The Physical Elements of Learning

What is learning? How do we know things? What helps us to learn?

Neuroscience researchers have demonstrated that when you learn something new, there is a physical change in your brain. The connections of neurons grow in certain areas. If you cease to utilize new knowledge or skills, those connections will be more difficult to access over time. Learning something without then attempting to “seat it” in long-term memory means you will likely quickly forget the new knowledge or skill.

Moving learned items into long-term memory happens through practice and rest. The research on practice indicates that short-term intense practice (cramming, short courses lasting hours per day, but not for months) does not work well for long-term recall.

Instead, spaced practice leads to best learning outcomes and retention. Take weight training, for example. If you train for five hours per day for a week, and then stop, in a month you will probably not see many gains. However, if you train daily for one hour for a month, you will likely see significant gains. Interestingly, both physical gains and memory gains require sleep to repair the muscle and to seat long-term memory.

The brain consumes 30% of the body’s energy. This highly energy-intensive structure requires adequate nutrition and sleep to function well. Developing brains (all of our brains are developing, although adults are not necessarily developing as quickly as adolescent brains) require hydration, protein and carbohydrates, and deep rest.

Therefore, as we prepare for the new school year, and to provide your children with the best opportunity for learning, consider emphasizing the following:

  • A sensible diet, preferably to include complex carbohydrates and protein (start with breakfast).
  • Hydration. Lots of water to keep the brain cells functioning.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Go to bed at a time that allows for 8 hours of sleep per night.

These simple steps will provide your child with the head start they need to be their best learners.

Excerpted from The New Science of Learning, Dyle and Zakrajsek, 2019.

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