Applying the Science of Learning in the Classroom

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

The science of learning is the study of how the brain acquires and utilizes new information. In this lesson, we will discuss how to use scientific theories about how we learn as practical principles in the classroom.

What is the Science of Learning?

It's your best lecture ever. You are inspired and excited as you speak, and you are sure that one day your students will remember in glowing terms the change you made in their lives today. The whiteboard is covered with beautiful illustrations and neatly written notes.

Then you glance across the classroom. You have the attention of two girls, side by side in the front, who are dutifully copying everything down, and one little guy in the back, who is desperately trying to keep up. The other students are looking through their pencil bags, drawing on their desks, passing notes to each other, or swatting at each other and giggling. Apparently, the significant impact you thought you were making was mostly in your imagination.

The science of learning is the study of the ways that the human mind acquires and utilizes new information. Every person is different, which makes the classroom a broad array of challenges to your abilities as a teacher. Teaching one student effectively is a challenge, so trying to effectively impact a room of 30, 40, or 50 different minds can border on the impossible.

Scans and dissections of the human brain indicated that it is an unimaginably complex spider web of interconnecting tendrils, lighting up with millions of signals every instant you're alive. Learning is a process of reprogramming those connections. Memory, understanding, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis all take place because you've impacted the wiring of the brain. Attention (the particular set of senses and thoughts that the brain is focused on) is the magic key.

Getting Their Attention

Much is being said in the scientific community about engaging the student's mind in the classroom, and these applications of learning science can help create engagement.

Engage Multiple Senses

Although it's a two-edged sword, effectively engaging as many senses as possible is one of the keys to creating effective learning. The problem is in the word 'effectively'. Research indicates that multiple sensations can also be distracting, causing a break in the flow of information to the brain.

Always make sure each sensation reinforces the same information (words on the screen give the same information as what is being spoken), or provides a contextual background for it (such as an aroma that enhances a discussion of carnations, or a music presentation that is emphasizing the same points).

Engage Emotion

Emotion drives interest. Your brain tends to encode what you're emotional about, so getting your students emotionally involved in the topic can make a dramatic difference in what they retain. Teacher and peer feedback can be powerful emotional stimulants. Also, content can include dramatic, emotional, meaning-laden context that can cement the lesson in the students' minds.

For example, telling a story about how you were impacted dramatically by something that happened to you, and that happens to also relate to the concept being presented. A different approach is to engage the students in a game that engages their emotions, while reinforcing the topic. Perhaps most important, clear, task-focused, improvement-based feedback can make the student feel good about the learning process itself.

Make Experience Connections

Connectivity drives meaning. Association between thoughts being presented and the students' other experiences will help them remember, understand, and apply the information you're supplying. When you review the supporting concepts, connect them to real-world experiences. Then build the new learning on those concepts so the students can more easily retain the information. When the students are given activities, try to ensure that the activities always tie in to something that is currently meaningful and practical in the students' lives.

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