Neuroscientist and Cal State East Bay Assistant Professor Pradeep Ramanathandoesn’t just teach his students about the brain. He teaches them about how to use their brains to learn more effectively.
“It may seem like a simple question to ask ‘What part of the brain is involved with learning?’” Ramanathan says. “But the reality is that complex functions such as learning are not localized to individual areas, so it’s pretty much the entire brain. The brain as a whole is a vast network of more than a hundred billion neurons, and likely over a hundred trillion synapses. It is the single most powerful computing device [in the world.]”
And that means proper care of the brain is critical for attention and memory — two areas Ramanathan says are very important for student learning performance.
Want to know how you can use your brain’s natural functions and some research-driven techniques to improve your chances of success next quarter? Read on. But first, there are a few obvious health habits that Ramanathan says create the foundation for learning — and if you’ve heard them before, you can probably thank your mother and father for always knowing best.
Ramanathan says a lot of students — many because they have to work full time while earning their degrees — are chronically sleep deprived. It turns out, not only will you struggle to concentrate the next day, but you probably won’t retain as much of what it was you were trying to learn.
“Many students are overextended so … they withdraw from their sleep budget [to study], and that has consequences to learning — one being that your attention is lacking, but another is that sleep is critical for consolidating our memories, so [losing sleep] is a double whammy,” Ramanathan explains. “What a person studies in the few hours before sleep is especially well consolidated by sleep. So, if a student studies for several hours in the evening, and then gets a good night’s sleep, they will consolidate all of that learning very well. But, if they just keep studying until late and end up sleep deprived, all of that extra time spent studying is pretty much going down the tubes.”
SKIP THE JUNK FOOD.
What you eat and drink has direct consequences (good and bad) on your ability to learn. Caffeine can be helpful not only because it allows an otherwise foggy student to focus, but also, Ramanathan says, because research shows it appears to improve long-term memory. So feel free to enjoy a cup of joe, but don’t drink it at night to stay awake and stay away from sugary coffee beverages — the caffeine jolt isn’t worth the cost of consuming lots of sugar and the inevitable crash that follows. One recent study explored long-term impacts of the Western diet on human cognition and the brain, and showed that while sugar in the form of glucose is fuel for the brain, excessive consumption of sugar (especially high fructose corn syrup) can lead to brain insulin resistance and impaired learning, memory and other cognitive functions.
Students who drink alcohol may also suffer a loss of brain cells and experience adverse effects to their memory — both in the short term (don’t party before a big test) and later in life. Even mild social drinking impairs memory and learning performance.
GET A MOVE ON.
In addition to food, Ramanathan says those who exercise more often have better cognitive skills. And that doesn’t necessarily mean running on a treadmill every day. According to a study done at the University of British Columbia, walking 30 to 60 minutes a day beyond what you’d normally do on campus improves brain function and can increase alertness in the classroom and help retain information.
And now, five recommendations from the professor for things you can do to maximize your learning potential this fall.
1. SIT UP FRONT
Research findings have been somewhat mixed about the effects of classroom seat location on student learning. Traditionally, and as supported by studies such as this one from the University of Colorado at Boulder, educators believe that sitting at the front of class may be of benefit because it allows a student to hear better, see better and there are fewer peers in a student’s line of vision to be distracted by. An exception? Ramanathan says a student who is self conscious about being called on in the front row, to the point of becoming distracted by nerves, should consider sitting a few rows back.
2. WRITE, DON’T TYPE
Ramanathan says most students these days can type almost as quickly as he lectures. But he warns students against relying on laptops, explaining that many students devolve into transcriptionists, which robs the student of a key factor in learning — the use of metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking.”
“Handwriting places a much bigger responsibility on you to stay intentionally engaged, which means you’ll retain more.”
“When you [write by hand] … you’re forced to do something important that requires metacognition,” Ramanathan says. “Since you can’t keep up with the professor verbatim, you end up having to summarize in your notes. So, you have to ask yourself a lot of metacognitive questions in real time about how well you are learning and understanding what is being said. You tend to ask yourself, ‘Am I understanding what the professor is saying, what is the gist, what are the main points or key takeaways that I need to remember?’ and then you have to put that into your own words. All of this engages a huge network of brain areas and significantly improves learning. Handwriting places a much bigger responsibility on you to stay intentionally engaged, which means you’ll retain more. When you type, it tends to be more ‘in-one-ear-out-the-other.’”
In addition, the professor cautions that laptops and other internet-enabled devices mean students are vulnerable to distractors such as texts, social media apps, email and other online elements with pop-ups that are designed to grab attention — and can break focus.
3. TEACH SOMEBODY ELSE
As the saying goes, if you can teach something, then you really know it. Ramanathan says one of the most effective study strategies a student can use is to try and teach the material to someone else. You can do this alone or in a group — have each person take turns presenting a specific portion of the information.
But the technique isn’t limited to the availability of study partners.
“You don’t need an audience, you can even do it silently to an imaginary audience,” he says. “Just make sure you’re getting deep enough into the information, putting it in your own words and talking about it without looking at the supporting materials.”
4. STOP MULTITASKING
So, what to do if you’re an overworked, stressed-out, beer-drinking, multitasking student who doesn’t exercise?
Ramanathan says in recent years there’s been a cultural shift toward celebrating the skill of multitasking, but that it actually has negative consequences on learning.
“Focused attention is absolutely critical to learning. Multitasking is the opposite of focused attention — it involves either divided attention or alternating attention. We all multitask a little bit and the human brain is certainly capable of it, but there are two aspects that make it detrimental to learning,” he says. “One, when you’re in class and are distracted and multitasking, you’re watering down that focused attention that you’re supposed to be allocating toward learning. In addition, there’s a cost you incur when switching your attention back and forth because each time you have to ramp up your understanding again and there’s time and energy wasted in that process. All of this results in poorer comprehension and reduced memory for the material.”
Bonus point: The professor also reports that individuals who demonstrate the ability to control their attention have been found to have higher IQs and are more successful performing cognitive tasks, according to a study published in Cognitive Psychology. But, he cautions that the jury is still out as to whether cultivating improved attention and working memory can increase your IQ, though he personally believes future research will bear that result.
5. CONSIDER MEDITATION
So, what to do if you’re an overworked, stressed-out, beer-drinking, multitasking student who doesn’t exercise beyond walking from the parking lot to class and never goes anywhere without a laptop and mocha frappuccino with extra caramel and whip?
Lucky for you, Ramanathan says the brain is always developing and is actually “plastic” in nature, which means with time and concerted effort, it can be trained to improve focus and retain more information. The best way to do that? Use the tips above and consider meditation.
“In mindfulness meditation, when you’re meditating and your mind wanders, you bring it back to your breath,” Ramanathan says. “Since your mind keeps wandering, you’ll have to do this repeatedly, and this cultivates focused attention. It can also help calm the nervous system, keeping the brain more alert and better able to process information, all of which enhances your learning skills. Additionally, studies such as this one suggest that meditation can increase cortical thickness in areas of the brain associated with attention and higher level cognitive processing.”