How the brain learns?
Opinion World

How the brain learns?

Muhammad Shozaib

In any classroom, the most important thing for a teacher to consider is how her teaching will be received by the students?

Will they be able to understand what the teacher is trying to deliver? How and how much will they be able to absorb from the knowledge presented to them? Will that which has been presented become a part of the students’ lives, enabling them to recall it whenever they need it? These are some questions that haunt all good teachers before and after every class as they seek maximum learning outcomes from their efforts. But what exactly is learning?

Psychologists often define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior as a result of experience. By this definition, learning is a consequence of any processing in our mind after an action or reaction.

There are two main approaches to conceive and understand learning that the discipline of psychology has put forth. First is the behavioral approach while the second is the information processing approach. In this article, we will talk about the second approach i.e. the information processing approach.

The information processing approach describes the learning process as consisting of a number of stages or steps. These include attending to a stimulus, recognizing it, transforming it into some type of mental representation, comparing it with information already stored in memory, assigning meaning to it, and acting on it in some fashion (Linnel, 2007). Let’s look at these processes in a little more detail.

In any classroom, there is a flood of information for the students. This information is received through our five senses. This is the first step from where information processing starts. All five senses work and gather information in this first stage called the sensory register. Information stays in this register only for 2 to 4 seconds. If a student doesn’t apply what psychologists call controlling processes, then this information will be lost. Control processes are the watch dogs that ensure the transfer of information from one stage to other. The two control processes of the sensory register are attention and recognition. If a student doesn’t attend to the information, it can’t be passed on to the second stage. This is simple understanding that we can’t attend to every information that is presented to us. We focus only on those things that we find relevant. This has been confirmed through psychological research as well. For example, in one experiment, the experimenter restricted the focus of the participants on one thing, such as calculating the number of cards shown. While the participants are counting cards, things are shuffled around in the environment that they are. But when the experimenter asks questions about the changes in the background, most of the participants are able to recount them since they were focusing only on the task at hand, even though the changes are made within their visual field. A similar scenario happens in a classroom. Students only absorb what they pay attention to and miss everything they do not attend to.

A teacher can maintain the attention of students with the help of different prompts like questions, discussions, nodding on the board, body movement and with various gestures and postures. The variation in the tone of voice also increases improves the attention of students during the lecture. However, sometimes the teacher could him or herself be the source of distraction for students though unsuitable movements in classroom, monotonous tone etc. Since many distractions are already present in schools, teachers should be wary of further adding these undesirable things to the list.

On the other hand, the control process of recognition means building or identifying a connection between new information and pre-existing knowledge and past experiences. If students are unable to connect these dots, it becomes difficult for them to retain the new information.

The second stage in the information processing model is short term memory. Another name for short term memory is working memory because it holds the information related to the work that we are currently doing. An analogy of RAM is used to describe the overall functionality of short term memory. Information stays here for only 20 seconds. According to cognitive scientists, people who have good short term memory are good learners. The control process or the watch dog for this stage is maintenance rehearsal, which refers to repeating the information over and over again in order to keep it in the memory. An example of this is repeating a telephone number to ourselves when we are trying to dial it from our memory.

The third stage of information processing model is long term memory. According to many educationists, the “the purpose of any unit lecture should be the transfer of knowledge to the long term memory of students.” To be able to apply the knowledge that they are exposed to, students need to transfer it from short term memory to long term. For this purpose, there is a need of conscious learning and active dialogue between short term and long term memories. The greater the number of threads and connections a student develops between the two types of memory, the higher the chances of information retention. The control process of this stage is elaborative rehearsal which involves three main strategies. First of these strategies is the organization of information. The benefit of organizing any information is the creation of mental hooks which serve to carry a lot of information like a case or a bag. An experiment conducted by Bower, Clark, Lesgold, & Winzenz (1969) establishes the importance of organization. In this experiment, two groups of participants were asked to learn 112 words in four successive lists but under different conditions. One group was given each of the four lists for four learning trials in a hierarchically organized fashion, with thematically related words falling under each other. The other group was given the same lists and the same hierarchical tree arrangement, but the words from each list were randomly arranged over four levels of hierarchy. The results showed that the organized material was much easier to learn not only because there were fewer chunks to memorize but also because each item in a group served as a cue for the other items. This shows the importance of organization.

The second strategy of elaborative rehearsal is establishing meaningfulness. This means that whatever information is being presented and to and rehearsed by the learner should be understood by the learner and its meaning should be clear. It’s much more difficult to remember information of which the students don’t know the meaning, as opposed to the information that they fully comprehend.

A third strategy of elaborative rehearsal is utilizing visual imagery. This is done by associating verbal information with visual information such as images and drawings which then serve as a recalling cue. The importance of using visual imagery has been established by many researched. However, we ourselves experimented it in one of our classes. At the beginning of the class, we showed 10 words to students to memorize. Five of them contained meanings with images and the remaining five had meanings only in plain text. At the end of the 50 minutes session, we asked students to recall the meanings of the 10 words. We found that the meanings with images were memorized more easily and the retention of these words were higher because of the images that the students had seen and hence stored as a cue in their brains.

In the above discussion, we outlined the various stages of learning according to the information processing model. However, there is more to the model than just the stages of sensory register, short term and long term memory. The model also explains a higher level which deals with our own knowledge about our learning. This is called metacognition and is often defined as ‘thinking about thinking’. Thus, students or individuals who are strong in metacognitive ability have a knowledge of the strategies and techniques which facilitate and enhance our learning process. Moreover, they are also more in charge of their learning, and are able to plan and manage it effectively through setting goals, using effective learning tactics, monitoring their progress, and modifying their strategies if required.

In conclusion, the information processing approach gives us a useful model to conceptualize how learning occurs. With a thorough knowledge of information processing principles, the teachers can not only improve their instruction but can also empower their students to take command of their own learning.