Understanding how students process and remember what they learn has implications for every aspect of education, and can help teachers be more effective in reaching struggling students. Here are a few of the contributions of neuroscience on memory, cognitive skills and attention:
- Types of Memory
Neuroscience research has revealed a difference between two types of long-term memory called “declarative” and “procedural.” Declarative memory is the memory for information that can be stated and would include things like historical events, the names of the presidents, what happened in class yesterday and when your mother’s birthday is. Procedural memory is the memory for doing something, usually a skill like riding a bike, playing an instrument, decoding words, and adding or subtracting. While these skills may require significant conscious effort at the beginning, they become automatic with practice. These two types of memory imply different processes for learning them – with the rote practice needed for encoding procedural memory and elaborative practice required for declarative memory.
- Cognitive Skills – how individual students’ cognitive strengths and weaknesses define their ability to learn – how understanding an individual student’s cognitive profile (not learning style) is vital to helping them learn — and how cognitive skills can be strengthened to build learning capacity. Most teachers know who the more capable learners are in their classes and which students struggle. However, many teachers cannot explain what cognitive processes are standing in the way of their struggling students. Neither do they know what to do other than to help them work around the areas that seem to be problems or, unfortunately, simply lower their expectations.
- Attention – The result is that students with weaker attention have gaps in their knowledge, students with weaker working memory are unable to demonstrate their understanding and reasoning skills, and students with less well-developed cognitive flexibility get stuck in the rote application of procedures and can’t adapt their knowledge to new situations and problems. In other words, they do not have access to the same educational experiences as their classmates with stronger skills, not because they cannot develop those skills, but because they have not been given the opportunity.
Memory includes both storage and retrieval, which has important implications for learning. Learning needs to be retrieved to be useful, functional, applicable, meaningful, and lasting. If students are not able to use that information, apply it to the real world, then learning did not happen.
Retrieving information involves reactivating the networks that were involved in the learning process and whatever has been integrated into them since. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is changing constantly with new information, so information that has been learned continues to be supplemented and adjusted as students have new learning experiences.
The reason that educators need to understand the science of learning, particularly the neuroscience of learning, is so that they can construct learning environments and experiences that give the brains of all their students an equitable opportunity to learn and to demonstrate what they can do with that learning.