Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Jen. Jen Wonders, “How does learning happen?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Jen!

Picture it: It’s the night before a big test. You’ve spent hours—hours!—studying, but you can’t seem to remember everything. Your eyes are heavy and your brain needs a break. But if you go to sleep now, how will you ever be ready for the test?

In this scenario, it would be useful to understand how learning works. You may find that endless hours of studying are not the best way to prepare for your test. Instead, a good night’s rest could be even more important for your success!

Have you ever WONDERed how people learn? It happens in the brain, of course—but what exactly occurs to make learning happen? And is there anything people can do to make learning easier?

Most experts agree that learning is largely about memory. When a person encounters a new idea or activity, their brain stores the information in a neural pathway. However, that doesn’t mean that learning is over. Brand new information exists in the brain as part of short-term memory. That means the brain will not retain the new knowledge unless it deems it worth keeping. 

For new knowledge to be retained, it must become part of the brain’s long-term memory. In order for that to happen, the brain has to determine that the information is important enough to keep. So, for learning—and teaching—the question is, how do we convince the brain that new information is important?

Have you ever heard that practice makes perfect? In learning, this statement may ring true. The more you practice a new skill, the more likely you are to learn it. That’s because the act of repetition teaches your brain that the skill or information is important to you. This makes it more likely for the new knowledge to become part of your long-term memory.

Another technique for learning is to connect a new idea to background knowledge. When the brain sees a connection between a new idea and a concept you’ve already learned, it’s more likely to store it away in long-term memory. Have you ever had a teacher who asked you to connect a new idea to your background knowledge? Now you know why!

Activities that involve critical thinking or problem solving with new information can also help you learn. That’s why solving problems with newly learned math concepts is so important! When the brain is engaged, it’s more likely to retain the new information or skill.

Have you ever struggled to learn something new? Most people have! In these situations, there are many techniques that can help. Looking at real-world examples of a new concept can make a big difference. You can also talk about what you’re trying to learn with a classmate. This can go a long way in the learning process.

Another effective technique is to watch another person who’s already an expert in the new concept. Ask them to model their thinking or process for you. This can help you learn to look at the new information in a new way that may make it easier to learn.

A final tip for learning: Instead of cramming for that big test, spread your studying out over a few days. Study in shorter sessions with rest in between. Remember, learning is like exercise for your brain. Rest time is just as important as study time!

Standards: NGSS.LS1.A, NGSS.LS1.D, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.L.1 CCRA.W.2, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.R.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3

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