Office Hours with the Education Committee – February 2020

How does learning change your brain?

Dear Education Committee, Scientists often say that “learning is a biological process,” but I never learned any of this in my training as a cell biologist and I’m not a neuroscientist! Can you give me a quick crash course so I have some idea of what people are talking about when they say that learning changes your brain?

Not a Neuroscientist

Dear Not a Neuroscientist,

Thanks for your question! You are right that learning is a biological process yet many biologists who become biology faculty never learn about this process. Here are some basic ideas, but we strongly recommend that you check out Teaching as Brain Changing: Exploring Connections between Neuroscience and Innovative Teaching for a comprehensive review of these ideas.1 If you want to read even more, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning is an excellent book on the topic.2 This is highly simplified but here it goes: Your 86 billion neurons encode memories—also known as learning—through synaptic connections between one neuron and another. The “changes” that occur when learning happens relate to “synaptic plasticity,” or changes in the ways that neurons connect with each other. When neurons are active at the same time as each other, they become “wired together.” This is the basis for the neuroscience saying, “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more learning is practiced, the greater number of synapses form between an array of neurons and the longer lasting those synaptic connections become as neurons fire and wire together. What does this mean when it comes to teaching? We can think about it in terms of what is happening in the brain that allows synaptic connections to change when learning happens. We can break it down into three parts: engaging learners, creating learning, and sustaining learning. Engaging Learners Although as teachers we may want to jump right in and “change” students’ neuronal connections, a critical first step is recognizing that there are existing synaptic connections that we must first activate to link new knowledge into the existing brain structure. Therefore, the goal of this first stage is to “encourage [learners’] interest, spur them to unearth their prior experiences with the concepts about to be studied, and pique their interest to know more.”3 Asking yourself a few questions will help to design the initial moments in a lesson or class session: What do students already know or think about the topic or phenomenon that you want to teach? How might you ask students questions to determine what they know or think? How many different examples can you come up with that illustrate this phenomenon that will take into account students’ multiple experiences and perspectives? Creating Learning Once learners’ interest is piqued, there are many evidence-based strategies instructors can use to help learners’ neurons form and strengthen connections, thereby creating new knowledge and skills. Active learning strategies such as think-pair-share, jigsaws, problem-based learning, and concept maps are just a few examples of useful strategies that will help learners’ brains integrate new information with their existing knowledge. Sustaining Learning One thing we know for sure is that hearing something one time (e.g., listening to a lecture) is unlikely to cause synaptic changes sufficient for creating strong connections and sustained learning. This means students need lots of practice when learning and ideally this practice occurs over time (not by cramming the night before the exam!). Instructors can structure their courses for students to practice over time. For example, learners could be introduced to a concept through reading or mini-lectures, work on problems that require understanding of the concept, practice the concept further by explaining their work with peers, and answer a different problem on the same concept during the next class period. These multiple attempts and the increased engagement associated with them are far more likely to be encoded via synaptic plasticity. We hope this crash course engages you in the biological basis of learning and that you will go off and both create and sustain that learning by reading more and incorporating evidence-based practices into your own teaching. Since learning is a biological process, who better than biologists to use it to our advantage as educators?

The Education Committee

1Owens MT, Tanner KD (2017). Teaching as brain changing: Exploring connections between neuroscience and innovative teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2), fe2.

2Zull JE (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

3Tanner KD (2010). Order matters: using the 5E model to align teaching with how people learn. CBE—Life Sciences Education 9, 159–164.

About the Author:

EdComm is the short name for ASCB’s Education Committee.