Key learning principles
- From a neurobiological point of view, learning alters the brain.
- Small amounts of stress are good for learning, but higher levels have a negative impact on it.
- Enough sleep, adequate nutrition, and physical exercise promote good learning.
- Active learning.
Altering the brain: For effective learning to take place, the brain requires conditions to help it change in response to a stimulus and to help it produce new neurons.
To make learning most effective, different regions of the brain must be engaged to perform the task at hand. These different regions are linked to various areas, such as memory and the five senses, resulting in higher levels of cognitive functioning and volitional control.
A little stress: Stress and performance can be seen as an “inverted U curve”. In order to learn, the brain requires a moderate amount of stress, which is measured in the level of cortisol. Low stress levels are linked to low performance levels. On the other hand, excessive stress can trigger the system into fight-or-flight mode, causing less brain activity in the cortical areas where higher-level learning takes place. Small amounts of stress, or moderate levels of cortisol, tend to be associated to higher performance levels in any type of activity. It is consequently possible to conclude that moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while both low and extreme stress have a negative impact on the learning process.
There are multiple ways of inducing moderate stress levels; playing unfamiliar music before class, or changing the format of discussion or certain learning activities, might introduce a little bit of stress in students’ minds. However, different people react differently to the same stimuli. The levels of cortisol in response to a trigger can vary significantly from one person to another. So, what constitutes “moderate stress” for one person might cause “mild or extreme stress” in another. In other words, a stimulus that enhances one student’s performance might have a destabilising effect on another.
Getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise: These healthy habits form two aspects of a good environment for learning performance. They promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and they keep cortisol and dopamine (stress and happiness hormones, respectively) at optimal levels. Studying all night to forcefully stomp the course material into one’s brain, skipping meals, and neglecting physical exercise reduce the brain’s capacity for academic performance.
Active Learning: The cognitive functions associated with lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, such as comprehension and recall, are associated with the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory and spatial consciousness). The higher-level cognitive functions of Bloom’s taxonomy, such as creation, evaluation, analysis, and application, involve the domains of the cortical that are responsible for decision-making, association and motivation.
More complex thought processes are more beneficial for learning, because they include a greater number of neural connections, as well as more neurological cross-talk. Active learning takes advantage of this cross-talk, stimulating a variety of areas of the brain and improving memory.