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How the brain learns

“Tell me and I’ll forgot, show me and i may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”
– Chinese Proverb

If learning was a simple as pouring the pitcher of knowledge into the empty glass of a students head, then all education would require was a person to speak didactically on the subject, and students would listen and gain the knowledge themselves. Unfortunately, learning takes a lot more then merely listening to an authority speak, irregardless of his expertise and reliability.

So how do most adults learn?
To answer this central question we need to know something about how the brain processes information and creates long term memories:

The brain processes different stimuli in different parts of the brain:

  • Verbal input is initially processed  through the left temporal lobe in a right handed person.
  • Reading requires processing by the occipital cortex, the left temporal lobe and the frontal cortex.
  • Writing requires use of the motor cortex in the dominant hemisphere (left hemisphere for a right handed person) as well as the occipital cortex.
  • Pictures and other images are initially managed by the occipital cortex and eventually the right side of the brain.


The brain creates two types of memory:

  • Short-term memory that includes immediate memory and working memory.
    Immediate memory acts as a temporary site where input is briefly stored until the brain decides whether to erase the memory as unimportant or to process the memory. The triaging of memories is primarily unconsicous. These temporary memories are thought to be stored in the hippocampus, and emotions generated in the adjacent amygdola increase the likelihood of memory retention.
    Working memory is the place where conscious processing occurs. This is where stimuli that capture our interest and attention are managed. Auditory and visual spacial stimuli can be rehearsed in the working memory and rehearsal increases the likelihood of long-term storage. The adult working memory can only hold 7 objects at one time. Only by grouping multiple facts into a single chunk can the learner process greater amounts of information.  As learners move from novice to expert, they increase the number facts in large chunks. Items can be processed in the working memory for up to 45 minutes. Longer periods of processing lead to fatigue. Maximal attention usually lasts about 10 minutes. Ideally to minimize working memory fatigue facts should be processed for 10 minutes at a time.
  • attention-lost

  • Long-term memories – These are memories that are retained for greater than 24 hours. What determines which short-term memories become long-term memories? The working memory scans past long-term memories and asks two questions:
    1. Does the material make sense? –Is it logical and does it fit with previously retained facts? Can it be connected or chunked with other facts in my long-term memory?
    2. Is the material important to me (does it have meaning)?
    This is the most important criteria for deciding whether a series of facts will be transferred to long-term memory. If material is deemed trivial it will not be retained as a long-term memory. Brain scans show maximal activity when material that has meaning and makes sense is presented, as compare to material that has meaning and doesn’t make  sense or material that makes sense, but is trivial in nature.
  • Long-term memories require the generation of new synapses during sle New synapses are created during REM sleep. Students who sleep for 8 hours have 5 REM episodes while those who are sleep-deprived have on average on 3 REM episodes. The sleep-deprived student has fewer opportunities to generate long-term memories.

Implicatons for teaching –

Use all parts of the students brain by including reading, writing, verbal processing and images in your teaching.

Engage the working memory – encourage processing of material by requiring active participation, and requiring students to work with the material. Rehearsel enhances understanding and increases the likelihood of a long-term memory.

Don’t overload the working memory – less is more. Remember the novice can only process 7 facts at a time in his or her working memory.

Avoid working memory fatigue – Lessons should be presented in 10-20 minute blocks

Encourage long-term memories by creating meaning and creating material that makes sense to the learner. Relating lessons to real-life situations, and being enthusiastic create meaning. Know your learners’ backgrounds so that you relate to past learning and allow the learner to understand and make sense of the material you are presenting.

Encourage students to get enough sleep. Long-term memories are created during REM sleep. Without sleep there can be no long-term memories.

Evaluations must assess long-term memory and understanding – Too often multiple choice questions simply test recognition. Short term memory can be temporarily crammed with blocks of material that allow the student to recognize the correct answer. However, once the test is completed these facts are erased and never make it to long-term storage. This phenomenon has been called the Zeigarnik effect.

Further Reading

  1. Bransford JD, Brown AL, Cocking RR. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 1999. 319 p.
  2. Fischer, K, Immordino-Yang, M.H. The Jossey-Bass Reader on The Brain and Learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. 457 p.
  3. Sousa, D.A. How the Brain Learns Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin Press 2006. 309 p.
  4. Zeigarnik BV. Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Activities). Psychologische Forschung 1927;9:1-85