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Learning Techniques

by Peter Horneffer, MD

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    00:05 Barb, it was really helpful understanding the cellular basis of learning. I have to say my students are always asking for practical advice. So, do you have any ways to apply some of this neurobiology and help them in their studies? Peter, got you covered. The thing is, when you're learning you often have these tendencies to resort to certain tried and true, or at least you think they're tried and true, ways of learning. So for example you might do something like underline or you might highlight text or reread what you're doing whatever you've been learning or you might try retrieval practice so like looking at a flash card and checking to see if you have it in mind or you might even try something called concept mapping.

    01:03 So, that's where you write down key concepts and try to tie them together. So if you look here, there are 4 different options for you. So it's highlighting, rereading, and retrieval practice or concept mapping. Which of those 4 do you think is the best for helping you learn? Stop the video now and check which ones you think it is.

    01:37 So, here you are, we're back again and the answer to the question is it's retrieval practice that is by far the best way to learn effectively. In fact, when researcher Jeff Karpicke did the study, it turned out that of those 4 different options that I discussed, retrieval practice was by far and away the best technique for learning.

    02:05 It's not like you're just memorizing the material. By retrieving that idea, pulling it to mind, you're actually knowing both what that information is and what it is not.

    02:23 So, retrieval practice really consists of retrieving, retrieving, retrieving that initial faint information that you put in your long-term memory. So the more you retrieve, the better it is because it'll strengthen those links of learning. But let's say that you are really busy with things. So, you understand the material as it's taught in class, but then you don't have a chance to look at it for several weeks. So, what happens during those several weeks? Well, because you're not using those links of learning, those synaptic connections, your little synaptic janitors can more or less sweep those connections away. So, suddenly a concept that you did somewhat understand before disappears from memory. We can also see, if you look at this image here, it shows this upper image is what a dendrite looks like before learning and before sleep. And if you look at this lower image, that is the same exact living neuron after learning and after sleep. And wherever you see those little blue triangles, you can see that new dendritic spines have either grown stronger or emerged and grown in the first place to make synaptic connections. So this indeed is an important reason why sleep is such a very valuable aspect of learning because sleep is when those neuro connections are strengthened. Hundreds of times while you're sleeping, these little electrical signals will run across the dendrites and the dendritic spines that you are using to remember important information. So, this is why for example when you are going to sleep at night, it's a good idea to just try to bring back to mind the most important things that you are really trying to learn or remember.

    04:49 So study during the day, but just before you go to sleep those last few minutes put it in mind these last little tidbits that you want to learn and that will remind your brain what you wanted to be practicing with while you're sleeping. Now, sometimes we have a tendency to cram information. So if we might have 5 hours to study, we might cram it 5 hours all in 1 day, say a Sunday. But researches shown if you are trying to learn new information, it is far more important for you to space that learning out. So instead of 5 hours in 1 day, you want 5 hours spaced out 1 hour each day because not only are you learning during the day but at night when you go to sleep, it's like you're getting a double strengthening of those links that you're creating. Now, if you don't do that, if you cram all 5 hours in 1 day, your little synaptic janitor can go and sweep those rather weak links away much more easily. Now, I love metaphors, a good metaphor to help you remember this is that when you're laying a brick wall, as you lay a layer of bricks you put in the mortar, layer of bricks. Before you go too high, let that mortar dry. But if you don't do that, if you don't take time in building a structure, you get this wall of learning that looks like this, it's a very very poor foundation for learning. So again, spacing out your learning with retrieval practice over a number of days, spaced retrieval is a valuable technique for learning. Now, there is also something that people will occasionally refer to irreverently as the meathead theory of learning. And this is something along the lines of when you're building muscular tissue, it takes time to build that muscular tissue. People can't really get their head wrapped around the fact that it actually also takes time to learn in your brain, I mean it takes time to build that neural tissue. So actually, neural tissue and muscular tissue are both excitable tissues and that's why the meathead theory of learning is a valid theory to think about. Now last of all, since we're looking at our weightlifter here, you should be aware that one of the best ways to help build your ability to learn and remember as we now know is through exercise. And the reason this is important is because of a wonderful substance produced in the brain when you exercise. It's called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF. And if you look here, you can see another image of a living dendrite and then this sprinkle BDNF on this dendrite. What happens? You can see here all of these dendritic spines just sprout out, they emerged and that is almost like leaving extra lumber around when you want to build something. It gives a very good sort of set of foundational dendritic spines that you can learn more easily from. So this is why it can be so valuable to include exercise in your learning program. Barb, that was so helpful to understand the neurologic basis and the cellular physiology that's involved in this process. Many of the things you mentioned we've heard about for years such as get sleep at night and get plenty of exercise, but now we know why those are so important. The spacing concept, however, is probably new to most of us. That was certainly not part of my school and clearly so important now that we understand the neurobiology behind it.

    09:33 In fact, we're going to spend a future session focused specifically on spaced retrieval. And it's particularly important because I have to admit certainly I stayed up late some nights and cram for exams and even so generally did okay in those exams but then when I went on to study for a final on my boards I realized that I remember little of the material I had crammed for. And now we know why you have to apply these strategies you described to avoid this problem. So it's really helpful getting these practical tips. And please remember it's really important you get sleep and give your brains time to recover and let those dendritic spines grow.

    10:23 So, Barb I also really liked your weightlifting analogy. I tell my students all the time work your brain just like an athlete works their muscles. Train hard but train smart.

    10:38 And now we have a better understanding of why that is so important as well.

    10:43 So thank you. Thank you and remember when you stop this video, retrieve the key ideas, I'll do it tomorrow too.


    About the Lecture

    The lecture Learning Techniques by Peter Horneffer, MD is from the course Neuroscience of Learning.


    Included Quiz Questions

    1. It helps the brain recall and clarify recently learned knowledge.
    2. It helps strengthen the weaker neural links that were formed when information was first learned.
    3. It allows the creation of new axons for learning.
    4. It induces the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs).
    5. It speeds up the creation of new neurons to help with additional learning.
    1. Sleep helps prevent the removal of dendritic spines and strengthens dendritic connections that have been formed.
    2. Sleep helps eliminate lactic acid from the body, which supports the conditions for learning.
    3. Sleep is an unexpected reward and causes the brain to release dopamine.
    4. Sleeping produces brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs), which prime neurons to create dendrites.
    1. It gives the brain time to consolidate knowledge and strengthen links.
    2. It allows more time to rest in between learning.
    3. It produces dopamine to aid learning more effectively.
    4. It removes lactic acid from the body, which primes the body for learning.
    1. People who exercise produce brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs), which promote the formation of new dendritic spines.
    2. Exercise helps give you an opportunity to contemplate previously learned knowledge.
    3. Exercising produces epinephrine, which is an important neurotransmitter in learning.
    4. People who exercise have more adrenaline, which promotes the formation of neural connections.

    Author of lecture Learning Techniques

     Peter Horneffer, MD

    Peter Horneffer, MD


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