How to make the most of the time and energy you invest in learning

In this blog, I will explain the process of learning as described by the Information Processing Model. This is to aid in understanding how we can make the most of our brain’s capacity to ensure we make the best use of our time and energy. 

The information processing model of learning

The truth is, no one can learn for another person. We must be actively engaged in a task to learn.

The information processing model suggests that storing information in our long-term memory requires some form of processing.
This is because when we receive information via our senses it is stored in our short-term memory. Unfortunately, this will only be stored for approximately 3-5 seconds before it is forgotten.

To process information, we need to pay attention to it. This will move it to our working memory where it will be stored for approximately 20-30 seconds. 

Learning requires us to use our working memory to combine short and long-term memories. To maximise the capacity of our working memory we need to:

  • limit the amount of sensory input
  • be able to access information in long-term memory quickly.

This makes our working memory more efficient and increases our ability to learn.

To learn, we want to store information in long-term memory so it is available for recall when required in the future. This involves processing by combining new information with existing knowledge already stored in our long-term memory.

Information Processing Model of learning

Diagram 1: The Information Processing Model of Learning – proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin in 1968

Cognitive load is the effort required to process information. This is a limited resource that we need to take care to use effectively. Retrieving these memories is more efficient when this process is repeated soon after it is initially learned. 

Realising potential

Designing our learning environment and tasks must focus on maximising working memory by reducing cognitive load. This helps to ensure we do not waste time and effort invested in learning.

Therefore, factors such as stress, noise, hunger, fatigue, and distraction will all place unnecessary demand on our working memory. This means we can support ourselves or others to learn by managing these factors This can free up working memory for learning.

Creating the ideal state for learning to occur

The Yerkes-Dodson curve suggests that we require some level of stress to learn and perform at our best. There is however a point where we experience too much stress and this has a negative impact.

Diagram 2: Yerkes-Dodson curve – proposed 1908

Learning can be optimised when we moderate our level of stress to move into the ideal state for learning to occur.

This will not only assist with learning but will also enable the learner to feel and perform better. While we can’t learn for someone else we can help them adjust their stress levels so the time and energy invested in learning is optimised.

Our primitive brain

We need to remember that our brains are designed to keep us alive. They were formed at a time when we were hunters and gatherers and have not really evolved much ever since. Humans are the only species to have developed a pre-frontal cortex (the blue section of Image 1) that supports thinking. This part of our brain doesn’t form fully until our early 20s. This can explain why children and adolescents are simply not capable of some cognitive processing, and we need to adjust our expectations to allow for this. This can help to minimise frustration and conflict for both learners and supporters.

Image 1: Pre-frontal cortex and limbic systems of the human brain

The impact of stress and anxiety on learning

The limbic system (the red section in Image 1) of our brain had remained relatively unchanged for millennia. This part of our brain is responsible for memory, learning and emotions. Within this system are two almond-shaped organs called the amygdala. Their role is to detect threats in our environment and activate our fight or flight response to get ourselves to safety. The amygdala do this by sending messages via neurotransmitters to release adrenaline to our arms and legs so they have the energy to run away. This redirects energy away from our prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) and our digestive system (our gut) because that is not the priority at the time.

The problem is, our brains do not differentiate between real threats to our survival and some of our most basic fears.
This means, if we are worried about anything, maybe a test, a friendship issue, a work deadline, a social event, you name it, our cognitive function will reduce. This is because our brains have redirected energy away from our brains and guts to our arms and legs. 

We must therefore reduce anything that might be perceived as a threat BEFORE we attempt to learn. If we do not do this, we can enhance our cognitive capacity and improve our learning and our performance.

Empowering ourselves

Being able to moderate our level of stress and anxiety empowers us to use our working memory effectively. This ensures we make the most of our limited time and energy.

The best way to do this is to develop self-awareness to how we are feeling and then consider where we might sit on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. This can help us to determine the techniques that might enable us to move to within our optimal learning and performance zone. The good news is that there are many techniques that are easy and affordable (often free) that we can experiment with to determine what works best for us.
I have created these resources to be used as gentle reminders of techniques we can apply so we feel better, learn better and perform better.

References

Hollins, P 2019, Neuro-Discipline: Everyday Neuroscience for Self-Discipline, Focus, and Defeating Your Brain’s Impulsive and Distracted Nature (Live a Disciplined Life Book 3), PH Learning Inc.

Shank, P2019, Manage memory for deeper learning, Learning Peaks Publications, Colorado.  

The image was found on http://blm-mlm.blogspot.com/2018/06/