The Science of Learning: What Works

12319-v1-490x By Paula MacLeod, iMedia 2014-2015 The iMedia program involves an incredible amount of work—reading, writing, developing projects. I know we all have expressed being stressed because we just don’t know how we can get it all done. But when it comes to learning, we may be able to apply some simple strategies to make learning new things easier. A recent Science Friday episode seemed tailor-made for our iMedia class. The topic was To Master Test Material, Give Your Brian a Break. The guest panelists were Barbara Oakley, author of “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)”, Benedict Carey, author of “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When Where and Why it Happens”, and AnnMarie Thomas, author of “Making Makers: Kids, Tools and the Future of Innovation. Contrary to my own inclination to power through everything, the science of learning proves that giving your self a break helps your brain process information. Other great tips for learning that were discussed are:

  • A nap is not just an hour or two of lost study time; sleep actually enhances learning.
  • Daydreaming and distraction are good ways to generate creative solutions to difficult problems.
  • Breaking up study times across days and weeks beats cramming, even when the total study time is the same.
  • Mixing up your environment, by trying a new cafe or new music on your earphones, works better than serving time in a library carrel.

And while one obviously needs to focus in order to learn something, that’s only part of what works for learning. We also learn through a “diffuse mode,” where a variety of operations are activated in the brain. The brain switches back and forth between these modes regularly. What’s important about the diffuse mode is that when you are focusing, you are actually blocking the diffuse mode. “And the diffuse mode,” says Barbara Oakley, “it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.” She uses pin ball as a metaphor for how the brain learns. As for the stress and work load, time management is a must, but another point discussed was the value of exercise. Exercise isn’t only good for your heart and muscles, but improves learning on three levels: It optimizes your mindset, by improving alertness, attention, and motivation. It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for learning new information. And it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory and learning. While knowing these things won’t lighten our load, we can take a walk, let our minds wander and know that we are still learning.

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