The matter of learning

Dr James Gupta, founder and CEO of Synap, outlines what neuroscience has to say about the way our brains help us acquire information

This article will look at some of the fascinating research into the science of learning and associated technologies, and consider how it can be used to help students learn more in less time. 

The neuroscience of learning

Neuroscience research reveals fascinating insights into the way we learn. Reading a book produces visible changes in brain matter composition, and our long-term memory is practically infinite

On the other hand, we can only concentrate for 10-15 minutes at a time, our ability to recall information in the short-term is incredibly limited, and we forget 90% of what we’ve been told just a week later. 

Upon reflection, none of these insights should be particularly surprising, but at the very least they do add weight to existing intuitions about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to learning. 

For example, we know that it’s not enough to just tell students something once and expect them to remember it forever. Similarly, as educators of all age groups will no doubt attest, an hour is a long time to hold the attention and concentration of a group of students. 

The way classes and lectures are traditionally delivered, however, is a compromise between the neurologically ‘optimum’ concentration span, and what is logistically feasible in terms of managing hundreds or thousands of students in an education system. 

One concept of particular interest to me is Spaced Learning. First described in 1885 by German psychologist, Herman Ebbinghaus, it describes the fact that if we review information at increasing intervals, we can more reliably recall it in the future.

Again, this should not be particularly surprising to most of us – it makes intuitive sense that the more we see something, the more likely we are to remember it, but it’s still interesting to see modern science explaining how this works.

It turns out that partially forgetting something, and then struggling to remember it, is a necessary part of the memory formation process. When we try to remember things, we’re essentially exercising our brain – it responds to the challenge by strengthening existing neuronal connections so that, in the future, it can recall the information more reliably without having to struggle.

Taking it into the classroom

So, can educators actually take advantage of any of these findings? New technology has always been a part of education and, when done correctly, it should enable teachers and students to do more with less. When done poorly, it becomes an expensive distraction or a gimmick.

In my opinion, one of the most promising applications for technology in education is in allowing people to learn in a more natural way; in a method more aligned with the way our brains are adapted to learn, free from some of the logistical constraints of traditional education delivery.

To give a specific example: mobile apps make it very easy for people to study in short five-minute bursts, wherever they are. Push notifications, in particular, can be very powerful external triggers to remind people to stick to a schedule, such as that required for effective spaced learning. Examples of this can be seen in education with the popularity of Duolingo, and in other areas such as meditation app Headspace.

Technology and neuroscience aren’t replacements for a good teacher, but in a resource-constrained environment, where large class sizes and ‘one-to-many’ rather than ‘one-to-one’ teaching is often a necessity, they can be hugely beneficial supplements.

Dr. James Gupta is the Founder and CEO of Synap, an intelligent online learning platform that uses spaced learning and other techniques to help students learn more in less time.