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What happens in our brain when we learn?

This video explores how memories are formed in our brains, and what happens inside when we are learning. Let's explore.
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Learning is a lasting change in knowledge or behaviour as a result of experiences of some kind. Humans have learned from each other for many thousands of years, but the demands of modern society require us to learn much, much more than our ancestors ever needed. Take Pippa; she is a highly educated Specialist Nurse. Thousands of years ago her ancestors had to learn skills such as trapping animals and knowing which plants could safely be eaten. In the modern world, Pippa needs to know many thousands more things than her ancestors. So, as soon as she reached the age of 5 she started school so that the skills she needed could be acquired in a planned and lasting way.
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Many of her skills only became truly permanent because she practised retrieving them, such as her times tables in Primary School, and years later, the ‘ABC’ sequence for dealing with a collapsed patient. It’s important to note that, although technology has increased exponentially over the last 100 years, human brains have not. So, just like her ancestors, Pippa has to practice doing things. Learning is a little like getting fit; in order to become fitter, we need to take exercise. Similarly, to learn, we need to actually do something. This is because, when we learn something permanently, we grow lots of tiny mental connections in our brains.
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These connections are the building blocks of our memories, a bit like the way a person in the gym builds new muscle fibres. These connections are made when we learn a new skill, or when we understand and memorise some new information. But, and this is a really important point, most of these connections are only made permanent when we practise skills again, or when we retrieve new knowledge after time has passed. These connections rarely grow when we only hear or see something once. Interestingly, just as when we were children, we didn’t intuitively know which foods were good for us and probably often chose tasty snacks that weren’t particularly nutritious.
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We don’t intuitively know the best way to learn, and, left to our own devices may choose an apparently easy method that actually doesn’t work well. This is why we need teachers and trainers, to ensure we access the best learning experiences. There are no short cuts. If we are simply told something in a lecture, or we just read text and don’t do anything more, the connection almost always withers. This is why Death by PowerPoint, in which a presenter reads aloud from slides, rarely creates lasting learning. We have to do something in order to form a memory.
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A quick read of some text or watching a YouTube how-to video may provide a feeling of acquiring new information, but if there’s no activity, no mental friction, it’s unlikely to be stored as permanent knowledge.

In the video, we explained how physical changes are made in the brain when lasting learning is created.

It’s important to remember that although technology improves at an exponential rate (Moore’s Law states the processing power of a computer chip doubles every two years), humans do.

Technology can help us achieve our goals

To return to our analogy of learning with physical fitness, technology can help us achieve our goals like training machines help us exercise in a gym. However, as with exercise, we need to devote effort to the process.

Despite the use of the term updating to describe healthcare professionals’ ongoing learning, information cannot be transferred into our brains at high speed like a PC that updates itself in minutes.

An old saying offers this piece of wisdom:

I hear and I forget,
I see and I remember,
I do and I understand.

The origin of this saying has been lost in time, but it remains relevant because it reminds us that we need to actively engage with a new skill and knowledge to truly embed them in our brains.

Here, ‘Do’ does not only mean practising a physical skill. It can mean discussing a concept with colleagues (face to face or online), putting something into your own words or solving a problem. Or it can mean listening to a well-told story that conjures up images in your mind.

Spreading out our learning

A single visit to learning is rarely sufficient to ensure knowledge and skills are retained permanently and easily accessible for future use. Three consecutive hours spent learning a topic are less effective than three separate hours spread over a period of days.

The technique of spreading learning over a period of time is known as Spacing. It ensures we access the memory again and in doing so strengthen mental connections.

Technology can help us learn by providing a simulation of real-life situations, by enabling communication with colleagues and tutors and in many other helpful ways. Online courses such as this one are good examples. However, we need to expend targeted effort in order to grow lasting mental connections.

What does this mean for trainers and learning designers?

Most of us know that to become fit, we need to commit physical effort. However, not everyone is as aware that effort is also required for learning to take place. A key part of a trainer’s or learning designer’s role is to encourage learners to devote effort and not just take the approach that appears easiest.

Although the provision of training in one condensed visit may be easy to organise, spacing learning out over a period of days is more likely to create lasting learning.

Learning in a virus-impacted time

As more training is moved online in some form because of social distancing requirements, spaced learning becomes easier to facilitate.

Online learning (live and non-live) can be made available in chunks that are spaced over a period of days. Each one can begin with a short recall activity which will strengthen the memory of the previous sections.

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