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How the Brain Learns

Using Concepts of Cognitive Science to Create Unforgettable Programs

Ian Signer, M.A., New York, USA

Informal educators have the ability to facilitate learning experiences that audiences will remember
for a lifetime. This paper explores how current knowledge about brain function can inform the
design and presentation of effective, memorable programs.

What Do People Remember?

Think of your most powerful memory. What were the elements that make it stand out? Whether it
was something joyful or tragic, you’re likely to have remembered something that was associated
with intense emotions.

Now, think of your most memorable educational experience. Was it a field trip to a park? That
time you nervously had to give a speech in front of the whole school? When you starred in the
school play? Most likely it was also something that had strong emotional resonance.

Emotions and Learning

The relationship between emotion and learning is based in the physical anatomy of the brain, and
its application to our basic survival. (Sousa, 2001) Every instant, you are taking in information
through your five senses – from the color of the sky, to the texture of your clothing, to the
background noise around you as you read this paper. In order to make sense of all this
information, your brain filters out what it considers important and meaningful. For example, it may
tune out the general noise of traffic as you walk on a busy street – but draw closer attention to a
siren coming toward you. After this initial filter, your brain passes information through a series of
stages before deciding whether to place it into long-term storage.

Ultimately, your brain is wired to retain information that it considers directly related to survival. In
the modern world, this could just as easily be the way to fill out your time slip at work as the color
of a poisonous mushroom.

Types of Memory
In order to make sense of information, your brain employs several kinds of memory, represented
metaphorically in the illustration below.(See Figure 1) After information goes through the senses,
it may pass into a kind of short term memory called “immediate memory”. Let’s say you need to
call the local post office. You look up the number, put it into immediate memory, dial, then forget
it. Immediate memory generally lasts about 30 seconds, just long enough for you retain and use
the information.
Figure 1 – How Information passes from the senses into long-term storage. (Sousa, 2001)

If your brain considers the information more important, it will go into a second kind of temporary
memory called “working memory”, represented by the worktable. Here, information that is
considered more important is consciously processed for a short time. Though there is some
debate, it’s generally agreed that working memory can store only a small amount of information to
process at one time (See Figure 2 below). Authors such as Sam Ham have recognized this rule
and applied it to informal education, where it is sometimes called the “7 plus or minus 2” rule.
(Ham, 1992) Generally, information in working memory can be actively processed for only up to
20 minutes in adults without a loss of focus. (Sousa, 2001) However, it has been shown that
information in working memory can be stored up to 48 hours. This is what allows us to cram at
the last minute for a big test and pass with flying colors, but remember almost none of the
information a week later.

Number of Items An Individual Can Hold in Working Memory

Age in years Minimum Maximum Average
Younger than 5 1 3 2
5 – 14 3 7 5
Older than 14 5 9 7
Table 1 – Changes in Capacity of Working Memory With Age (adapted from Sousa, 2001)

From there, what kinds of items pass into long term storage? Though there is still much to be
discovered, researchers have identified a few general patterns that apply to long term storage of
knowledge (Rose, 1992).

People are likely to remember anything with a strong emotional connection. We tend to
remember the best and worst events of our lives. The parts of the brain most active in regulating
emotions (the amygdala and hippocampus) are also the most closely associated with the
processing and recall of information. As an educator, it’s important to recognize that emotions
(not information) are what most strongly influences learning. The more you can surprise, delight,
and excite your audience, the more likely they are to remember what you teach.

In addition to strong emotional experiences, information that makes good sense and is
meaningful may pass into long term memory, represented by the file cabinet in the illustration.
The more times a person uses the information stored here, the more easily they can retrieve it in
the future. As educators, we can help not only craft programs that contribute to information stored
in long-term memory, but that reinforce that information and help learners make use of it.

One way to help people remember information is by creating stories and drawing analogies
between scientific concepts and things a learner is familiar with. For example: “How many people
do you think could fit comfortably on a bus? We could call it this the ‘carrying capacity’. What
happens when more people get on, until there’s barely room to breathe? Have you been on a bus
like that - how does it feel? What do you think happens when animals are pushed into smaller
and smaller spaces, when an area is pushed beyond its carrying capacity?” This example not
only ties a common experience with a new concept – it also may evoke vivid sensory and
emotional memories of being crammed in a crowded bus.

Applying Concepts
The following tips will help you take advantage of what is known about how the brain processes
information as you design programs:
• Create lessons that incorporate strong positive emotional experiences
• Incorporate rich sensory experiences.
• Link what you’re teaching to what your audience is familiar with.
• Present no more than 3 main topics in a lesson for kids, 5 for adults.
• Change pace every 20 minutes.
• Test no earlier than 48 hours after learning to see if information is in long-term storage.

Ham, S., 1992 Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and
Small Budgets. North American Press. Golden, CO.
Marks-Tarlow, T., 1996 Creativity Inside Out: Learning Through Multiple Intelligences. Addison-
Welsey. New York, NY.
Rose, S., 1992. The Making of Memory. Doubleday. New York, NY.
Sousa, David A., 2001 How the Brain Learns Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.