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Learning & Development Blog

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How The Brain Learns: Rules To Remember

I was once lucky enough to attend a keynote speech by Dr. John Medina on his book Brain Rules at a Learning Solutions conference. When I think of Dr. Medina's address, especially among the many I've attended, some words that immediately spring to mind are enlightening, engaging, exciting and energizing....pass the alliteration please!

First of all, you should know that Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist, research consultant, and Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. You might wonder why Dr. Medina was speaking at a conference for eLearning professionals until you see this last credit: He is also the director for the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

And when you hear him speak, you can tell immediately that the man is fascinated with and passionate about how the brain takes in and organizes information; the essence of learning.

In his book, Dr. Medina provides 12 rules that encapsulate what current science knows about how the human brain learns. All 12 rules have potentially profound implications for the future of learning.

The science behind these rules is fascinating, though they really come down to common sense. I'd like to share a few that Dr. Medina discussed in his address.

how the brain is wired

Brain Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.

Each person's brain is shaped by our individual experiences. We see evidence of this every day in the people all around us. In their likes and dislikes, in their special skills and abilities, and in what motivates them.

In corporate training we don't take this fact into account, at least not nearly enough. Most corporate training, and for that matter most educational programs in general, are very 'one size fits all'. Much of the time this is necessarily so given the subject, the time frame, the number of students to be trained, etc. The learner must adapt to how the material is presented, rather than adapting the way the material is presented to each learner. The former is expected, the latter is currently a daunting prospect in most learning situations.

We once designed training about the ins and outs of a financial software package being implemented at the University of Minnesota. We had several thousand users to train at five different campuses across the state in about eight weeks. And the users had to pass an assessment in order to gain access to the new system.

I had one business day with each group of 30-40 users. There was no time, given the amount of material we had to get through in that day, to even learn their names, let alone how to communicate with each one of them most effectively. In that situation, it's practically impossible to even acknowledge that each person is different. But, what if we could find a way?

What if we could customize training programs for each learner using adaptive software technology? I believe it is coming. Amazon and Netflix adapt their recommendations for us based on our past buying and renting behavior. I believe that same kind of technology will be utilized down the road to help us efficiently customize learning programs for individuals. The potential to increase meaningful learning and decrease training frustration is incredible, if we can figure out a way to do it effectively.

Repeat to remember

Brain Rule #5: Repeat to remember.

I'm sure you have had the experience of having to remember a phone number for the minute or two it took you to find a pen and paper. What did you do?

Likely you recited the phone number in your head, or even out loud, until you could write it down. If someone asked you the next day to write down the phone number for them, could you do it? Most likely not, though it might depend on how many times you repeated that number in your head the day before while looking for a pen.

This illustrates one of the quirks of our short-term memory. As Dr. Medina showed us with some exciting research, repetition is one of the keys to converting short-term memories into longer term ones.

We can only hold from 4-7 pieces of information in our short-term memory at one time and only for about 30 seconds. If the information is not repeated in that 30 second window, the short-term memory buffer is cleared of the information. Poof...it's like it was never there.

But, if you repeat that information, you can buy yourself another 30 seconds or so. If you keep this up, the memory will move to a buffer with a little more fortitude and you'll be able to recall that phone number a few hours later or maybe the next day. But, it you don't repeat the information or use that phone number somewhat regularly, it will go bye-bye again. Unless it has been repeated enough to make it all the way to long-term memory.

So what does this brain rule mean for the training world? I think it can point us in a couple of directions. First, in a classroom or eLearning environment, I think we need to restructure our training to provide more opportunities for repetition of important material. Perhaps delivering training in smaller chunks and repeating information in an organized way to assist the memory encoding process would help allow for this. Second, outside of the learning environment, we can use the wealth of social media and collaborative tools we have available to use to help keep that new learning at the forefront.


Brain Rule #6: Remember to repeat.

Do you ever have those days when you swear you have forgotten more than you remember? The same day I attended Dr. Medina's presentation I later found myself in an elevator with a couple speaking French.

Now, back in school I took French for seven years and became passably fluent after an extended trip to the country. But that was over 20 years ago with really no opportunity to use the language in the meantime. As I listened to the couple speak to each other, I realized that while I easily recognized the language as French, I didn't have the first clue about what they were saying. As I thought about this (and grumbled to myself about 7 years of wasted time in the classroom) I realized that the French I did remember was the stuff we learned in the first weeks of the first year...Hello, my name is...How are you?...and, Where is the bathroom? along with saying the alphabet and counting to 20. The same things that were repeated in and out of class hundreds of times over than 7 years. Those words and phrases remain firmly cemented in my long-term memory and are readily accessible to me. Apparently I repeated them enough times over the years to make this happen. The rest of the language...not so much.

Dr. Medina's brain rule #6: Remember to repeat helps us to understand the problem of "use it or lose it." One thing he revealed to us during his address was that it can take up to 10 years for something you learn to become solidified in long-term memory. And, until that memory arrives at its final destination, it is open to modification or corruption.

That certainly helps explain why that first year French was the only thing to stick with me long term. I have not needed that language to get through life for the last 25 years so I have essentially lost it due to disuse. It makes sense that the brain might discard memories that have not been used in some time, or at least archive them in off-site storage when it is time to de-clutter.

Here's the cool thing about this brain rule from a training perspective: since we know this happens, we have an opportunity as trainers and educators to set up repetitive and increasingly richer training cycles to refresh and add to important learning. By helping learners remember to repeat, they can use and build on what they have learned instead of losing it to the ether.

Elearning Company