Learning correctly: learning techniques the brain really needs
Come exam time and all school pupils, university students and apprentices do the same thing: they swot up, cram and learn off by heart to get the subject matter to stick in their heads. But have they learned effectively? What learning techniques can help in preparing for exams?
The strict discipline of learning subject matter off by heart is helpful when being tested on paragraphs, dates, the molecular structure of non-metals, vocabulary or the human skeleton, for instance.
However, it is abundantly clear that learning things off by heart alone is not enough, as the brain is designed to work efficiently. Humans have around 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) and approximately 100 trillion synapses connecting these neurons and transmitting signals between them. This highly active system is what allows us to work, learn, think, and process sensations and emotions. Those who only read and learn information off by heart are not exploiting the full potential of their brains. Intelligent learning works differently.
Tricks and learning techniques from a World Memory Champion
In an interview with the education portal of German regional state North Rhine-Westphalia's Ministry of Schools, Christiane Stenger, who holds several World Memory Champion titles, reveals the learning techniques that have made her so successful: 'One feature of memory training is that it uses our brain's ability to remember most effectively the things that we like to imagine and that we find exciting.' The key concept here is visualisation. If we want to memorise something, then we need to imagine it in picture form.
Another trick is to make up a short story, preferably an unusual or funny one, that links items, terms and facts that we need to learn. This does require some effort of course, but it also gets our neurons working. Christine Stenger: 'Visualising things and making lots of different connections to recall them allows the brain to retain facts and figures for much longer.'
What are the World Memory Championships?
The World Memory Championships have taken place annually since 1991 (with the exception of 1992). As in most other years, this years event, in early December, will be held in London. The competition, which was established by English psychologist and mental literacy trainer Tony Buzan, is organised by the World Memory Sports Council (WMSC) and sees participants compete in a total of ten disciplines over three days. The overall winner is crowned World Memory Champion.
Classic learning techniques: Mind mapping
Mind mapping, a classic and effective learning technique, also gets our brain cells working hard. Mind maps are ideal for subject matter that can be grouped into different categories. They are created around a single term in the centre, with associated words and concepts branching off in various directions. Different colours are used to highlight the maps, and pictures and symbols are also added, creating a visual overview of texts and topics.
One traditional learning technique that has stood the test of time is that of summarising key text passages. This involves highlighting, structuring and annotating the learning material in a text, and then summing it up in your own words. By testing each other on the material afterwards, learners can ensure that they commit it firmly to memory.
Learning with enthusiasm – 'fertiliser for the brain'
Professor Gerald Hüther, Head of the Center for Neurobiological Prevention Research at the University of Göttingen and the University of Mannheim/Heidelberg, is an expert in experimental brain research. He explains why information that we have learned off by heart fails to stick in our brains, but quickly disappears again: 'New information will only become firmly embedded if we can link it to our existing knowledge. This applies to anything that we learn. At the same time, our emotional centres need to be activated. This means that we must make sure that the subject matter taught in schools gets under pupils' skin.'
We need to learn things in context and with points of reference. Consequently, learners should ask themselves what they already know about a topic and how they can most effectively link their new knowledge to their existing knowledge. It is particularly important that learning involves our emotions, in particular that it generates enthusiasm. For Hüther, enthusiasm is 'fertiliser for the brain'.
About Professor Gerald Hüther
Hailing from Göttingen, Professor Gerald Hüther has worked at Göttingen University since 2006, specialising in neurobiological prevention research, which was carried out in cooperation with the Institute for Public Health at the University of Mannheim/Heidelberg up until summer 2012. He is a member of Archiv der Zukunft – Netzwerk für Schulentwicklung, a network for schools development, and WIN-FUTURE, an interdisciplinary academic network for development and education research.
Discussion of learning techniques in the community