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What does research tell us about making learning stick?

Learn more about the research evidence on how is processed by the brain into learning that sticks.
Hi, I’m Paul Howard-Jones and I’m Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol. There are three essential sets of processes by which incoming information gets transformed in the brain into learning that sticks. To begin with, the learner needs to allocate mental resources to processing the information in the first place. Now in educational terms we might call that engagement and it quite often involves an emotional element. When the learner feels curiosity or excitement such as when discovering a new website or online learning game those subcortical regions below the cortex that are so important for emotional processing get involved. That can get us engaged and ready to learn.
Once engaged with it, technology can communicate new ideas and understanding and that new knowledge will initially be represented in working memory networks towards the front of the cortex. For that representation to be meaningful it needs to connect with other ideas that the learner
already knows about: prior knowledge. That requires frontal brain circuitry that is still developing in children. That means learners, and particularly young learners, can sometimes need support or scaffolding to help make these connections. Sometimes, in addition to support from the teacher, the technology itself can be helpful in making connections to prior knowledge; something that search engines are particularly good at, indicating those connections with other topics that we just haven’t thought of. If this connection-making to prior knowledge doesn’t happen at all in the brain then not only will the knowledge be less meaningful but our memory for it may not last very long at all.
In fact, even when our new knowledge is meaningfully connected this initial representation in the frontal networks requires effort and our ability to hold any information in our conscious attention, our so called working memory ability, is actually very limited. That means our new knowledge at this stage is very vulnerable and it may exist only temporarily. So the third set of processes, consolidation processes, are very important in educational terms. Rehearsal of the new knowledge is key here and technology can be helpful when practising the new knowledge to make it become more permanent and more accessible through, for example, online activities that can provide a rapid pace of challenges and continuous feedback.
As we use and practise our knowledge and understanding, so it becomes stored in a way that is distributed across the cortex. It becomes less vulnerable to loss and more accessible for application. This practice can result in fresh knowledge and understanding becoming automatised. That means the learning has become so obvious and accessible that you’re hardly conscious of retrieving it and it means that your working memory networks are freed up ready for more learning. In particular, using the diverse potential of the web and technology generally can help you apply the knowledge in new ways, causing it to become represented in multiple different ways in your brain. Having multiple representations of the same knowledge has two major advantages.
Firstly, it means that you’re going to find that knowledge more easily and secondly, you’re more likely to find a version of that knowledge that is most suitable for the situation at hand.

In this video, we hear from Paul Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol, about how information is processed by the brain into learning that sticks. His thoughts will add to your clarity ahead of taking a look at the school case studies to accompany this week’s learning.

Key takeaways:

  • Pupils need to allocate mental resources to processing new information and we should take this into account when planning lessons
  • Meaningful learning comes from making connections to prior knowledge
  • New knowledge is vulnerable until rehearsal takes place, which can help to consolidate it; making the learning more permanent and accessible
When you’ve watched this video and made any notes to record key learning points, click the ‘Mark as complete’ button below and then select ‘Optimising learning using retrieval practice’ to continue your learning.
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Using Technology in Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning

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