 2 skills/concepts that are too similar at the same time causes memory interference and both skills won’t be learnt well.

Avoid giving students independent practice before guided practice.

Sleep deprivation affects ability to store information, increases irritability, leads to fatigue.

Use mnemonics to help retention

A “slow learner” has a slower rate of retrieval but it not “unable to learn”.

Increase wait-time to at least 5 seconds or more.

  • Length and quality of student responses increased
  • Greater participation by slower learners
  • Students use more evidence to support inferences
  • More higher-order responses

Calling on students whose hands go up first signals the slower retrievers to stop the retrieval process.

Forgetfulness: By forgetting the trivial, we leave room for the more important and meaningful experiences. It prevents irrelevant information from interfering with the acquisition, remembering and recall of relevant information.

If important information is purposefully revisited, robust memories will be available for a long time.

Cofabulation: Our brain fabricates information and experiences that we believe to be true.

Transfer of Learning

Rote learning does not tend to facilitate transfer of learning

Journal writing is a highly effective strategy for closure and transfer. Students reflect on their learning, make connection to previous knowledge and organise concepts into networks for eventual storage.

Constructivists teachers (Brooks & Brooks, 1999)

  • Use student responses to alter their instructional strategies and content
  • Foster student dialogue
  • Question student understanding before sharing their own
  • Encourage students to elaborate on their initial responses
  • Allow students time to construct relationships and create metaphors.

Teaching to high-stakes test might emphasis rote activities in place of strategies that foster deep understanding needed for transfer.

Perkins & Salomon (1988) proposed “Bridging”: invoke transfer by connecting what the learner know to other new learning and contexts.

Simulation games are useful in helping students practise new roles in diverse situations for Transfer of Learning.

A longitudinal study indicated that the more television toddlers had watched before the age of 3 years, the lower their scores on later tests of reading achievement and number manipulation (Zimmerman & Christakis, 2005).


Teaching to the Whole Brain

  • Deal with concepts verbally and visually
  • Design effective visual aids
  • Discuss concepts logically and intuitively
  • Avoiding conflicting messages
  • Design activities and assessments for different learning styles

The Arts develop cognitive growth for the following reasons:

  • Perception of relations
  • Attention to nuance
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Ability to shift goals in process

Listening to background music can enhance recall, visual imagery, attention, concentration and dexterity.

At some point in most lessons, students should be up and moving around, talking about the new learning.

With guidance and practice, slower learners can regularly reach the higher levels of Bloom’s(2001) revised taxonomy.

  • Create (putting ideas together to form a new whole)
  • Evaluate (judging materials using certain criteria)
  • Analyse (breaking down a concept and looking for relationship)
  • Apply (using a concept in a new situation)
  • Understand (translating the material for comprehension)
  • Remember (rote remembering of information)

Review the curriculum and remove topics of least importance in order to gain the time needed for practice at the higher levels.


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