Our understanding of learning has made a quantum leap in recent years, thanks in part to neuroscience. This is in addition to a growing interest in more humane approaches to teaching that take into account the fact that cognition and emotions are inseparable, contrary to what we have long believed… So, learners and teachers, here are some tips from the latest research for optimal learning!

Tips for learners

Become a master of your attentional system

“In 2005, Sergent, Baillet and Dehaene revealed the brain mechanisms involved in the attentional blink, a phenomenon comparable to the blink of an eye of temporary, unconscious and repetitive interruption of our attention. This attentional blink means that when our attention is quickly shifted from one task to another, we are more likely to miss information than when we are focused on a single task. These researchers calculated that it takes at least 0.25 seconds for the brain to register and manipulate the sensory information needed to complete each task.” Are we really good at multitasking?

Attention is the first of the four pillars of learning highlighted by the neuroscientist and professor of cognitive psychology Stanislas Dehaene (see Neuroscience: learning in 4 steps and 5 Factors Influencing Memory Process). However, the sources of distractions have never been as strong and numerous as in this era of digital technology and omnipresent screens. Furthermore, while we once believed that our brains could juggle several tasks simultaneously, science has disproved this idea (see Are we really good at multitasking? and Attention in numbers).

Today’s learners are recommended to create a mental and physical space for their study time where sources of distraction are minimized. But that is not all. Jean-Philippe Lachaux, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and attention specialist, explains in the article Les super pouvoirs du cerveau in Sciences et Avenir (September 2021) that, above all, we must learn to control our attentional system by avoiding situations where we are exposed to accomplishing more than one task at a time. To achieve this, he suggests a “temporal attention bubble” approach, which consists of concentrating on one specific objective, for a short time, in order to increase our chances of attaining it. According to the neuroscientist, it is also wise to break down complex objectives into several simpler tasks and make them into “mini-missions.” Finally, Lachaux recommends being more attentive to the warning signs of distraction (posture, agitation, etc.).

Believing in one’s brain capacity and personal effectiveness

“As Jacques Lecomte explains in his article on the applications of this sentiment in the issue Autour de l’œuvre d’Albert Bandura of the journal Savoirs: ‘Different people with identical abilities, or the same person in different circumstances, can therefore perform poorly, well, or remarkably well, depending on variations in their self-efficacy beliefs. Certainly, initial skill level influences performance, but its impact is strongly mediated by self-efficacy beliefs.'” At the very heart of the feeling of personal effectiveness

When Stanislas Dehaene was asked the question “Can anyone learn anything?” in an interview on the unparalleled efficiency of the human brain in Sciences et Avenir (September 2021), the neuroscientist replied that “you have to have confidence in your brain capacity,” pointing out that, except for special cases of learning disabilities, we can all learn, as long as we put in the effort. When faced with a challenge, rather than adopting what he calls a “fixist” attitude, which can be translated as “I don’t have the intelligence to do it, I’m useless,” it is better to adopt the “plastic” attitude, which he says is “scientifically speaking the most accurate” and which consists of saying to oneself “I’ll have to make an extra effort to do it.” Dehaene’s findings can be paralleled with the notion of self-efficacy at the heart of the eminent psychologist Albert Bandura’s social-cognitive theory, which the latter describes as the central self-management mechanism inherent in our motivation, achievement and well-being (see At the very heart of the feeling of personal effectiveness).

The learners’ perseverance and performance are based not only on their “objective” skills but also on their sense of self-efficacy, among other things (see The learner and the sense of self-efficacy). This feeling has both a direct and an indirect influence on their behaviour. In the first case, it allows them to mobilize and organize their skills, and in the second, it influences their choice of objectives and actions. In educational psychology, there is a consensus that feeling competent and in control impacts commitment and performance. This correlation has been documented not only for feelings of self-efficacy but also for the related concepts of perceived competence and self-concept.

Although teachers have an essential role to play in developing their learners’ sense of self-efficacy, it is in the latter’s interest to become aware of this notion. First, they should be aware that this feeling is relatively flexible and can be influenced in many ways. This is in addition to the fact that it has the advantage of being specific (to a task, a subject, an activity, a field of activity). Learners also need to be aware that taking on challenges is one of the best ways to improve self-efficacy and that the more a person believes they can improve, the more likely they are to make choices to do so.

In general, learners with a low sense of efficacy attribute their poor performance to a supposed lack of ability — a factor over which they have little control — while those with a high sense of efficacy are inclined to attribute their setbacks to a lack of either effort, knowledge, or skill — factors over which they have control. To gain a more constructive view of one’s self-efficacy, it is essential to develop one’s ability to evaluate oneself, a skill that falls under the heading of metacognition (see Metacognition in 3 questions and Develop your metacognitive skills).

Vary the memorization activities

“The more curiosity the learner has about a piece of learning, the more likely the learner’s memory is to retain it. Using ‘riddles’ or questions related to the knowledge a learner should possess is an appropriate avenue to increase this active engagement. Thinking, seeking to understand and making predictions also contribute to better retention of knowledge.” Neuroscience: learning in 4 steps

In the article Les 7 clés de l’apprentissage in Sciences et Avenir (September 2021), Quebec neuroeducation professor Steve Masson, like Stanislas Dehaene, insists on the need to actively engage one’s brain, “to keep it dynamic in an active engagement” so that it can “modify the way neurons are interconnected” — a transformation that physiologically speaking represents learning. The type of instruction favoured generally affects this factor. For example, in a lecture where learners are not asked to participate much, they can be more actively engaged, according to Masson, by focusing.

Repeating a lesson is most often essential for the brain to consolidate new learning, but repeating it over and over again in the same way, and “passively” at that, by simply rereading one’s notes, is generally not optimal. To keep the brain engaged in learning or “actively involved” — the second pillar of learning — it is recommended to challenge it by alternating review activities that are conducive to memorization: rephrasing, diagramming, questioning, being questioned, etc. Testing oneself helps to identify what one has learned and what one lacks and to encourage the recording of learning in one’s long-term memory (Roediger et al., 2010).

Spreading out revisions over time is recommended since chaining them together would decrease brain activity in the circuits involved, while spacing them out would increase it (Bradley et al., 2015). In addition, a 24-hour delay is recommended for the first sessions, among other things, to take advantage of the consolidation activity of the learning (fourth pillar) that takes place in the brain during sleep while it is replayed in loops. In fact, sleep habits significantly impact the different functions involved in learning, the volume of grey matter, and brain development in general.

In addition to this advice, we must add that memorization and learning are highly complex processes influenced by several factors specific to each individual and that can, moreover, vary according to the context. These include motivation, interest in learning, personal goals, emotions, metacognition, the relationship between the learner and the teacher, etc. Therefore, it is important to remember that the findings on the potential of certain approaches in this field must be put into perspective. As Henry Roediger points out in his publication entitled Relativity of Remembering: Why the Laws of Memory Vanished (Annual Review of Psychology, 2008) where he reviews many studies on long-term memory in light of the tradition of experimental/cognitive psychologists: “The most fundamental principle of learning and memory, perhaps its only sort of general law, is that in making any generalization about memory one must add that ‘it depends.’ Of course, only future research can typically tell whether some finding is widely generalizable.”

Knowing how to rest intelligently

“While doing less doesn’t necessarily lead to recovery, trying very hard to do nothing to replenish our energy reserves can have the opposite effect. ‘Effective rest comes from a natural recovery process, so it doesn’t come with the action or willingness to rest. Rest comes with the deactivation of a system, whether it be neuro-anatomical, muscular or cellular,’ says neuropsychologist Guillaume Dulude.” —How to help your brain “unplug”

To have the desire and energy to engage actively in learning, it is necessary to know how to rest and recuperate (see How to help your brain “unplug”). The working memory and the error detection system of the brain are particularly solicited when we learn. This is without considering all the distractions to which we are subjected that divide our attention, which, unlike a state of concentration, tires the brain. Just like optimal physical training, we must also aim to balance energy expenditure and rest in cognitive training. The brain is unique in that it never stops, and it tends to reproduce the behaviours that it knows well and that have earned it a reward (in the form of dopamine).

Activities that can be described cognitively as “in-between,” such as walking, colouring or doing crossword puzzles, are appropriate for short daily breaks. It should be noted that, similar to sleep, it has been observed that during breaks, the brain’s neurons replay recent learning (Buch et al., 2021). That said, for the brain to truly recover, it must choose an activity that takes it out of its usual routine. As neuropsychologist Guillaume Dulude explains in his video Comment se reposer (réellement!), “in a strategy of rest, of vacation, we must ‘strategically’ make sure that we do not solicit the same cognitive structures, the same reflexes, the same systems of thought, the same habits that we normally use when we work, when we expend energy.” From this point of view, it is essential to diversify one’s interests and dare to take on new challenges, including in our leisure time. And be careful not to overestimate the effectiveness of activities that can be described as “passive,” such as going out for a drink, eating at a restaurant or going to the movies… What is passive and exogenous (such as a psychotropic drug) provides the brain with a superficial and short-term rest according to Guillaume Dulude. Therefore, it is imperative to turn to activities that require genuine involvement on our part.

Tips for teachers

Take emotions into account

“Learning involves questioning what we think we know, opening oneself to new ideas and more complexity, and making efforts without necessarily knowing the outcome. In short, it is a destabilizing step that, although it contains a lot of positive emotions, can not keep us away from feeling any negative emotion. It is important to remind the learners of this fact, to encourage them to express themselves on what destabilizes them in their learning process and to give them the necessary resources to help.” —The importance of emotions in learning

For a long time, we believed that learning was a strictly rational process in which emotions had little or no impact, but we now realize that we were mistaken. In the brain, all cognitive processes, including emotions, are translated by neuronal processes. Emotions play such an essential role in cognition that they can act as a lever or, on the contrary, become a brake in learning and the retrieval of knowledge (see The importance of emotions in learning and 4 emotions in learning).

Emotions can affect the learner at different stages of the learning process. They can have either a positive or negative impact on their attention, motivation, learning strategies and ability to self-regulate. On the other hand, just because an emotion is positive, in the broadest sense, does not mean that it is necessarily beneficial to the learning process. To be helpful to the learning process, emotion must be related to learning or learning tasks; otherwise, it can interfere with attention and affect performance.

Emotions have a significant influence on memory. Neuroscience has shown us that to “encode” learning, the brain needs feedback on its predictions — which is the third pillar of learning — specifically an error signal that should cause the learner to feel surprised. It should be added that it is mainly on long-term consolidation that emotions act. Therefore, it is in the interest of every teacher to review their approach in light of the latest knowledge on the subject, which the COVID-19 pandemic and the accelerated shift to online teaching have also highlighted.

Humanizing teaching

“According to psychologist and professor Mario Poirier, this link between teacher and learner is one of the most important contributions of empathy in pedagogy, and this benefit becomes even more valuable in online training.” —Online training in empathic mode

Among the approaches in which the emotional dimension of learning plays a central role, one of the main contributions of empathy pedagogy is to enrich the relationship between the teacher and the learner, a benefit that takes on even greater value in online training. Empathy has two dimensions, one emotional and the other cognitive. The first refers to the ability to feel the emotional state of the other, while the second refers to an understanding of the other’s thoughts and aspirations.

Empathy-based pedagogy has been shown to have a positive impact on confidence, enjoyment of learning, motivation and engagement in learning, the development and strengthening of a teacher-learner bond, the creation of a positive learning environment, the development of a sense of belonging to the group, the valuing of learning, as well as pedagogical success (see Online training in empathic mode).

Using empathy as a pedagogical tool requires not only a willingness to listen and to put oneself in the shoes of the learner but also to engage in a reflective process and to translate this into action. Among the concrete initiatives that psychologist and professor Mario Poirier puts forth in his article Réduire la distance par la pédagogie de l’empathie (2013) to integrate empathy into one’s teaching are:

  • Conducting numerous check-ins on each student’s progress during the course.
  • Favouring frequent, ongoing exchanges focused on one difficulty at a time.
  • Provide prompt and clear feedback on exams and graded assignments. Feedback should be detailed and personalized. It should aim to explain mistakes to the student, BUT also to motivate the student to work harder, improve and pass the course.

Thinking seriously about incorporating play

“Recent studies have concluded that lecture-based teaching, which has been practiced for more than 500 years, is not the most effective teaching approach available. For professor and founder of Professors at Play, Lisa K. Forbes, it is unwise to continue century-old practices because this is how it has always been done when things have changed, and students are even being taught to adapt to change.” —Is Having Fun in Higher Education the Way Forward?

As Stanislas Dehaene confirms in an interview on the unparalleled efficiency of the human brain in Sciences et Avenir (September 2021), “boredom and distraction are the worst enemies of attention and active engagement.” However, one approach that is gaining interest and that can be integrated in many ways and to varying degrees in education, including adult education, is game-based pedagogy.

While there has long been an interest in the impact of play on children’s learning, the same cannot be said for adult learning. However, a recent American study by Lisa K. Forbes (2021) on the relevance of play as a learning strategy in higher education found that it is underutilized and devalued at this level of education (see Adult Learners and Play: 5 Research Findings), even though it provides many benefits such as cultivating relational safety and a warm classroom environment, removing barriers to learning, awakening positive affect and motivation in students, and triggering an open and engaged attitude to enhance learning (see Is Having Fun in Higher Education the Way Forward?). Forbes has developed a theoretical model of the playful learning process from her research that explains how playful learning makes learning more effective. In higher education, the integration of play can range from small to large initiatives that specifically teach a concept or even the entire content of a course, or it can be unrelated to the content and intended to lighten the mood and foster interpersonal connections.

Play transcends tools and technique and is embodied first and foremost in the attitude and approach of the teacher. Like the pedagogy of empathy, the pedagogy of play has the effect of reducing the hierarchical distance between the teacher and the students, thereby strengthening their relationship. In such a classroom, barriers to learning fall more quickly, and relational security can develop, which in turn awakens the learner’s intrinsic motivation and increases their vulnerable engagement. A learner who has a strong relationship with the teacher feels safer to show vulnerability and is, therefore, more willing to receive feedback from the teacher, and is less shy about allowing themself to make mistakes, both of which are essential to learning — feedback being the third pillar of learning. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Forbes and her colleague David Thomas created Professors at Play, a space for discussion, experience sharing and creativity to encourage play and fun in higher education. They plan to publish soon a book based on the best ideas submitted by their community from around the world.

Fostering learners’ sense of self-efficacy

“‘A small success that persuades the individual that he or she has everything needed to succeed allows him or her to rise far above that performance,’ Bandura writes in essence in his seminal book on the subject Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. (2003).” —At the very heart of the feeling of personal effectiveness

The teacher can significantly influence their learners’ sense of efficacy (see The learner and the sense of self-efficacy). It is important to note that having one success — or better yet, several! — in a given activity is the best way to develop high self-efficacy in that activity. The notion of skills that are learned rather than innate skills is what fosters a sense of self-efficacy. While a learner’s educational background impacts their current self-efficacy, new experiences can change their perception. To help learners in this regard, teachers need to get them to focus on how to acquire the skills they are seeking. This factor should also be a priority when giving feedback on performance, whether good or not, rather than attributing it solely to the learner’s efforts or abilities.

To promote self-efficacy, challenges should be stimulating but at a moderate or “realistic” difficulty level. Instead, attainable subgoals or sub-skills that are more easily mastered in a short period and that focus on the process of understanding and learning will gradually increase self-efficacy. To empower learners and cultivate their motivation and commitment, the teacher should involve them in setting these goals.

Assessment activities should not always take the same form or be presented to learners as tests of ability; instead, they should be progression-oriented, criterion-referenced, and non-prescriptive. The teacher should not make qualitative judgments about the assessment they are about to administer — such as suggesting that it will be easy or not — as this may thwart the emergence of learners’ sense of efficacy. However, the teacher’s post-assessment intervention is crucial in guiding learners through accurate and personalized feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their performance and on concrete ways to be more successful. It would not be so much the reason identified by the teacher as being behind the learners’ performance that would impact their self-efficacy as the vision of ability and effort conveyed by the teacher. If the teacher communicates a view of ability as resulting from sustained effort, this should boost learners’ motivation and performance.

Beware that the teacher’s own self-efficacy can significantly influence the learners’ sense of efficacy. For example, it has been observed that teachers who have a high sense of “teaching” efficacy are, among other things, more likely to believe that with the proper work and tools a struggling learner can improve.

*For sources, see the articles linked in the article.
Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.