How the brain stores learning and how you can use it in instructional design?

Posted by Greten on 20 Apr 2019 under Theories, Tips

The human brain is often compared to storage drives in terms of storing information, but they work in totally different ways. Storage drives store information as files inside a folder, which may be inside another folder, and so on, like a filing cabinet. The human brain, on the other hand, stores information as interconnected pieces, very much like the brain cells themselves.

This process is the generation part of the AGES model. New knowledge and skills are retained as they build connection to existing knowledge and experience that are already in the brain.

Visualizing knowledge as ants

You can visualize the knowledge in your brain as ants on water. On its own, an ant will drown. However, as a group, ants can form complex structures with their bodies such as bridges that can withstand the stream or rafts that can float on water. The structure that is made-up of the ants is the bulk of your knowledge in the long-term memory. The ants swimming to reach the structure are new pieces of knowledge, information, and skills that you are in the process of learning. They may reach the main structure (stick to your long term memory) or drown in the water (be forgotten).

I cannot find a public domain image of ants forming a raft, so I will just link to the Youtube channel of Nat Geo Wild; click if you want to see how ants make a floating raft using their own bodies.

Pieces of knowledge that are connected to the network of knowledge in more than one ways are more likely to stay in your memory. For example, consider the knowledge "Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread." There are several ways you can have this knowledge. Some of these are:

Three chains of previous pieces of knowledge that are connected to the same new knowledge. First chain: Some things around you are alive, and some are not. Connected to: There are different kinds of living things. Connected to: Fungi is one kind of living thing. Mold is a kind of fungi. Connected to: Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread. Second chain: Penicillin is an antibiotic that can kill many kinds of bacteria that infect humans. Connected to: Penicillin is obtained from molds of Penicillium species, one of which is Penicillium notatum. Connected to: Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread. Third chain: From experience; If I keep bread for several days without consuming it, green molds will grow on it. Connected to: Look for information; Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread.

Now, you may have learned these series of knowledge in just one session, e.g., they are discussed in different paragraphs on the same page of a textbook, or learned them separately, e.g., you read the "Penicillin" label on the medicine wrapper and searched the net out of curiosity, they still constitute a chain of interconnected knowledge. If you have one chain of knowledge that leads to "Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread.", then this piece of knowledge is strongly attached to your memory. If there are two or more chains—meaning, it is not just at the end of a chain of associated pieces of knowledge, but in the middle or the chain branches out—the attachment to your memory is even stronger.

Three chains of previous pieces of knowledge that connects to the same piece of knowledge. First chain going from top-left corner to center: Some things around you are alive, and some are not. Connected to: There are different kinds of living things. Connected to: Fungi is one kind of living thing. Mold is a kind of fungi. The last one is connected to the node at the center. Second chain going from right to center: Penicillin is an antibiotic that can kill many kinds of bacteria that infect humans. Connected to: Penicillin is obtained from molds of Penicillium species, one of which is Penicillium notatum. The last one is connected to the node at the center. Third chain going from bottom to center: From experience; If I keep bread for several days without consuming it, green molds will grow on it. This is connected to the node at the center to which all other chains end, which states: Penicillium notatum is a green mold that grows on bread.

You can have several branches connected to a piece of knowledge by learning it in different ways or by learning it once and then associating it with two or more pieces of knowledge later.

Knowledge retrieval

Aside from making it easier to keep the knowledge in long term memory with more chains of interconnected pieces of knowledge, retrieving it also becomes easier with more chains.

The ants on the surface of the structure are the knowledge that you can access easily, while those that are under the surface are those that you've seem to have forgotten already, but are still in your memory. To retrieve the information under the surface, you have to start on something that is on the surface, and trace the network of connections until you find the information you need.

Let us reuse the Penicillium notatum again as an example. Suppose you are trying to recall the name of that mold that grows on bread. Suppose you can remember some parts like it starts with "p" and it has Latin-like "ium" or "um" sound, but cannot remember the exact words.

  • If you can recall that it is the main ingredient used in making Penicillin, that's already a huge clue. The word you're looking for sounds like Penicillin but also sounds like a Latin word that ends with -ium or -um. Hence, Penicillium notatum.
  • You can recall one of the examples of fungi from your biology lessons. You may not remember some parts of these lessons, but if you recall some of the examples of fungi, and Penicillium notatum is one of them, then you can immediately recall it as something that grows on bread.
  • You may be able to recall your experience in actual bread, and how you searched for its name. Then, you can recall Penicillium notatum. Alternatively, you may not be able to recall the information itself, but recalled how you obtained it from an external source. Thus, you can repeat the way you obtained it, e.g., which search engine and what keywords you used, or the chapter of the book from where you obtained it.

Three chains of knowledge that connects from the surface to the deeper part of the memory. The top chain: Fungi are living things. Connected to: There are several kinds of fungi, some of them are... Connected to: Penicillium notatum. Second chain : Penicillin is an antibiotic derived from molds. Connected to: The mold on bread sounds like Penicillin but also with sounds like Latin word. Connected to: Penicillium notatum, the same node as the first chain. Third chain: If I keep bread for several days without consuming it, green molds will grow on it. This is connected to the same Penicillium notatum node in the first and second chains. The nodes on the left end of the chain are the surface knowledge, while the one on the right is the deeper knowledge, which the learner can recall through any of the starting points on the surface knowledge.

Of course, you may not have all of these connections to the piece of knowledge "Penicillium notatum", but the more it is connected to other pieces of knowledge, the easier it will be to retrieve it in case it is not on the surface, or not among the ones you can recall at will.

Designing your instruction to establish connections in current and previous learning

In designing your lessons or elearning modules, immediately setup the connection between the learner's existing knowledge and the new incoming knowledge. The knowledge that learners learn without any connection to existing knowledge or experience is like those ants struggling to swim; the learners have to establish the connections themselves, or they forget the new knowledge.

Here are some ways you can design learning to establish immediate connection to existing knowledge.

  1. Refer to the curriculum and prerequisite maps to have an idea of what your learners know so far.
  2. If you are making a series of learning modules, start each new learning module by having a short review of the previous lesson and establishing its connection to the new lesson. You may also introduce a new lesson by establishing its connection to a past lesson, not just the one that comes immediately prior to it. For example, teaching Phytagoras' theorem usually starts reviewing both algebraic notation, which the learners may have learned in Algebra the previous year, and right triangles, which they may have learned in elementary mathematics several years back. Then, if your next lesson is about the sine and cosine functions, you can start it by reviewing the length of sides and interior angles of a right triangle.
  3. Make general assumptions on your learner's knowledge based on their demographics. Then, design your lesson such that it immediately connects the new learning to existing knowledge. For example, if you're going to design training on how to use spreadsheet software (such as Excel, Calc, or Google Sheets) to a group of accountants, your first lesson and examples might include the use of Currency and Accounting data formats. If your learners are teachers, your first lessons might include average function, percentage format, and other mathematics that are useful in computing grades.

If you cannot find any way to connect the new lessons to the previous learning or existing knowledge—perhaps it is a new lesson and your learners are so diverse that you cannot make any assumptions about their existing knowledge—then you can use repetition; you present the same information several times. However, this is not as simple as reading the same text or playing the same video over and over again. Present the lesson repeatedly but in different formats and with different contexts. Then, the knowledge is no longer a single ant that may drown, but several similar ants that can form a smaller structure that can float. There are proper ways of repeating lessons for stronger recall, but that would be for another article.

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Last updated on 17 Aug 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning