Topic 1: Learning and Remembering

What do I need to know?

When neuroscientists talk about learning, they are referring to the brain’s ability to change in response to the environment. This is known as neuroplasticity. Thanks to neuroplasticity the brain is constantly changing and therefore constantly learning, no matter the age of the brain.

Memories are stored across complex networks in the brain, and not in a specific single location. Long-term memory has three stages: encoding of information that is received from the outside world, storage of that information through consolidation, and retrieval of the stored information. Long-term memories can be changed, and even the act of recalling a piece of information can lead to a change in the memory.

There are two other types of 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 input through the sense, before it enters into working memory.

What can I do in my classroom?

Show students how new information connects to older information they have already learnt, in order to build on existing memories. Avoid overloading working memory in the classroom by ensuring that pupils are not given too many instructions at once. Chunk information into groups that have some meaning, rather than teaching a lesson like one long episode. Make the most of the primacy and recency effects 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 out for language that researchers use that has a 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.


Take part in the next Live Chat

Topic 9: Mental Health runs from Monday 14th – 27th May 2018

Ideally, school would be a place of security and calm; but examinations, deadlines and difficulties with friends can result in pressure and stress for students (and teachers). This section of the Learning Zone will look at how stress and anxiety impact learning.

Next live chat: Topic 9: Mental Health – Tuesday 22nd May, 8-9pm