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Understand how your brain learns

2020 SPS Learn Better Learning Brain

Understanding how the brain works can help you improve your grades in any exam. There’s a clear advantage to knowing why something works, and why you’re learning.

This insight will help you use your brain more effectively.

A quick guide to your brain

Science journalist, Rita Carter*, provides us with an excellent description of the brain:

It’s big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the colour of uncooked liver and the consistency of firm jelly

Imagine a cross section of the brain, taken from the side.

Q1 2020 Blog Learning Brain 1

The cortex is the largest part of the human brain. It’s associated with higher brain function such as ‘thought’ and ‘action’, and is divided into 4 sections:

  • Frontal Lobe – associated with reasoning, planning, some speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
  • Parietal Lobe – associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe – associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe – associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

Where your learning takes place

Learning arguably begins with Synaptic transmission, which is where neurons send electrical messages.

The neurons never touch, and the gaps are filled with chemicals or ‘neurotransmitters’ which include dopamine and serotonin. These are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.

Q1 2020 Blog Learning Brain 2

Learning is making new connections, remembering is keeping them

When this is repeated the relationship between neurons becomes stronger and a memory is formed, and learning takes place.

How is this relevant?

It’s relevant as it highlights why repetition is so valuable. So if you’re reading something and it’s not registering, you need to fire those neurons again - but perhaps using different stimuli.

Try saying it out loud, or drawing a picture alongside the text. Keep exploring alternatives to make it stick.

Your intelligence isn’t fixed

For many years we believed that the brain, or intelligence, was hard wired, and largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons.

But that all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and see how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. This revealed that the brain can generate new cells - not only in childhood but also in adulthood.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire and Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 London based trainee taxi drivers and 31 non-taxi drivers.

Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter (i.e. cell development) three to four years after passing “the knowledge” test when compared to the other group.

The original study of London taxi drivers provided tantalising hints that brain structure might change through learning

- Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust

So what does this mean for you?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to.

This isn’t to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it’s estimated that 50%/60% of intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption that your brain cannot change.

Knowing how the brain works can actually help you ‘rewire’ it. Evidence** supports the idea that students who are mindful about how they learn will reflect on what they are doing. This naturally leads to the growth of even more cells.

Although it’s fair to say there is still much we don’t understand about the brain, hopefully this blog has helped remove some of the mystery behind learning.

It’s not a magical process, it’s a scientific one.

The Learn Better blog is a series of evidence based stories from the world of education, with a common theme - to inspire and motivate students. They are mostly based on original articles/blogs by Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith.

*From Rita Carter’s book, ‘Mapping the Mind’

**Metacognition is the practise of thinking about thinking.