Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Does It Take to Learn?

TamaraJonesTamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

What can we do in our classes to facilitate student learning? What activities increase learning? Are we inadvertently doing anything to impede learning? These are certainly some of the most important questions that language teachers are (or should be) asking. After all, student learning is the whole point, right?

But, we know from our experience in front of the classroom that teaching doesn’t necessarily equal learning. How many times have you taught a grammar structure or a vocabulary word only to be met by blank stares when “reviewing” it in the following lesson. Learning is rarely a straight forward movement, and that old saying about taking a step forward and three steps back seems really apt when the topic of learning comes up.

Fortunately, researchers have some suggestions about biologically proven ways to increase student learning in our classes. In other words, there are things that we can do as teachers to help students learn more easily and more fully. In a recent professional development session delivered by Lynn (2017), she highlighted three best practices for facilitating learning in our ESL and EFL classes.

Before I share what I learned, it might be helpful to understand how learning physically happens in the brain. So, get ready for some incomprehensible figures. According to researchers, we are born with 100,000,000,000 neurons in our brains, we can grow 700 new neurons every day, and each neuron has dendrite branches (like leafless tree branches) that can make 10,000 connections each over the course of our lives. Each connection represents learning. When we learn about something, synapses, which are located in various places along the dendrite branches, fire and a new connection between two dendrite branches is made. The stronger the learning, the stronger the connection.

So, what can teachers do to help make the connections strong and long-lasting? Lynn (2017) has three suggestions.

1. Help students to make connections

We know from brain research that learning happens when our dendrite branches make new connections. It makes sense then that, if teachers can help students connect new learning to things they already know, they are more likely to remember it. This is why text books have the “activating schema” resources like pictures for discussion and unit starter conversation questions. So, what can teachers do? In addition to these two common activities, Lynn (2017) suggests giving students a little pre-test to activate prior learning and prime students for making connections between what they learned before and what they are about to learn.

But, this prior learning isn’t necessarily limited to classroom learning. Activating background knowledge can also mean making connections to real life. Lynn (2017) suggests asking students the following questions:

  • Why are we learning this?
  • When and where will you use this in your real life?
  • What examples can you give of this from your life?

By asking these questions, we are helping students find a place for what they are learning in their preexisting knowledge. It’s like the prior learning and background knowledge provide hooks for the new information to hang on.

2. Repeat

Brain research also tells us that in order for dendrite connections to become strong and durable, repetition and variation is required. One of my colleagues, Sarah Saxer, has a great metaphor for this lasting connection. She likens it to walking in the forest. The first time you attempt to stroll through a dense foliage, it’s hard to walk because there is no path. But, if you walk the same way time after time, a path starts to form and it becomes easier and easier to walk on it. Simply put, practice equals learning.

Another way to think about this is a phone number. If someone tells you a phone number once, you might remember it after 5 minutes, but without some review, you are unlikely to remember it after a day or a week. However, if you review the phone number, you stand a vastly increased chance of remembering it later. Lynn (2017) shared an interesting visual from (of all places) a guitar school website .

The Forgetting and Learning CurvesClearly, the more something is repeated, the more likely it is to be remembered.

But, the repetition needs to be spread out over time. For example, if you repeat a phone number 20 times in rapid succession, you might remember it for a few minutes, but you aren’t likely to remember it months in the future. However, if you return to review the number at intervals which are spaced out over time (after a day, then after two days, then after a week, then after a month, then after three months … well, you get the picture) you will have a better memory of the phone number.

In order to provide our students with the spaced review that ensures learning, Lynn (2017) suggests scheduling regular spaced review activities in our lesson plans. This was a particularly good reminder to me because I tend to employ a scorched earth approach to my textbooks, moving from unit to unit with no looking back. It would benefit my students if I could do a quick review of the target language in Unit 1, say, after Unit 6 and then again after Unit 8. Simple activities, like games with vocabulary flashcards, are low-prep and easy to integrate. Most importantly, they can make a huge difference in what our students learn.

3. Remind students that learning takes effort

Lynn (2017) included a great quote in her PowerPoint:

This process of building and rebuilding neural networks—this process of learning—requires considerable effort from the learner. Teachers can teach or tell a student anything they want, but only the learner can learn it. The essence of learning isn’t memory and recitation; meaningful learning results from an active effort to understand, an effort that promotes the growth of increasingly efficient webs of neural connections among different regions of the brain. (Blodget, 2013, 30)

Apparently, to our brains, there is a difference between reviewing material and recalling material. Reviewing is looking over material until it looks familiar. But, recalling information is when you actually remember it. It’s more effort for our brains, and leads to better learning. Like, when I was doing my undergraduate degree, and I had to take tests, I never really learned the stuff I just re-read. I had to actually quiz myself by mentally asking myself questions and then checking my notes to see if I answered correctly.

Unfortunately, in today’s “instant gratification” world, students can become easily frustrated if learning is (inevitably) hard. So, I think it’s really important to explicitly remind students that if something takes effort to remember, it’s a signal to the brain that that particular thing is worth remembering. Also, taking time to have students share their own methods for remembering important information in the long-term can be very beneficial. For instance, in a spelling class I recently taught, when students did well on a quiz, I had them share their tips for memorizing spelling patterns.

In the end, successful learning takes a whole lot of work, repetition and connection. These are biological facts. Luckily, there are things we as teachers can do to facilitate learning in our classes. I’d love to hear what you do to support these three essential elements.

Blodget, A. (2013). Brains and Schools: A Mismatch. Education Week, 33(3), 30-31.
Lynn, S. (2017). Smart Practice: Brain Based Approaches to Teaching. [PPT Slides].

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