Learning: The Sport of the Brain

I’m not sure what (or if) students think about their own learning process. From my observations of college students over the past twenty years or so, they seem so focused on the grades they will receive or the credentials they need to acquire for their “next step” after college, that I’m not sure they stop too often to think about their own learning process. Sure, the students are also interested in learning something new, but that seems to take a mental back seat to the grade as the semester progresses.

I think making the learning process itself an explicit part of your course will likely help your students focus on the experience, rather than only the end result of the experience. It may even help them learn more effectively.

There are all sorts of ways to learn something new and all sorts of study strategies. All of the successful strategies share a couple of features:

1. Attention. You gotta pay attention to learn something. You need to “gear up,” get ready to engage in the learning.

2. Practice. You need to work with the material more than once. Repetition. There are absolutely zillions of studies that show improved mastery of any number of physical, cognitive and associative memory tasks with repeated trials. [Why do we tend to only examine our students once or at most two times on any grouping of course content?]

3. Use of more than one sensory ability. There are plenty of studies out there in the neuroscience literature demonstrating that greater neural plasticity and heightened learning/memory result from multimodal stimulation. For example, people who learn to play a song on a piano have a better ability to discern errors in subsequent songs than people who just listen to the learning of the song.

Learning is anything but passive absorption of information. It’s much more like a sport for the brain. Brain pilates.

image from: http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/group:the-sports-encephalon:exercise-sports-and-the-brain

When we are preparing for a sporting event or fitness session, we get mentally prepared. Physiological changes occur: Your cardiovascular system revs up by changing heart rate and blood pressure, you begin taking deeper breaths, your mind focuses on the task at hand.

In the same way, our students need to mentally prepare for learning. They need to prepare when they enter the classroom. They need to prepare when they sit down to work on the class material outside of class.

Mental Preparation for the Classroom Learning:

Students are often rushing into class, still mentally focused on what was going on just before: the long line for the mocha latte they just had to have before class, the quick phone call to a parent, the text message from a friend, the grade on the paper just returned to them in the previous class. We’ve all experienced this, right? It takes several minutes into a classroom to get settled mentally and start to focus. I think we need to help our students learn how to prepare for the learning in class. One successful strategy I’ve used is to have a question on the board that they need to write about for the first 5 min. “What was one important concept or theme we discussed in class the previous session?” or “What do you think was the most interesting point made in class last time?”

Another strategy I’ve used is to spend the first five minutes or so having a brief class discussion about the major points we covered in class the previous session. I usually write on the board as I ask and answer questions.

After this short 5 min or so, the students all seem much more focused and ready to begin class. It’s also easier for them to link the upcoming course material with what we just did, so it’s a nice way to integrate across class sessions.

Mental Preparation for Learning Outside of Class

This mental preparation should also be used as they sit down to study or read outside of class.

What kinds of assignments can you give your students to help them incorporate those features directly into their learning experience?

1. Ask them to write a short blog post about what they read in preparation for class

2. Ask them to keep a “study journal” where they need to write out a question they have before reading, or a question they have after their reading.

3. Give them a short pre and post survey (you can do this with Moodle polling or Doodle polls). Keep it to just a few questions. Have them fill it out before and again after they’ve read their assignment or done their problem set or whatever you have assigned.

4. Talk with them about ways to study, how to get in the right mindset, finding the best study setting to help them better focus, etc. Talk with them about the types of “brain training” that work for your discipline.

If more of your students have their heads in the game, your teaching experience will be vastly improved, as will their learning.

image from: http://cutcaster.com/photo/801106594-Concept-of-six-ability-in-human-brain/



2 thoughts on “Learning: The Sport of the Brain

  1. This post makes some very good points. I especially like the idea of asking them to write about the previous class or connect their preparation material to the current class. The difficulty always is: time! These days I try to give them a daily “study tip”, remind them of upcoming due dates, renew their ties to their group members, and so on, that it feels like there’s hardly any time for learning in class. And I teach a flipped class, so all we do is activities. However, sometimes i think all the helpful tidbits I try to include start to take up more time than the learning activities. It’s such a struggle.

    • Yes, Melissa, time is so precious! I find the student activities take longer than I budget, so I find I’m constantly refining and working to make sure the students get the most out of the in-class experience. The cost of the time for reflections and connections, though, does reap benefits in terms of student engagement. Thanks so much for your comment!

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