Learning as biological change

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Nancy Duarte, a specialist in effective presentation techniques in the business context, explains in a very graphic way something that also happens in the role of teachers in the teaching-learning process: “… you are not the hero who will save to the audience, the audience is the hero … So what is your role? You are Yoda, not Luke Skywalker. ”[Mfn] Duarte, N. (2010). Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-VCH. [/ mfn]

This simple idea of the role of the teacher as facilitator has to do directly with not only talking about “education” but also about “learning”. For this, it is necessary to connect the way in which Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) operate with what we currently know about the biology and psychology of learning, and how this is a phenomenon of personal transformation.

Our humanity has a biological basis that should serve as a guide to study how learning works. Although there is still no total clarity about a wide range of processes in our minds, there are concepts that can and should be transferred from neuroscientific research to the facilitation of learning in HEIs. Learning is a process in which our brains physically change through a fundamentally personal experience, where the student connects the new information with their own worldview, fitting the new into a space that makes sense with what is already in place, or simply displacing old ideas that contradict the new vision on an issue.

This process of “making sense” of stimuli operates under certain restrictions on our ability to process them. For example, our brain has limitations in the amount of “bits” of information that can be handled at a given moment: each bit being a stimulus such as a sound, a facial expression, or visual information, our simultaneous handling capacity is 7 bits about 1Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, page 28. [/ Mfn]. This causes us to stop listening to someone altogether when we are thinking about something else, or it leads us to drive our cars on “automatic pilot” to be surprised to have gotten home without remembering much about the road. This, too, places emphasis on the way our brains process the new information they receive. Current memory models, for example, consider more than one type of storage with different characteristics and functional objectives. The external stimuli that we receive are stored in short-term memory, which, as its name implies, has high volatility, keeping the information for seconds or minutes. An example is if at this moment I ask you to remember the number “784390” and write it on a piece of paper without looking at the screen. The data is temporarily recorded, enough to write it on paper, but in a couple of hours, it is most likely that there will not be much trace of it.

Another type of memory, according to these models, is working memory, of which short-term memory would be a part, and which corresponds to that in which we can consciously process its contents to perform actions on them. These two volatile memories can then generate entries in our long-term memory of virtually unlimited capacity, and that can accompany us throughout our lives. The big question is what causes a memory to be stored in this permanent space and, more importantly, and what factors affect its retrieval when required. Some factors identified and that can be used in facilitating learning include but are not limited to:

  • The role of emotions: for many Chileans, it is easy to remember visual details about the night of February 27, 2010, when we experienced an earthquake of great proportions in a good part of the country. How we were dressed, where we were, what we did after the ground had finished moving, all of that is recorded and we can remember it much more clearly than a recent event like what we had for lunch on Wednesday of last week (unless just that day something special happened).
  • Short-term memory saturation: sitting for two hours in a classroom constantly receiving information can saturate the processing of received stimuli. Our brain needs time to process this information and bring it into long-term memory, so techniques such as chunking (dividing the content into smaller and more digestible parts) can have a great impact. Along with this, there are certain times for these processes to operate; pauses within the process are important to improve information retention.
  • Recalling instead of re-reading: Students often use different study techniques. It has been shown that it is much more effective to improve the retention of new knowledge to exercise the recall, that is, to force yourself to remember the recorded data, rather than reading over and over again. The brain makes “stronger” or more efficient connections to the data it needs most often and eliminates what is not used.
  • Relational memories: a new memory has a much better chance of establishing itself and being available to recall if it has connections with other memories that already exist and are relevant to the individual. This again highlights the importance of the adaptability of the learning process to the individual characteristics of each student, something that technology can help provide. If the examples in a lesson are developed using vintage cars as an example, and a student has no interest in the topic, it will be more difficult for the memory to take hold.
Brief presentation by Dr. Julie Schell, University of Texas at Austin, on the use of short tests during a class to practice information retrieval by students to improve retention.

Learning is essentially a personal process. It is not something that is done to students, but something that they do themselves 2 Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [/ Mfn]. The teacher cannot directly manipulate a student’s neurons or connect him to a machine that injects knowledge into him (at least not yet). This results in additional motivation to separate the learning activities into stages that give the learner greater freedom and support to adapt the experience to their own characteristics. For example, the transmission of information should be part of a personal, asynchronous process, where the student repeats the reading or the videos as many times as he wants, and studies them in the order he prefers. We are all different, the practices that work best for us are also different. Zoom’s synchronous class should be the place where we meet to make sense of what we study, with the teacher as a facilitator and guide of the process. If this scheme sounds familiar, it is basically a flipped classroom in a virtual context.

Personal differences become manifest not only in the current state of our characteristics but also in their evolution over time. Learning is a process with different time stages where the state of the current stage affects the following stages. Additionally, we should not only analyze the differences between students and draw general conclusions, but we must take the analysis to the individual field. Averages and generalizations hide information, something that we can counteract using the technological tools at our disposal to adapt and understand the process of each student individually.

Applying research concepts from Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and the Learning Sciences, in combination with different technological tools available, can help us improve the results of our students through evidence-based techniques that can be combined with our own experience. It is not a simple process, but it can radically change the results of higher education training and the final benefit that students obtain from it.

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