Learning and remembering

What do I need to know?

  • Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to the environment, and this is what neuroscientists mean when they talk about learning.
  • The brain is constantly changing thanks to neuroplasticity, and therefore it is constantly learning, no matter the age of the brain.
  • Memories are stored across complex networks in the brain, rather than in a single location.
  • There are three stages to long-term memory: encoding information that is received from the outside world, storage of that information through consolidation, and retrieval of the stored information.
  • Memories can be changed, and even the act of recalling a piece of information can result in a change to the memory.
  • Working memory involves keeping information in mind and actively rehearsing it. It is essential to allow information to move into long-term memory.
  • Sensory memory is very short-term, and stores information based on sensory input before it enters into working memory.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Show students how new information connects to older information that they have already learnt to build on existing memories.
  • Avoid overloading working memory in the classroom by ensuring that students are not given too many instructions at once.
  • Chunk information into groups rather than teaching a lesson like one long episode.
  • Make the most of the primacy and recency effect by putting the most important information at the beginning and end of a lesson, to make it more likely to be remembered.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

Where can I find out more?

The Learning Scientists have accumulated six evidence-based strategies for effective learning:

What should I be wary of?

  • Look our for language that researchers use that has very specific scientific meaning. As we’ve seen above, to a neuroscientist, “learning” means changes in the brain.
  • Similarly, “working memory” is a cognitive function that psychologists frequently measure, and it involves temporarily holding information in mind.
  • Although it was heavily reported in the media, fish oils do not seem to improve learning.
  • The idea that Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids boost learning has been examined in very few studies, and the results are inconclusive.
  • It is likely that if they were of substantial benefit to learning, this would be evident by now.
  • A review of the fish oils evidence can be found here.