How the Brain Learns?

It is now a standard theory that students’ prior understanding of a subject matter plays the pivotal role in furthering their understanding.  The easiest demonstration of this theory at work is the design of school curricula from primary education through high school and college.  Basic concepts are introduced at earlier levels, which are further built upon in higher levels of education.  Likewise, the effectiveness of students’ learning also depends on the personal interests and motivations they bring to the table.  The learning experience is most meaningful for the student when it comes out of personal interests and motivations.  Otherwise, it tends to be academic or abstract, negatively affecting learning outcomes. (Hardiman, 2001, p.53)

Researchers have identified biological and cognitive predispositions of students as key factors in learning.  For example, the capacity and functioning of working memory and the sensory registers are key determinants in learning.  Long term memory is crucial as well, as it provides the necessary background knowledge for assimilating current content. (Slavin, 2009, p.502)

Teaching methodology plays an important role in arousing student interest in the subject.  For example, teachers who use a mix of aural, visual and mime inputs for conveying information are more effective than those who use just one medium to the exclusion of others.  Student-teacher interaction is another important factor in aiding the learning experience.  Healthy interaction is a sign of students’ interestedness in the subject; it also serves as feedback to the teacher to ascertain knowledge acquisition on part of students.  The skill of the instructor to offer stimuli to all parts of the students’ cognitive learning repertoire is important. (Hardiman, 2001, p.54)

Using modern brain imaging techniques like the fMRI, researchers are able to associate different parts of the brain to different facets of learning.  For example, visual information is processed and assimilated using the visual cortex at the back of the head.  Likewise, the prefrontal lobes are associated with cognitive deliberation and executive function.  It is also been acknowledged that for any type of learning activity, say, like learning to play the violin or reading or learning math, both hemispheres of the brain are engaged.  But depending on the type of activity, different sections of the brain are engaged.  Hence, there is a strong physiological correlation to the process of learning.  A strong proof for this thesis comes not only from fMRI scans of brains in action, but also from study of grey matter densities. It has been acknowledged that those parts of the brains that are engaged during the learning process grow more neuronal pathways.  But due to the plasticity of the brain, these structures do not remain intact for ever.  A constant repetition of the learned skill will consolidate and strengthen these neural pathways, whereas a discontinuation of the learned skill will lead to the deterioration of the corresponding sub-structures in the brain. (Slavin, 2009, p.507)

An ideal pedagogical method will tap into the physiological working of the brain during the learning process.  Hence, those instructional styles that combine various facets of learning are bound to be more effective. Teachers will ideally include a multitude of media for instructing students.  For example, a right balance of aural, visual and cognitive stimulation will lead to better learning outcomes. Retaining student attention is very important. This can be achieved by encouraging student participation.  Creative and interesting individual and group activities in the classroom will create the right kind of learning environment. (Slavin, 2009, p.507)


Hardiman, Mariale M. (November, 2001). Connecting Brain Research with Dimensions of Learning, Educational Leadership, Association For Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp. 52-55.

Slavin, Robert E. (2009). Chapter 6: Cognitive Theories of Learning, Educational Psychology: Theory Into Practice, Pearson Publication, pp.608.