A group of “heavyweights” from the world of medical schools have collaborated on an article examining research on the brain and learning, and how it can be incorporated effectively in training medical students. And what they recommend clearly has implications for those of us teaching anywhere, and compliments what I do in the classroom around motivation, the brain, and learning. Instead of linking to a ton of different posts I’ve written about those topics, though, since the publisher has made the first chapter of my new book available online for free, I’d encourage you to check it out. That chapter has all my lesson plans on how I implement these ideas in the classroom (and, who knows, you might even ending up wanting to buy the book 🙂 ).

The article is titled What can medical education learn from the neurobiology of learning? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate the entire article online for free, but, for some reason, they have made what I consider the most important sections available. You can read the section on Implications for Medical Teaching and Curricular Development and the part on Where Do We Go From Here?

(NOTE: Scott C. was able to discover that if you go to this link, you can click on PDF and it will download the entire article for free)

The article reviews research (that we also study in my class) about how learning physically changes the brain by growing and strengthening synapses between neurons and helping grow neurons themselves.

To give you a taste of what else they have to say, though, I’m going to publish an excerpts from an article in Science Daily about the paper. The article is titled Brain Scientists Offer Medical Educators Tips on the Neurobiology of Learning. This section very succinctly describes the major recommendations of the authors. Next to several of the recommendations I have links to posts describing specific ways they can be applied in the classroom. Each one of their recommendations can provide fodder for a lengthy post:

The most effective delivery of the best possible care requires identifying and assigning levels of importance to the biological components of learning. Here are 10 key aspects of learning based on decades of research by many scientists that the article’s authors believe can be incorporated into effective teaching.

Repetition: Medical curricula often employ compressed coverage over limited time frames of a great amount of material. Learning theory and the neurobiology of learning and memory suggest that going deeper is more likely to result in better retention and depth of understanding. With repetition, many components of the neural processes become more efficient, requiring less energy and leaving higher-order pathways available for additional cognitive processing. However, repetitions must be appropriately spaced.

Reward and reinforcement: Reward is a key component of learning at all stages of life. “The brain’s intrinsic reward system — self-congratulations with the realization of success — plays a major role in reinforcement of learned behaviors,” Friedlander said. “An important factor is the realization that accomplishing an immediate goal and a successful step toward a future goal can be equally rewarding.” (See My Best Posts On “Motivating” Students)

In the case of medical students, there are considerable rewards ahead of them in addition to the more immediate rewards of the satisfaction of understanding medicine. The students who derive joy from learning as they proceed through their medical education may have a greater chance of using the brain’s capacity to provide reward signals on an ongoing basis, facilitating their learning process.

Visualization: Visualization and mental rehearsal are real biological processes with associated patterned activation of neural circuitry in sensory, motor, executive, and decision-making pathways in the brain. Internally generated activity in the brain from thoughts, visualization, memories, and emotions should be able to contribute to the learning process. (See My Best Posts On Helping Students “Visualize Success”)

Active engagement: There is considerable neurobiological evidence that functional changes in neural circuitry that are associated with learning occur best when the learner is actively engaged.. Learners’ having multiple opportunities to assume the role of teacher also invoke neural motivation and reward pathways — and another major biological component of the learning process: stress. (See The Best Sites For Cooperative Learning Ideas)

Stress: Although the consequences of stress are generally considered undesirable, there is evidence that the molecular signals associated with stress can enhance synaptic activity involved in the formation of memory. However, particularly high levels of stress can have opposite effects. The small, interactive teaching format may be judiciously employed to moderately engage the stress system. (see How We Can Help Our Students Deal With Stress)

Fatigue: Patterns of neuronal activity during sleep reinforce the day’s events. Research suggests that it is important to have appropriate downtime between intense problem-solving sessions. Downtime permits consolidation away from the formal teaching process. (see The Best Resources For Helping Teens Learn About The Importance Of Sleep)

Multitasking: Multitasking is a distraction from learning, unless all of the tasks are relevant to the material being taught. The challenge is to integrate information from multiple sources, such as a lecture and a hand-held device.

Individual learning styles: Neural responses of different individuals vary, which is the rationale for embracing multiple learning styles to provide opportunities for all learners to be most effectively reached.

Active involvement: Doing is learning. And success at doing and learning builds confidence.

Revisiting information and concepts using multimedia: Addressing the same information using different sensory processes, such as seeing and hearing, enhances the learning process, potentially bringing more neural hardware to bear to process and store information.

The researchers recommend that medical students be taught the underlying neurobiological principles that shape their learning experiences. “By appealing not only to students’ capacity to derive pleasure from learning about medicine but also to their intellectual capacity for understanding the rationale for the educational process selected … real motivation can be engendered. … They become more effective communicators and enhance their patients’ success at learning the information they need for managing their own health and treatments as well.”