The Science of Learning, Memory Science, and Your Classroom

It is no secret that the nature of teaching and learning is changing. With rapidly advancing technology, schools are now preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. To do so, schools are focusing on the long-term competencies and skills that students will need to be college and career ready in the 21st century. In order to develop these in students, emerging learning science research focuses on the ways in which students process, maintain, and apply information.


What is the Science of Learning?

The Science of Learning studies how people learn and retain information. Applying this science in the classroom helps students acquire 21st century skills and competencies that they can recall and use in the future, whether in class as a foundation for new concepts, in assessments to demonstrate learning, or in careers to excel professionally.

Ultimately, teaching intends to ensure students are ready for their future endeavors, and their stored memory of learned information will be essential in doing so. Moreover, optimizing memory is key to unlocking a student’s learning potential. And the Science of Learning uses memory science to develop researched best practices for quality curriculum, assessments, and lesson plans that enhance student learning.


What Does Memory Science Teach About Learning?

Memory science is pretty dense, but we will try to keep this article high-level (if you are a neurology fiend, here is in-depth research on all things memory).

The latest science suggests that memory operates according to a dual process with two systems. System 1 encapsulates sub-conscious, routine processes while System 2 Includes more conscious, effortful processes.

two systems of memory

(Image from Upfront Analytics)

When you drive to school, greet your students, and turn on a projector, you are likely using System 1. Whereas, when you align curriculum to newly adopted standards, evaluate EdTech, or deduce standardized test results, you are using System 2, requiring more critical thinking and problem solving to make effortful, well-thought decisions.

Here is where teaching and learning come in to play. Though those System 1 processes are almost automatic, they were not always that way. You were analytical and effortful when learning to drive, as (hopefully!) students will also be. At the beginning of the school year, you had to learn all your students’ names, which likely required a lot of brain power. And there was probably a time you had to learn to use all your classroom technology. Moreover, System 1 processes often start out as System 2, though System 2 processes don’t always evolve to System 1.

When teaching students, the goal is to equip them with the foundational skills needed to assess complex problems and tasks and make informed decisions as they progress from grade to grade for ultimate college and career readiness. Developing System 1 processes for those skills then is integral to student learning.

How does System 1 work? System 1 is a function of receiving, memorizing, and retrieving information through three phases:

Encoding is the sensory process by which information is received by visual, aural, semantic, and tactile senses.

Storage is the maintenance of memory and determines how and how long information is stored.

Recall is the process by which memory is retrieved.

To meet the needs of 21st century education with foundational skills that enable critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, the Science of Learning seeks to hone this System 1 process.


What Does the Science of Learning Mean for Teaching?

Rooted in neuroscience, the Science of Learning appeals to the neurological process of learners through hands-on, multi-modal, and personalized content with application exercises, assessment, and scaffolded instruction to practice recall. This targets the prefrontal, sensory, and limbic systems in the brain as maximum learning occurs when these three areas of the brain are activated.


Why those regions? The prefrontal cortex oversees the memorization of information (encoding) and the retrieval of memories (recall); the sensory system processes information (encoding) and passes it to other systems; and the limbic system manages memories (storage). The section below will detail how to tailor instruction for these systems to reinforce student learning.

Hands-On Learning

Hands-on learning stimulates the prefrontal cortex by actively involving students in the learning process. This can be through setting goals, planning, establishing strategies, reflecting and evaluating, decision making, and problem solving.

To achieve hands-on learning that targets the prefrontal cortex, situate the learning in the context of real-world scenarios and include students in the narrative. This helps define the purpose or reason behind learning, answering the infamous ‘When will I ever use this?’. Further include students by having them create some sort of deliverable product so they tangibly see their work.

Multi-Modal Learning

Multi-modal learning appeals to brain’s sensory system with content aligned to the various ways people encode information. Content shared in visual, aural, and tactile ways helps prompt memory generation.

Leverage the sensory system for deeper learning by introducing concepts both visually and aurally, including hands-on ’do’ tasks (see above) for tactile opportunities, and guiding students with visual and aural cues as they progress through the lesson.

Engaging Learning

Engaging learning targets the limbic system through emotive activities and positive reinforcement.

Incorporate elements of ‘fun’ in learning activities to promote positive feelings and associations with the content. Make assessment a truly formative experience that guides students based on performance through corrective, personalized activities. And again, have a deliverable for the activity so students can celebrate their work and feel encouraged by their accomplishments.

From Memories to Recall

Finally, move from building memories with hands-on, multi modal, and engaging learning to practicing recall. To emulate the recall students will need to do in order to use these skills and competencies in the future, space out the assessments, and build on students’ growing skillsets with scaffolded instruction. Recall opportunities might be formative quizzes or application exercises that position the memory in the context of more complex content and skills. This sort of practice makes information easier to recall in the future and is essential to information that must be quickly recalled. Think of it as building System 1 muscle memory.

The Science of Learning addresses the shifting expectations for today’s graduates. By maximizing retention based on the way the brain encodes, stores, and recalls information, students are better prepared to translate their learning into long-term skills and competencies designed for the 21st century.

For more teaching strategies, download these classroom-ready lesson plans and peruse this library of on-demand webinars for educators.

Written By

Anna McVeigh-Murphy

Anna is equip’s managing editor, though she also likes to dabble in writing from time to time. Anna is passionate about helping educators leverage technology to connect with and learn from each other. In pursuing digital learning communities, she has worked with several hundred educators to tell their stories and share their insights via online publications. Outside of this, she has also led professional development for teachers in both English and Arabic and served as the primary editor for several university professors writing both book chapters and journal articles. Anna is also an avid baker and self-described gluten enthusiast, a staunch defender of the oxford comma, and a proud dog mom to two adorable rescue pups.

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