How Do We Learn?

How we learn. That’s what we, as teachers, really want to know because it lets us know how to best teach.

I’ll preface this resource review by telling you it was super hard to keep this article from becoming a mini book in its own right. “How We Learn” by Benedict Carey was filled with so many stories from various studies & great insights that it was a little like trying to have only a little Häagen-Dazs chocolate salted fudge truffle non-dairy ice cream. You start out with good intentions & suddenly half the pint is gone (I really have no idea what happened).

So, grab a cup of your favourite beverage (or a big bowl of ice cream) & let’s figure out a little about how our students learn … & how we can best teach them!

The Role of Remembering & Forgetting

When I ask my students to define a particular symbol in their music, this explains why they may need to talk through the definition. As they look at the symbol, it triggers a memory, which triggers another, and another, and another. It’s why our beginning students, with all the initial information they’re learning, seem to only remember part of what they have been taught. They’re still sorting through all the separate pieces of information & working them into a coherent thought.

Put all those teaching moments together & you have a vibrant, multi-sensory memory!

But, we know that the longer we go before using information, the higher the discrepancy between the original learning & what we remember. In other words, yes, students should practice as soon as possible after lesson. Otherwise, it’s a high likelihood of hearing a student say, “Are you SURE that’s what I was supposed to practice?”  And yet when the students starts to play, it starts coming back to them.

We never really forgot, we just misplaced it for a bit.

Breaking the Routine

Every college & university student has a ritual when it comes to exam prep & exam day. I was a fan of studying with lots of fresh fruit, juice, & maybe crackers for a crunch … my husband thinks that’s just weird & insists Jolt Cola (all the sugar & twice the caffeine), M&M’s, & gum were the only way to study. On the day of the exam, I refused to look at my study notes or talk about the exam.  Other classmates would arrive at the exam with notes in hand frantically reviewing while pacing. We both thought the other was nuts. (And, until reading this, I really had no idea just how geeky I was in school. I mean, I knew. I just didn’t KNOW.)

Is consistency really best for learning?

Experiments have shown that changing up the learning environment keeps our brains engaged & creates those multi-sensory memories essential to learning (including when psychedelic sea slugs are involved, but more on that in the book.)

What does this mean for our students? Perhaps we don’t need to tell piano parents that everyone should be quiet while their child practices. As long as the sounds are not so loud they distract the student, it seems to actually help learning. All those sounds of family life embed themselves subconsciously in the memories of learning … & make it easier to pull up those memories in the future.

For teaching purposes, the more ways a student is exposed & interacts with the same concept over a period of time the stronger the recall will be. The more varied practice time is (both in activities & the order those activities are done), the more efficient their practice sessions will be. 

When Practice Wasn’t Enough

“But, I was able to play it perfectly during the week!” We’ve all heard it. Maybe even said it ourselves.

“The fluency illusion is so strong that’s once we feel we’ve nailed some topic or assignment, we assume that further study won’t help. We forget that we forget.” (p. 82)

When practice is easy, we have very little gain. It’s when we are actively looking for the parts that aren’t strong or that we struggle with that the most gain happens. It also is the most frustrating way to practice. I know because it’s the way I try to practice every time.

Practice Repetitions (Strategies)

Giving Nudges During the Week

My students have practice pouches. I’ve shown them how to use the different objects, but I’ve learnt the hard way that they tend to have a pretty narrow view of how those objects can be used. The die can be used for games or repetitions. The small notebook can be used for writing definitions or rhythms. The cute little eraser can be used to erase things or gracefully lifting your hand from the piano. You get the idea.

But, what if I ‘nudged’ my students to see other uses? What if I took away the fixed function of those same objects so students could see the potential? This led to a series of “5 Ways” prompts that got my students thinking about each object in their practice pouch or everyday objects they had at home in completely new ways.

Practice Made Fun

How We Learn

Remember how I said at the beginning it was super hard to shorten this article? This is the result of lots & lots of deleting after I agonized over what would help you the most. So, go get the book! It will be well worth the read as you look at how learning has changed (or in some ways has not really changed) since we first began as a species. I know it’s had me rethink how I will approach a few units of study this year with my students.

Let me know what you think of “How We Learn”. Was it just my geeky side that loved the research or did the stories draw you in as well? What will you be modifying about your teaching to take advantage of this research?

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