The brain functions involved in learning
Our brain enables us to interact with our environment: to perceive the world; to process the information received by our senses; and to respond accordingly. As we learn, we remember these experiences so that we can respond more effectively in the future.
To learn, three main functions of the brain need to occur:
1. Selection of relevant information
2. Processing the information
3. Storing the information as knowledge
The three systems that provide these functions are:
- Attention (for 1)
- Working memory (for 2)
- Long-term memory (for 3).
The first two of these systems are limited in many ways, and they can easily overload. But careful implementation of evidence-informed strategies by both teachers and learners can help to optimise the learning process in ways that work within the constraints of our human cognitive architecture.
Selecting relevant information
The first thing anyone does upon facing the vast stream of information from the environment is to select the most relevant parts of that information for processing. We can only attend to some of the stimuli that we sense (see, hear, smell etc.) from the environment, so we choose to focus on some things (such as someone we’re listening to intently in a crowded room), while others draw our attention (such as a message notification pinging up on your mobile phone).
Most of the information in our environment is not attended to or is quickly lost (as shown in the image above by the grey arrows on the far left not entering the attention system, and by the red arrows, respectively).
Once the information from the environment has been selected, it can be processed in our working memory: the mental space where we process information. We can only consciously process information to which we actually attend and our working memory has limited capacity. Once we are presented with more information than we can process, some information gets lost: we either lose some of the things we were already processing, or we fail to take in some new information. Of the utmost importance is acknowledging that only information that is processed in working memory has a chance of moving into the next space: long-term memory storage.
The process of converting information from our senses and transferring it from working memory to long-term memory is called encoding. When encoded, information is actively stored in long-term memory. It’s important to realise that to ensure long-term change in the mental representations formed by the brain, a process of consolidation is also essential. This is the process where those mental representations are strengthened in long-term memory – the biological ‘wiring’ on which long-term change depends.
The process of transferring information in the other direction – from long-term memory to working memory – is called retrieval: the mental action of bringing stored information back to conscious processing in working memory. Upon retrieval, we activate knowledge that was stored in long-term memory in an inactive form; in a way, we ‘shine a spotlight’ on certain portions of our prior knowledge, activating that which is relevant to our current situation.
With this overview of the learning process in mind, let’s go back to the start, and look at the limitations of the first two systems.
The limitations of the attentional system
The attentional system is very limited in a number of ways; educators making daily decisions in the classroom need to understand these limitations because they have a direct impact on learning.
- Capacity is limited: we don’t perceive everything that we sense, and we don’t even pay attention to everything that we perceive.
- We’re easily distracted: we can focus our attention voluntarily, but some aspects of our environment ‘steal’ our attention without our control.
- Maintaining attention requires mental effort: attention fades after a while; many of us can make a conscious decision to renew it (children often find this very challenging), but we need a good reason to do it.
Think about a professional development session in which you became aware that your attention on the person speaking had faded, and you then made the decision to renew it and refocus. As an adult, control of your own attention is possible, but it’s a very difficult metacognitive task for children who are more prone to mind-wandering and daydreaming.
The attention system both limits and selects from the incoming information in our environment. Some kinds of information, such as flashing colours, loud noises or moving objects (for example, the lights and siren on an emergency vehicle) grab our attention in a manner that we cannot control.
Some information is considered ‘salient’: it is prominent or noticeable in its context. For instance, think of finding a slice of cake when you feel hungry, or when you see someone who normally wears very dark clothes wearing very bright clothes.
In other circumstances (like the professional development session, or reading a book) we can consciously, cognitively control what we focus on. In some situations, our habits and familiar routines guide what we perceive – for instance, many children are taught a routine of ‘stop, look, listen’ to check for oncoming traffic before crossing a road.
What can we do to use our limited attentional resources effectively?
One size rarely fits all in education, so instead of listing specific strategies designed to make the most of limited attentional resources, here are some underlying principles that could be applied in any circumstance:
- Avoid and actively reduce external distractions in learning environments.
- Find ways that help your students draw attention to, and focus on, the most relevant information to be processed.
- Develop ways to help learners stay focused for longer periods.
- Acknowledge that we and our students are only ever aware of some of the information in our environment.
How limited is working memory capacity, and how can we optimise its use?
Working memory capacity is crucially important for learning, and it varies between people (although within each of us it is relatively fixed). Those with greater capacity are able to process more complex ideas, while those with smaller working memory capacity may find such processing too challenging.
Working memory capacity increases with age over the course of childhood (an adult’s capacity is more than twice that of a four-year-old) and within an average primary school class of children aged between 7 and 8, around 10% are likely to have working memory capacities of an average 4-year-old, while 10% are likely to have similar capacity to an average 11-year-old. This range highlights a challenge for educators trying to optimise both their teaching and the learning of the 30 or so students in each of their classes.
What is considered to be ‘normal’ working memory capacity? You may have heard about the ‘magic number 7’ (which comes from George Miller’s classic paper of the same name, published 1956), and indeed many people can remember around 7 random digits, letters or words around 50% of the time, but not much more. Working memory capacity was famously thought to be 7±2, i.e., a normal range is between 5 and 9 ‘items’. However, subsequent studies showed that capacity is actually closer to 3-4 items when material is unfamiliar (a situation in which most students find themselves regularly).
What can we do to increase our working memory capacity?
‘Can we increase our working memory capacity through working memory training?’ is a logical question to ask when you understand the important role it plays in learning. Surely, it would be great if there were a way to increase it, for instance by recalling lists of increasing lengths of unfamiliar items, over and over again. So, is it possible?
The short answer is, sadly, no.
As far as we know, working memory capacity cannot be increased by training. There are many who promise such improvement, but research has shown that any claimed increase pertains to specific tasks, rather than to a general change in our cognitive architecture. At present, we have no evidence that there are any ways of actually increasing working memory capacity itself.
But this is not to say that there aren’t things we can do to make better use of our working memory capacity. Some such strategies have been outlined above.
Developing your own insight into the process of learning – why and how we do it – is something that will use up your own attentional resources and your working memory processing capacity. It can be a challenging topic, but one that can help teachers make better decisions.
If you would like to find out more about the cognitive basis for learning, and the evidence-informed strategies that can optimise your teaching and your students’ learning, see Evidence Based Education’s Science of Learning Programme.