10 research-based insights on how the brain learns

What we believe about learning is sometimes totally opposite to how the brain actually learns. Here are 10 insights on how the brain learns. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

What we believe about learning is sometimes totally opposite to how the brain actually learns. Here are 10 insights on how the brain learns. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

I remember struggling with social studies classes in high school and college.

The content fascinated me. I loved hearing the stories of conflicts and resolutions. Wars and strategies. Politics and leverage. Power and influence.

Plus, I met my wife in a social studies class (Intro to Political Science) as a college freshman, and she’s now a social studies teacher. The subject is near and dear to my heart.

I just had no idea how to study for it. I took copious notes. I read and re-read those notes. Sometimes, when I didn’t feel like I grasped the content well enough for a test, I would cram for hours studying.

(OK, to be totally honest, that cramming didn’t just happen when I didn’t grasp the content. It happened when I had failed to study until the last second, too.)

It turns out that, according to cognitive science, much of that studying work had diminishing gains. I wasn’t getting back what I was investing in it.

(My grades showed it, too … my worst grade in college was in a different history course — History 101, of all things!)

make it stick coverThat’s the focus of “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown. He and cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel take tons of brain research and boil it down into concrete maxims about how we learn.

I’m still reading through the book, but I’ve already learned a lot from it. Some of the points are new to me (and counterintuitive). Others confirm what I’ve always thought or known about learning.

Here are 10 of my top take-away messages from the book. For more, I suggest checking it out yourself! (Text in bold is quoted directly from the book.)

1. Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. — For the longest time, I’ve thought that if I could find the easiest way to help my students make sense of content, that was best. Turns out that I’ve misunderstood that idea. A little wrestling with content is cognitively healthy. However, what’s not healthy, I’d say, is when teachers make learning unnecessarily hard on students for the sake of making it hard.

2. Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also the least productive. — I wish the college-aged me could have heard this one. It makes sense, too. They say that the more connections in the brain you can make to different experiences and prior knowledge, the stronger it sticks. Overkill with the same mode of learning isn’t providing that variety.

3. Rising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create an illusion of mastery. — This is what happens when you do too much of No. 2 above — thinking you understand something because you’ve almost memorized the reading you’ve been rereading over and over. Knowing the words in the textbook does not equal understanding the concepts it explains.

4. Retrieval practice — recalling facts or concepts or events from memory — is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. — The book quotes a research study where students learned more by reading a bit, putting the book down and reciting back what they had just read, and then continuing to read. That’s what you’ll be doing later in the class and in life (trying to retrieve that information), so it only makes sense to do it while studying.

5. When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions … retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning. — This is why the self-contained lesson, chapter or unit doesn’t produce long-term learning as well. When a topic is covered and then abandoned, when the recall doesn’t happen again and again, it isn’t stored as strongly. Therefore, reviewing can’t be given second-class citizen status if long-term memory is our goal.

6. Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt. — “But what if I let them try it and they mess it up? They’ll be creating bad habits.” Brain research proves otherwise. It makes sense to me — when I remember how I figured it out, that helps me remember the new content and gives me a new perspective on it.

7. If you practice elaboration — giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know — there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. — I think this is why I like sketchnoting (visual notetaking) so much. I can break down and organize new ideas in a way that makes sense in my brain … and then I have a custom-created visual aid to fall back on.

8. Every time you learn something new, you change the brain — the residue of your experiences is stored. — This debunks the myth that some people are smart and some people aren’t … kids and adults. The brain is constantly being remade. Even if we don’t get it now, we can get it in the future.

9. Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. — This makes me think of the SAMR model, a way of analyzing how much impact technology has on your teaching. It’s a great model, but it is very theoretical. I’ve worked with teachers in learning about the SAMR model, and the more I lean on the model and the theory, the more their eyes glaze over. When I connect it to actual practices in the classroom, it seems to make more sense.

10. Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it. — Students sometimes claim that they don’t need to learn facts because they can Google them any time. Teachers sometimes shy away from teaching facts because that kind of teaching can be considered low-level teaching. But based on this definition of mastery, having facts close at hand is still crucial for being ready to use them at a moment’s notice.

Question: How do these findings compare to your own experiences as a teacher and a learner? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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+ 01/19/2015
Western Wayne (Ind.) Schools Pershing, IN
  Full-day Seminar:Ditch That Textbook: Why and How?Private Event
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9:00-12:00 p.m.
U. Indy's Power of Education Conference Indianapolis, IN
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+ 02/03/2015
08:00-03:00 p.m.
World Languages Workshop @ Lafayette Jeff HS Lafayette, IN
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+ 02/26/2015
9:00-4:05 p.m.
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Indianapolis, IN 46241
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+ 03/18/2015
08:00-04:00 p.m.
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Fishers, IN 46037
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7:30-3:00 p.m.
Hamilton Southeastern (Ind.) Schools Fishers, IN
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PVETI Social Media Workshop Rockville, IN
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Indiana Google Apps for Education Summit Franklin, IN
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09:00-03:00 p.m.
Ditch That Textbook workshop @ CIESC Indianapolis, IN
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Education On Air by Google for Education  
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Ditch That Textbook workshop (CIESC)  
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PowerED Up Conference Leopold, IN
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Leopold, IN 47551
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Greencastle EdTech Conference Greencastle, IN
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South Vermillion trAnSfoRM Conference Clinton, IN
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09:00-03:00 p.m.
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ISTE Conference 2015 Philadelphia, PA
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USD 242 Weskan Schools Staff Development Weskan, KS
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Greater Clark Connected Conference Jeffersonville, IN
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+ 07/30/2015
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Seymour Schools Tech Workshop Seymour, IN
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+ 11/10/2015
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
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09:00-02:30 p.m.
Northeast Literacy Retreat Fort Wayne, IN
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
Ditch That Textbook workshop @ ECESC Connersville, IN
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
Ditch That Textbook @ WCIESC Greencastle, Indiana
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+ 11/19/2015
08:00-03:00 p.m.
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+ 01/13/2016
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
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Sheridan MS/HS Sheridan, IN
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+ 02/09/2016
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+ 02/15/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Educational Service Unit #13 Scottsbluff, NE
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
Rockford Public Schools Rockford, MI
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+ 02/25/2016—02/26/2016
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ICE Conference (Illinois) St. Charles, IL
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+ 03/07/2016
01:15-03:30 p.m.
Mandan Public Schools Mandan, ND
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+ 03/09/2016—03/11/2016
MACUL Conference Grand Rapids, MI
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+ 03/14/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Concordia Lutheran HS Fort Wayne, IN
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Westwood Community School District Sloan, IA
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+ 04/13/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Wabash Valley Education Center West Lafayette, IN
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3061 Benton Street
West Lafayette, IN 47906
(765) 463-1589
+ 04/18/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Monroe #1 BOCES (New York) Fairport, N.Y.
  Full-day Seminar:The Digital PIRATEPublic Event
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+ 04/26/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Caesar Rodney School District Camden, DE
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239 Old North Road
Camden, DE 19934
+ 05/03/2016
Paoli Community School Corporation Paoli, IN
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Paoli, IN
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+ 05/25/2016
09:00-09:45 a.m.
Pacific Northwest Apprenticeship Education Conference Portland, OR
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1000 NE Multnomah Street
Portland, OR
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+ 05/31/2016
West Central Career Cooperative Crawfordsville, IN
  Venue:Crawfordsville Country Club
Crawfordsville, IN
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+ 06/06/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
PowerED Up Conference Leopold, IN
  Venue:Perry Central Schools
18677 Old State Road 37
Leopold, IN 47551
(812) 843-5576
Public Event
+ 06/07/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Making a Splash with Digital Learning Conference Batesville, IN
  Venue:Batesville Community School Corporation
626 N. Huntersville Road
Batesville, IN 47006
(812) 934-2194
Public Event
+ 06/08/2016—06/09/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Ignite Your Superpower Lafayette, IN
  Venue:Sunnyside Intermediate School
530 N 26th St
Lafayette, IN 47904
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Public Event
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
Summer Spark (Wisconsin) Milwaukee, WI
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08:00-03:00 p.m.
REMAST Conference (South Dakota) Brookings, S.D.
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+ 06/20/2016
Indianapolis Sister Cities Int'l Conference Indianapolis, IN
  Keynote:Connecting Your Classroom to the WorldPublic Event
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7525 W. 21st St.
Indianapolis, IN 46214
+ 06/22/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Western North Dakota ESA Dickinson, ND
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+ 06/26/2016—06/29/2016
ISTE Conference Denver, CO
  Venue:Colorado Convention Center
700 14th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Public Event
+ 07/12/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
MSD of Martinsville Martinsville, IN
  Sponsor:MSD of MartinsvillePrivate Event
+ 07/13/2016—07/14/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Pulaski County Special School District Little Rock, AR
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+ 07/18/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Sheridan/Hamilton Heights Sheridan, IN
   Public Event
+ 07/19/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Launching INquiry Fishers, IN
  Venue:Fishers High School College & Career Academy
13000 Promise Rd
Fishers, IN 46038
Public Event
+ 07/20/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Blended Learning Summit Salina, KS
  Sponsor:Smoky Hill Education Service CenterPublic Event
Venue:Smoky Hill Education Service Center
605 E. Crawford
Salina, KS 67401
+ 07/21/2016
08:30-04:00 p.m.
iPadpaloozaEastTX Longview, TX
  Keynote:Ditch That Textbook!Public Event
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Venue:Pine Tree High School
900 Northwest Drive
Longview, TX 75604
(903) 295-5031
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+ 07/22/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Tyler ISD Tyler, TX
  Sponsor:Tyler ISD 
+ 07/25/2016—07/26/2016
E3 Technology Conference Warsaw, IN
  Venue:Warsaw High School
1 Tiger Lane
Warsaw, IN 46580
(574) 371-5098
Public Event
+ 08/01/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Catholic High School New Iberia, LA
  Sponsor:Catholic High SchoolPrivate Event
Venue:Catholic High School
1301 de La Salle Drive
New Iberia, LA 70560
+ 08/05/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Fort Wayne Lutheran Schools Partnership Fort Wayne, IN
  Sponsor:Fort Wayne Lutheran Schools PartnershipPrivate Event
+ 08/09/2016
Southwest School Corporation Sullivan, IN
  Venue:Southwest School Corporation
110 North Main Street
Sullivan, IN 47882
(812) 268-6311
Private Event
+ 08/11/2016
Groesbeck ISD Tech Conference Groesbeck, TX
  Keynote:Ditch That Textbook!Private Event
Venue:Groesbeck Independent School District
1202 N. Ellis
Groesbeck, TX 76642
(254) 729-4100
+ 08/15/2016
Beggs Public Schools Beggs, OK
  Venue:Beggs Public Schools
1201 West 9th
Beggs, OK 74421
(918) 267-3628
Private Event
+ 08/16/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Etoile ISD Etoile, TX
  Sponsor:Etoile ISDPrivate Event
+ 08/17/2016
8:00-3:00 pm
Tech Academy  
   Private Event
+ 08/22/2016—08/23/2016
West Central School District Hartford, SD
  Venue:West Central School District
705 E. 2nd St.
Hartford, SD 57033
(605) 528-3217
Private Event
+ 08/24/2016
Walled Lake Consolidated School District  
   Public Event
+ 08/25/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
Hillsboro School District Hillsboro, OR
  Sponsor:Hillsboro School DistrictPrivate Event
+ 08/29/2016
Service Learning School District Detroit, MI
  Sponsor:Service Learning School District 
+ 09/16/2016
New Prairie High School New Carlisle, IN
  Venue:New Praire High School
New Carlisle, IN
Private Event
+ 09/19/2016
Big Walnut Local Schools Sunbury, OH
  Workshop:The Digital PIRATE: Tech Like a PIRATEPrivate Event
Venue:Big Walnut Local Schools
36 Harrison St
Sunbury, OH 43074
(740) 965-3205
+ 09/20/2016
08:00-03:00 p.m.
NH Best Practices in Curriculum, Assessment and Assessment Conference Concord, NH
  Sponsor:New Hampshire School Administrators AssociationPublic Event
Venue:Grappone Conference Center
Concord, NH
+ 10/12/2016—10/13/2016
Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency Betterdorf, IA
  Sponsor:Mississippi Area Bend Education AgencyPrivate Event


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10 thoughts on “10 research-based insights on how the brain learns

  1. I am most definitely going to need to get this book. Much of this resonates with me. I am obsessed with sketchnoting and finding different unique ways to hack it and use it in my classroom. After reading you post I am realizing that a lot of the sketchnoting hacks I have been doing match how the brain works (yeah me and I didn’t even know it). I think (like you said) it also goes to show the power of learning, thinking, formulating ideas and then expressing them in a sketchnote way. Gosh. I think sketchnoting does so much of what this brain tease arch is showing. Thank you for introducing me to this new book. Most of all thanks for showing me and other educators who read this what it is to be a true life long learner!

  2. These fit so well with the 20 Strategies in Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites by Marcia Tate and the training sessions she leads. I also which I had known these as a student and more importantly when I was in the classroom. I need to do a better job of applying these when I conduct professional learning. Thank you for the introduction to another great book to read.

  3. I whole-heartedly agree with the “wrestling” with the learning point. It’s not our job to chew up the content for students like they are little baby birds and feed it to them from our beaks. We are more like the lioness. We should take them out on the hunt. Let them observe it and then dive it and feast from the kill. Eventually, we must let them lead the hunt and do it themselves.

  4. A lot of these ideas resonated with me and they are things I try to do in my class every day. I get push back from kids sometimes, not to mention adults, but I do it because I know it works and helps kids learn better and for the long term.

    • I’m so glad to know we have teachers in this world (and I meet more and more of them all the time) that are willing to push the status quo for the long-term betterment of our students. Thank you, Elisa, for what you do.