A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Learning


A pivotal component to doing well in school is knowing how to study. This is why this month’s “Hook’d on A’s” article is focused on answering the myths and misconceptions surrounding how our brains learn effectively. To help answer what common learning strategies are helpful and which ones should be avoided, we turn to Dr. Michael Mauk, a Professor of Neurobiology at the Center for Learning and Memory here at UT.

Dr. Mauk didn’t start out as an undergrad looking to be a neuroscientist.  Instead, he was focused on becoming a major league baseball player; his love for the sport landed him at the University of New Orleans. During his stay at UNO, Dr. Mauk gained the opportunity to participate in scientific research and working in the lab while being intrigued by what he was studying led to him receiving his degree in biopsychology. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. at Stanford University and subsequently worked at University of Texas Medical School in Houston for 19 years. His research here focuses on understanding the neural basis of learning in the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex.

Source: The University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences
Our brains have an interesting manner in which they learn. Instead of being impressed by all types of information, our brains are designed to “be unimpressed.” Therefore we must distinguish which information are worthy of remembering, and which are not. When asked about which neural studies have shown to be the best ways to learn, Dr. Mauk conveyed that throughout all forms of learning, “spaced practice is better than massed practice.”

“Spaced practice” refers to repetition of learning in chunks rather than in large amounts of information at once. This method has been proven to be effective in retention of material, because it allows our brain the opportunity to “stamp in” content that reappears. Therefore, contrary to common study strategies of many college students, it is considered better to “study for an hour five times rather than studying for five hours once.”

Coinciding with the idea of spaced practice, repetition is essential. As previously stated, the brain is designed to be unimpressed, and it is through reoccurrence that our brain can recognize when something is important.  “Studying something twice in the same day is incredibly powerful.” Dr. Mauk explains. Studies have shown that students who revisit the material the same day of the lecture recall more than those who revisit it three weeks later. On the flip side of repetition, cramming is considered to be very counterproductive for learning. Dr. Mauk believes that pulling the all too famous all-nighter is similar to, “getting drunk to drive better.” Sleep in itself is “important for memory consolidation”, and deprivation is “devastating rather than optimal.”  To recall the most information while avoiding the tempting all-nighter, we must first be “organized and motivated” to constantly think about what we learn while staying away from malpractices, such as cramming and sleep deprivation.

At times it is not our study habits that hinder our ability to learn but rather the complexity or the amount of the material at hand. The common notion undergraduates have is, “Why am I studying this? I’m never going to remember all of it.” In the field of neuroscience there is an idea of savings. Savings is defined as relearning something being “faster than the first time you learned it.”  It’s true; you may not remember all of the material, but if you learn the material the first time and revisit it later for a test, “you will relearn it at ten times the pace.”  His common advice to medical student overwhelmed by the material was, “You’re not going to hold everything in your head for later, but you’re going to have real efficient access to it when you come back to it.” If we correctly perform “spaced practice” then we can rely on savings to relearn material in time for exams.  On the contrary, if we depend on cramming days or hours before a test, the concept of savings doesn’t have the same effect, and our brain also struggles to impress.

As the next stretch of midterms are rolling around, and our grades on the line; it would be insightful to study efficiently.  Hence, make sure that cramming is never considered, and instead practice a method that involves many small study sessions rather than large ones. Many exams will be concept based, and it is therefore important for repetition to occur. The more the brain is exposed to these concepts, the more useful it will be come exam day. Finally, exams often cover large amounts of material. This list of required knowledge for the test can be daunting. However, if the material is correctly learned the first time, relearning the material for the exams will be much faster. If ever in doubt about how to learn efficiently, take Dr. Mauk’s advice, “do the opposite of what most undergraduates do.” Good luck on your exams!   

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