How the Brain Processes Learning

Having a fundamental understanding of how learning occurs within a student's brain can assist you in developing curriculum, learning objectives and instructional methods.  Basically the human brain is filled with neurons that send chemical and electrical messages to its various parts.  Information from one neuron flows to another across a small gap called a synapse (see graphic below).   When something new is learned a synapse is created. If learning is not reinforced by repeated exposure the neuron or axon may retreat.  But if more learning about the same concept is introduced, in novel ways, then the synaptic connections between neurons are strengthened, leading to more complex interactions. The more learning introduced, the stronger and more tightly woven the interaction becomes.  The important point is that by repeated thinking about a concept in new and different ways the learning will hard-wire this knowledge deeply within the learner for repeated future use- not only to store memories, but to transfer principles to new learning. 

A part of the brain controls basic emotions and drives human behavior. Because all parts of the brain are connected in some way to other parts, the emotional system (called the limbic system) can affect the parts of the brain responsible for cognition.   When a person is concentrating hard on something, minor distractions are ignored.  This is due to the ability of the neuron to reduce the number of signals that cause distraction.  A primary distracter is negative emotion.  If there is a positive emotional involvement with the content then the signals can be speeded up.  These signals pass on to the cognitive parts of the brain.  

                 Neuron Showing Synapse

You can learn more about the brain and learning through watching a youtube video of  Dr. Susan Van Aalderan.     


Or you may want to read the article: 

Leamnson, R. (2000).  Learning as Biological Brain Change.  Change: the magazine of higher learning, 32 (6), 34-40.   

So to sum up:  brain research tells us that: 

  • Practice and deep thinking about a concept will enable the student to extract the concept, skill or understanding at will.  This can be accomplished by designing multiple experiences that build upon previous learning in ways where students are asked to solve problems, analyze and synthesize data, and to innovate. 
  • Experiences with focused meaningful reflection about a concept allows students to build connections to earlier information.  If that information fits with the new information, it is more likely to be remembered or accepted.  Reflection can occur individually or socially.  Providing experiences where students are asked to reflect what they learned together, both in writing and verbally,  can assist students in consolidating what they know. 
  • Assessing what students know about a concept before and after introducing it will assist learning. Unfortunately learners often misconstrue meaning and a robust mass of connections within the brain may have been built that reinforce this false information.  Thus, it is important to provide meaningful experiences to assess what students already know or don’t know about a topic.  We do this so that the concept in question can be relearned. Assessing will also help you in making a decision on how much time to spend on a concept.  If students already know the information or skill you can spend less time on it. 

Assessing does not mean asking a student if they know something- it is asking meaningful questions, listening to their answers and or observing if they can do something.

  • Teaching to a preferred learning style of the student may make it more comfortable for a student, but it does not create robust neural connections.  Sometimes struggle is a good thing.  
  • Emotions affect cognition through positive and negative experiences.  Curriculum that includes experiences that inspire students as well as providing some positive types of reinforcement and deadlines can trigger reasons for students to want to connect with the content. 

How can this information be used to assist you in developing your curriculum?  How does this affect how you think about learning and teaching?  What misconceptions did you previously have about learning and teaching?  Look back at the Educational Philosophy Chart, in what ways does this change what you think? 


Goldberg,   E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leamnson, R. (2000).  Learning as Biological Brain Change.  Change: the magazine of higher learning, 32 (6), 34-40.   (Provide article to download- if find a newer one use it).