What happens in the brain when we learn was a mystery until recently.
But advances in neuroscience—aided by technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—have grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Today, scientists can study, watch, and even predict electrical patterns in the brain related to learning—and that research, says author Margie Meacham, can help students improve their learning skills.
An instructional designer by profession, Meacham holds a Master’s in Instructional Design from Capella University. She sought the degree after a manager suggested that she might be more promotable if she had an advanced degree. Her master’s, which she obtained in 2003, not only helped her land a promotion, it also gave her lots of professional contacts and connections that assisted her as she pursued a growing interest in how the physical functions of the brain affect learning.
In spring 2015, Meacham published Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience (an accompanying conference will be held in the fall) and is currently working on a second book about learning and the human brain. “Once you discover how the brain works,” Meacham says, “you realize that some of the things we think are true about learning are really not, while other things are right on the money.”
Meacham’s ongoing interest in neuroscience has been fueled by a desire to improve learning among students. How can teachers teach better? How can learners absorb and retain more knowledge? To that end, Meacham has sought out research that can be applied directly to everyday learning. Simplified, here are four neuroscience insights that can help you learn:
1. Prime Your Mind Beforehand.
When the brain links bits of information, a biochemical electric charge races through a line of brain cells, also called neurons. Your initial introduction to a topic creates the path, and subsequent learning strengthens that neural chain—similar to driving between two places over a matter of days, until it happens almost seamlessly.
Skimming the material before a lecture or class is a great way to establish an initial neural pathway, Meacham says. As you absorb information, you’ll have a basic scheme for organizing it, and your brain will be primed for learning.
2. Take Notes As You Learn and Review Them Later.
The physical act of taking notes forces you to translate concepts into your own words, which allows your brain to make connections to existing neural pathways. Restating information in familiar terms strengthens overall processing, Meacham says, and linking to existing neural pathways creates efficiencies.
Additionally, reviewing your notes shortly afterward illuminates the neural pathways once more, strengthening the overall bond between the cells and sharpening your ability to remember even the finer points.
3. Keep Your Body—and Brain—in Top Shape.
Proper maintenance is important for all the muscles and organs in your body. Are you hydrated and fueled? Getting enough oxygen and rest? Your gray matter can’t absorb the maximum amount of information if you’re not in good physical shape. It’s simple: good health leads to better learning. “Your brain is connected to the rest of your body,” Meacham says. “So if your body is out of whack, your brain is out of whack.”
4. Every Brain Needs Training to Focus.
To survive, our ancestors developed brains that could alert us to dangers at any time. “Your brain periodically scans your environment, so you’re aware of any changes,” Meacham says. “Basically, it’s to make sure you don’t focus so much on having dinner that you become dinner.”
But learning requires you to focus. So when you realize your brain has gotten distracted by something that is neither dangerous nor important but simply new or eye-catching, bring your focus back to learning, Meacham says. “Tell yourself, ‘That’s not important right now. I need to be paying attention to this other thing,’ and pull yourself back in.”
Learn more about Capella’s education programs.