Ever felt that you just can’t learn anymore? Or that your brain is 'full’?
This isn’t uncommon, yet we’re told that the brain’s capacity is potentially limitless, made up of around 86 billion neurons.
To understand why both of these may be true we have to look into how the brain learns or, to be precise, how it manages information.
Cognitive load and schemas
Educational psychologist, John Sweller, introduced the world to the concept of ‘cognitive load’ - the idea that we have a limit to the amount of information we can process.
Cognitive load relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time
- John Sweller
Human memory can be divided into ‘working memory’ and ‘long-term memory’. Working memory, also known as ‘short term memory’ is limited. It’s only capable of holding roughly 7 units of information at any one time, but long-term memory has arguably infinite capacity.
A quick exercise
We can highlight the limited nature of the working memory through a simple exercise.
Look at the 12 letters below. Take about 5 seconds. Look away from the screen and write down what you can remember on a blank piece of paper.
Because there are more than 9 characters, this will be difficult. We will come back to this later.
Information is stored in long-term memory in the form of schemas. These are concepts that help organise and interpret new information.
For example, when you think of a tree it’s defined by a number of characteristics: it’s green, has a trunk, and leaves at the end of branches. This is a schema.
But when it comes to autumn, the tree is no longer green and loses its leaves, suggesting that this cannot be a tree. However, if you use your existing schema to process the new information you can accommodate this in a revised version of how you think about a tree.
You have effectively learned something new and stored it in long term memory.
By holding information in schemas, when new information arrives, your brain can very quickly identify if it fits within an existing one, this process helps with knowledge acquisition and understanding.
The problem therefore lies with our working memory and its limited capacity. But if we change the way we absorb information, so that it doesn’t overload working memory, the whole process will become more effective.
Avoiding brain overload
So what can we do to avoid the brain becoming overloaded?
Here are some simple techniques:
- Simple first
This may sound like common sense but very effective - break things down into simple equations e.g. 2+2 = 4 and then move towards the more complex e.g. 2,423 + 12,324,345.
If you start with a complex calculation the brain will struggle to manipulate the numbers or find any pattern.
- Direct Instruction, not discovery
Although there is significant merit in figuring things out for yourself, when learning something new it is better to follow guided instruction (teacher led) supported by several examples. Similar to starting simple and becoming more complex (as above).
When you have created your own schema, you can begin to work independently.
- Visual overload
Relevant for those who deliver presentations. Avoid having too much information on a page or slide. Reveal each part slowly. The secret is to break down complexity into smaller segments.
This is the argument for not having too much content all on one page, which is often the case in textbooks. Read with a piece of paper or ruler, effectively underlining the words you are reading, moving the paper down, revealing a new line at a time.
- Pictures and words
Having “relevant” pictures alongside text helps avoid what’s called ‘split attention’. This is why creating your own notes with images as well as text, when producing a mind map, works so well.
- Focus, avoid distraction
Similar to visual overload, remove all unnecessary images and information. Keep focused on the task in hand. There may be some nice to know facts, but stick to the essential ones.
- Key words
When reading or making notes don’t highlight or write down exactly what you read. Simplify the sentence; focusing on the key words helps reduce the amount of input.
- Use existing schemas
If you already have an understanding of a topic or subject, it will be sat within a schema. So think how the new information changes your original understanding.
Remember the 12 characters from earlier, if we chunk them into 4 pieces of information and link to an existing schema, you will find it much easier to remember.
For example, here are the same 12 characters broken down:
FBI – TWA – PHD – IBM
Each one sits within an existing schema e.g. (F)ederal (B)ureau of (I)nvestigation etc, making it easier for the brain to learn the new information.
Note – the above ideas are based on Richard E. Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning.
Understanding more about how the brain works, and how to manage some of its limitations not only makes learning more efficient but also gives you the confidence that you are learning more effectively.
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.