How We Learn New Information Could Be More Important Than We Think!


Think about the random material you still remember from elementary school… Do you remember how you learned that information in the first place? Lately, I have been doing a lot of research for my final paper, which will address the neurological advantages of learning though experiential education in comparison with traditional education. I came across recent and relevant research that I found particularly interesting, and I felt like I had to share it on this journal.

The ways in which we learn new information can have a significant affect our ability to remember and understand the fact/concept after some time. People engage in multisensory learning when they use two or more senses to learn new material (Rains, Kelly, & Durham, 2008). The multisensory learning theory acknowledges that we learn best through enrichment during the learning process (for example, listening to a story and drawing pictures related to the story), and says that the use of multiple senses is effective because it recruits brain areas that are important in processing that enrichment and forming memories. Many cognitive psychologists believe that the way we recall information is partially dependent on how it’s encoded in the first place. However, what is the neurological reasoning behind this? If we encode two pieces of information differently, will we see brain activity in different regions of the brain when we recall that information, even over a long span of time?

Mayer, Yildiz, Macedonia, and von Kriegstein (2015) were interested in investigating this idea through the different methods for learning foreign language vocabulary. Participants were all adults, and they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the first condition, participants learned foreign language vocabulary by listening to the words and their translations, and then performed gestures based on the meaning of the word. The gestures were self-generated, meaning that each participant came up with their own gesture. In the second condition, participants also listened to the words and their translations, and then copied the outline of a picture that represented the meaning of the word. In the third condition, participants only listened to the words followed by their translations. Therefore, the first two conditions engage participants in enrichment learning activities, and the third did not.

In the next phase of the experiment, participants were auditory presented the foreign words and asked to translate them during fMRI scanning. Researchers used Multivariate pattern classification to identify brain activity in the participants when they were recalling the translations. When being quizzed on the translation of each foreign language word, participants showed activation in different regions, depending on their condition. (So, this means they had different brain activation depending on how the association was learned). Participants who gestured while learning the words showed that the auditory words activated the superior temporal sulcus (bmSTS) and motor areas. The bmSTS is believed to be involved in the perception of biological motion, as well as perceiving where others are gazing (joint attention). Participants who learned words with pictures, on the other hand, showed activation in visual-object-sensitive lateral occipital complex (LOC). They also saw activity in other areas of the brain, but this activity was not significantly consistent across individuals. Unfortunately, they did not mention specific individual brain activity abnormalities, but I think this would also be an interesting direction to explore. What could account for the large variety of differences? What senses or type of memories can be evoked by the simple mention of a word? What sort of conclusions can we make about participants with overall higher activation in the brain when recalling words? Personally, I think this could go one of two ways. Maybe we would expect them to perform higher on the recall test, because their higher activation could indicate the presence of more traces for that specific stimuli. On the other hand, maybe they would perform lower on the recall test because the are distracted and thinking about other things?

Furthermore, activity in these specific regions correlated with memory performance. As expected, the participants learning words in the enrichment conditions (gesturing or outlining picture after hearing each word) remembered the words better than participants in the non-enrichment condition who just heard the word. Participants in the gesture condition, showing activation in the superior temporal sulcus, performed best on the memory task after 2 months and after 6 months. This is in agreement with the levels-of-processing theory, which says that we remember things best when the learning is the most effortful and involves several levels. Because participants were asked to make up their own gestures to the words, this required a level of creativity as well as physical movement.

These fMRI findings are interesting because they suggest that the positive effects of enrichment come from specialized visual and motor areas. They indicate that enrichment through the recruitment of sensory and motor areas leads to the best memory for foreign language vocabulary. Information is recalled using different brain activity depending on how we learn it. However, it is unclear how these findings can be applied for other types of learning… For example, the learning of scientific concepts. Relating these finding to experiential education (learning through experiences and discovery), how would these findings translate to memory for scientific concepts or mathematical operations? Also, we are constantly being told that everyone learns differently (visual learners, auditory learners, etc.)… How does differential learning among individuals come into play during in the multisensory learning theory?

Works Cited

Mayer, K., Yildiz, I., Macedonia, M., von Kreiegstein, K. (2015). Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Current Biology, 25(1), 530–535.

Rains, J., Kelly, C., Durham, R. (2008). The evolution of the importance of multi-sensory teaching techniques in elementary mathematics: Theory and practice. Journal of Theory and Practice in Education, 4(2), 239-252.

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