What Students Want to Know about Brains and Learning

I spent two full days last week talking with students about brain research — particularly self-control.

How can we best use the self-control we currently have? How can we increase our levels of self-control? Happily, research has answers…

For my last session on Friday, I changed up my presentation. Rather than present the research I thought they’d want to know, I asked them what they do want to know.

Specifically, I gave them index cards, and had them write down questions about brains, learning, and research.

We had a GREAT conversation.

How Does Learning Work?

Unsurprisingly, most of the questions focused on learning strategies:

What can I do the day before a test to improve my focus?

Does taking breaks actually support learning?

How can I learn more in less time?

What is the optimal amount of time to study?

Does studying the night before a test really do nothing?

For two reasons, I think these questions are really good news.

First reasonwe have answers. Students want to know how to improve their focus. They want to know how best to learn. We can tell them.

For instance: we know that retrieval practice promotes long-term memory formation better than simple review.

In other words: you can learn more in less time if you use this technique. (That’s how I sell it to students…)

Healthy Skepticism

The second reason I admired these students’ questions: their readiness to question what “everyone knows.”

One of them had heard an anti-cramming message: “studying the night before doesn’t help you learn!” S/he just wasn’t buying it, and wanted to know what research supported that claim.

Even more exciting: they quickly picked up on a message that adults so often miss. The answer to many of their questions was: “it depends.”

After all, it just makes no sense to believe that there’s an optimal amount of time for all people to study all things.

The optimal amount of study time depends on the person studying. And, on the topic being studied. And, on the goal of the study.

Does taking breaks actually support learning? It depends. What did you do during the break? How long had you been studying? How long was your break?

Research can answer questions like these. But: the question needs to be specific for the answers to be helpful. And: the specific answers will be averages.

Averages offer us helpful guidance. But, we’ll always have to translate them to our own students and circumstances.

It was clear these students thoroughly enjoyed this new perspective.


In my next post, I’ll share some more questions — and answers — from this splendid conversation.

category: L&B Blog

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