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The 5 steps of learning

'I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand ' - Confucius

Your brain works like Google - a cue can access memories from your experience. How does it become so organised? Knowing this can help you learn more effectively. Today's blog covers how you learn in 5 steps.

Learning is taking information and improving your understanding of how the world works. Learning is the incorporation of new information and memory is the storage and retrieval of what has been learned.

Meet your neurons

Neurons are the building blocks of your brain. The image above shows neurons and the tree-like structures coming from it called dendrites. We will soon see how important the branches are in learning. Memory is quite a broad umbrella term from being a quiz genius to solving a Rubik’s cube. There are four types of memory.

The 4 types of memory

Memory formation shares the same basic process.

The 5 steps of learning

Learning is the process of having an experience or learning something and it being integrated into your broader understanding. When we first hear someone's name it goes into our working memory. As we repeat the name and learn more about them, that name goes from being an isolated fact to the umbrella of a personal profile.

Step 1: Stimulate

When we have a new experience an electrical and chemical signature is created in your brain and number of neurons activate. This signature results in the data being available in your working memory. The pattern of activation will now represent the experience or information. An experience will be more stimulating to you, if you are curious, focused, and intensively engage with it.

The key point is, unless you are stimulating your brain through curiosity, focus and intensity, you will not create enough stimulation. Stimulation is the fuel for memory and learning. Compare the level of stimulation of a 2 hour lecture where you are at the back of the warm lecture hall versus a flight simulator where you are being assessed on how well you fly the plane.

Step 2: Encode

Encoding converts that experience into a format that can be stored. Encoding is about taking in sensory information and transforming it into a memory. It is truly amazing that the brain is able to convert meaning, sounds, sights, smells and feelings into an electrical signal.

Encoding is the first step of getting something from your working memory into your long-term memory. Stimulation needs to be high to get this far.

Step 3: Consolidate

Consolidation is when your new learning is reorganised to integrate into your long-term memory. The new experience is added to your existing mental models and your brain cross-stitches with other relevant memories and experiences.

The tree-like structures we encountered in the image of a neuron grow between neurons that are fire together. When these tree-like structures reach each other they form a connection called a synapse. This physical infrastructure allows the brain to retrieve memories. Learning and experiencing physically changes your brain.

Like google, your brain is organising disparate information and making it mesh together so it can be accessed by cues. It is at this stage that your prior learning makes a huge difference and where creativity and insight can occur. Maybe you are normally a tennis player and are learning to play football. You might have unique insights as to where to position yourself to gain maximal coverage of a small space. This could be an advantage to you. In general, people who have a thorough understanding of a number of different fields might find connections and ways of seeing things that natives in any one field might not.

Time to sleep

Consolidation is crucial to learning, and it takes time to consolidate learning. The good news is much of this happens during your sleep. You might be tempted to think of sleep as a rest for your brain, but it is not the case. Your neurons fire rapidly overnight. Recently activated neurons fire and connect with each other, create an integrated set of associations (and also produce some really weird dreams in the process). The link between sleep and learning is very strong. This is yet another reason to get those 8 hours of shut eye.

One of the most common exam preparation errors is last minute cramming. This is bad twice over. It does not give the brain time to consolidate the knowledge from the working memory into the long term memory and the large workload results in less sleep too.

Sleep, rest and leisure are essential to allow consolidation. Think of consolidation in the brain like resting between workouts for athletes.

(A tenuous link to retrieve, I know!)

Step 4: Retrieve

I you have learnt it well you can retrieve it when needed. Recalling a memory results in the brain replaying the pattern of neurons associated with that memory. Each time is it accessed a memory is strengthened further and the memory becomes richer, more vivid and more accessible. The act of testing yourself or repeating an activity, makes your learning stronger and the connections develop. As the connections develop the flow of electricity between connected neurons becomes easier.

Step 5: Reconsolidate

when connections between neurons weaken due to underuse we start forgetting. Forgetting happens most rapidly immediately after you learn something. Forgetting things you have seen for the first time happens when information does not get consolidated into the long term memory or when learning is not used much and the connections start to get pruned. However well you know something it pays to practice once in a while to keep things fresh. For those of you who are taking exams, good revision makes things stick.

Reconsolidation is when we meet experiences or try and retrieve information again. This is training, revision and practice. It serves two purposes. Firstly it offsets forgetting and secondly it keeps the neurons firing - those memory connections keep getting stronger. As we keep revisiting material, the connections become stronger which decreases our rate of forgetting and better integrates our knowledge.

The 5 step process of stimulation, encoding, consolidation, retrieval and reconsolidation has taken our experiences or desired learning and turned them into readily accessible memory. This process is the same process for passing exams, learning a sport, trying new habits, learning a language, driving a car. It is also the same process for developing a fear, getting into bad habits and addiction. The more we expose ourselves to something the more ingrained it gets - something for us all to think about.

So what? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week: 1) Neurons are the building blocks of our memory. These wonderful structures help us learn and remember things, allowing us to use that knowledge when needed. 2) Whether you are remembering a phone number, your wedding day, the capital of France or riding a bike, you are relying on memory and it has the same 5 step process. 3) Memories are created through i) being stimulated, ii) having that experience encoded into a brain representation, iii) consolidating the memory into your learning iv) recalling that memory and v) accessing that learning again and again to further integrate it.

Thank you for joining. Next blog in the learning series - 'How to stimulate learning'. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Other blogs in the learning series:


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