How we learn: explore e-learning mechanisms and add value to your online students

Our brain does not just store facts, ideas, or experiences. It embeds them within networks of perceptions and thoughts, thus creating numerous combinations of recalled memories and knowledge on demand. Knowing how our brain cells work is crucial to online learning.

Spoiler alert: yes, you can boost your memory by using our learning tips.

Where learning happens

Learning and memory are evergreens in the scientific fields. That is why researchers continue to explore the way our brains form memories. The brain’s cellular network makes memories grow stronger each time they are recalled. On the other hand, learning includes forgetting, which is a useful mechanism that allows the brain to get rid of irrelevant information. Forgetting allows the brain to focus, enabling sought-after facts to be recalled. It works to block distracting information and to clear away useless clutter.

From the moment we are born, we begin to learn quickly, efficiently, and automatically. But in our attempt to systematize the process, we ignore valuable and enjoyable learning factors like forgetting, sleeping, and daydreaming.

Learning mechanisms

The science of learning is a study of our “mental muscle.” It explores the mechanism by which the brain manages the aspects of daily life. Our mind has specific areas that handle different types of memory formation. Here are some of them:

  • The Cortex – This is the place where long-term memories are stored
  • The Hippocampus – It is involved in short-term memory. It also organizes the memories of the cortex and plays a role in autobiographical memories
  • The Amygdala – It is responsible for all emotional memories like fear and trauma
  • The Cerebellum – It is an essential part of the brain that is used when trying to master motor skills

Every memory triggers two of the brain’s main superpowers: One is to store and the other is to retrieve. Storage power measures how well we learn something. It gets more consistent and sharper the more we use it. On the other hand, retrieval power measures how easily a piece of information comes back to us when needed. It also increases with study and use. Generally, retrieval power updates information quickly and keeps the most relevant details nearby, while storage power allows us to quickly learn new information.

Curious facts about learning

  1. The two modes of learning seem to involve different mechanisms. Furthermore, they are connected to different brain regions. Also, we develop them at different stages of life. Babies are as good at discovery as the brightest grown-up. On the other hand, routinized learning develops later.
  2. The brain is not exactly a muscle. It is sensitive to mood, timing, and environment. Children seem to learn new things more easily than adults. But as time goes by, our knowledge becomes more automatic. For that reason, it becomes harder to change. Routinized learning is less about getting smarter and more about mastering mechanical procedures, which frees up our brains for new discoveries.
  3. Learning is not a passive process. Also, it doesn’t happen in an empty brain. On the contrary, we are constantly interpreting information from our environments and learning from it.
  4. We usually think that having an interest in something assists in the learning process. But learning can also help us develop that interest.
  5. The activities that promote mastery may be different from the activities that promote discovery.
  6. We aren’t always aware of the learning process or its benefits. In addition, we are constantly learning and we often do this unconsciously without having the intention to learn anything at all.
  7. Learning changes as we age. Therefore, learning is not the same in old age as when we are young. However, it is possible for people to learn throughout their entire lives.

The role of our emotions

Emotions influence learning in many ways. Different studies on learning and emotion show strong relationships between positive emotions and educational achievements. In addition, positive emotions may help sustain the motivation to learn. Surprisingly, negative emotions are also an essential part of the learning process. A positive mood may help us gain new information or build on knowledge. Anxiety might actually intensify learning performance by focusing attention. Moreover, researchers found that negative stimuli make our brain suppress unnecessary details. They also help to focus on the major aspects of a subject.

Online learning environments have to deal with many emotions, maybe even more than in standard conventional teaching systems. The lack of physical closeness requires a strong emotional presence, including eye contact, relevant gestures, affirmative body language, smiling, a personable attitude, demonstrating interest, etc.

A brief history of memory learning

  1. In 350 B.C. Aristotle wrote in De Anima (On the Soul) that people are born with a mind that is a blank slate onto which experiences are inscribed.
  2. In 1885 German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus created about 2,300 nonsense syllables and memorized them. Then he tested how quickly he forgot the lists. The result of his research is known as the “forgetting curve.” His project launched the study of learning.
  3. A 1930s American neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, pioneered a technique to study the brain of epilepsy patients during surgery. He discovered that stimulating a part of the temporal lobe caused patients to recall forgotten experiences in detail.
  4. Studies from the1950s revealed the function of the hippocampus and how different brain regions store different types of memories.
  5. A 1970s Columbia University neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, found that repeatedly triggering the reflexes of sea slugs caused a change in the number of chemicals released from their neurons. This change turned out to be the mechanism for short-term memory. He also found that long-term memory requires protein synthesis and new connections between neurons. His work earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000.

*Source: http://discovermagazine.com/2016/jul-aug/how-we-learn

Memory hacks and other e-learning tips

  1. Memory champions have similar capabilities thanks to certain mnemonic techniques like using visually elaborate stories to memorize different things. For example, try to connect a fact to an unusual image like a smashed tomato, the moonwalk, or Churchill’s hat. The more vividly you see the image, the more memorizable it becomes.
  2. The act of guessing engages the mind. It does so in a different and more demanding way than straight memorization achieves. Moreover, it deepens the imprint of the correct answers.
  3. Games make us react to different strategies. Also, they require thought, flexibility, and inventiveness.
  4. Chunk information. Break down what you want to remember into small pieces of notable data.
  5. Use sleep. It plays an important role in building memories. The most critical stage of sleep is the second one and is connected with motor learning.
  6. Seek out difficulties. The harder your brain has to work to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning.
  7. Mixing up different types of learning styles helps prepare the brain for the unexpected.
  8. Learning in a different context exposes us to a wider range of mental triggers and can help the brain’s performance.

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Tanya Ilieva has strong experience in journalism, advertising, creative copywriting and digital marketing. She has a PhD in Graphic design from Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication in Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Some of her creative works in advertising has been rewarded both in Bulgaria and abroad. Her fields of interest include: philosophy of language, semiotics, visual metaphors, linguistic.
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