Brain and Learning
The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons (nerve cells). These neurons connect to thousands of other neurons forming a giant network. Learning takes place and new neural networks are formed when a new connection is made between these neurons.
The Brain and Neural Networks
Neurons do not actually touch. However, they do communicate with each other through connections known as synaptic connections. These synapse connections are created through the transmission of electrical and chemical signals sent from one neuron to another. Signals are sent out when the neuron reacts to a stimulus. The neuron fires these signals across a synapse (space between neurons) to another neuron, which receives it through its dendrites. When the message is received a connection is made. This begins the building process of neural networks.
A new neural network is formed every time we learn something new. Thus, neurons connect to thousands of other neurons and networks using trillions of synaptic connections forming one giant network. This network is responsible for everything a person thinks, feels, and remembers.
The Learning Process
The learning process begins when the senses receive stimuli. The brain then reacts to the stimuli by firing neurons. When a neuron fires it transmits chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters are sent across the synapse to relay a message to the dendrites in the receiving neuron. When the message is received a connection is made, and a new memory is formed. The more memories that are formed the bigger and stronger the network becomes.
A synapse is a small gap or junction between two neurons for transmitting information from one neuron to another. The synapses allows a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. The synapses are where much of the activity takes place in the brain.
Synapses are able to control the strength of the signals transmitted between neurons. Synaptic strength varies according to the number of stimuli received during a learning process. These synapses can weaken or strengthen over time.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay signals between neurons. These neurotransmitters allow the nerve impulses or signals to travel across the synapse.
Dopamine: affects motor movement, mood, behavior, attention, learning, reinforcement, and pleasure
Serotonin: affects emotion, mood, sleep, appetite, impulsivity, aggression
Acetylcholine: affects movement, learning, memory, REM sleep, and plays a role in attention and arousal
Glutamate: involved in learning and emotion
Endorphins: Provide relief from pain and feelings of pleasure and well-being
How We Learn
Learning takes place when a connection made between neurons in the brain.
When we are learning something new, a neuron is stimulated to release neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters make connections to other neurons and form a neural network. The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons that connect to thousands of other neurons forming a giant network of information and knowledge.
The Learning Process
The learning process begins when the senses receive stimuli. The brain reacts to the stimuli by firing neurons. When a neuron fires, a chemical known as a neurotransmitter is released. The neurotransmitter is sent across a tiny gap known as a synapse to relay a message to the dendrites in the receiving neuron. Thus, a new connection is made. These synaptic connections form new neural networks every time we learn something new. The network expands by repeating the communication between neurons creating more dendritic branches.
Synaptic strength varies according to the number of stimuli received during a learning process. The more senses involved the stronger the connection. This is why people tend to remember experiences that impact multiple senses.
Billions of neurons are communicating with each other all the time as the brain receives new stimuli. When the stimuli enters the brain, the brain compares this new information with what has already been established. It searches neural networks that already exist that it might connect this new information to. If it finds something, it links the new information creating a new network of connections.
New synapse connections will be formed between neurons that were not previously connected to create new networks of neurons that represent a new memory. If the new information supports previously connected information, the firing of the neurotransmitters across the synapse strengthen the connection. This is why we remember things easier if we are exposed to it several times.
When a neuron transmits neurotransmitters across the synapse gap to relay a message to the dendrites in the receiving neuron, a memory has been created. This memory becomes part of a neural network specific to what has been learned. This connection endures whether it is being used or not. However, these synaptic connections can weaken or strengthen over time.
There may a decay or loss of memory due to the passage of time if the memory trace is not used. On the contrary, the more times something is experienced or remembered the connection grows stronger and more permanent. This is because the more signals sent between two neurons, the stronger the connection grows. The stronger the connection grows the deeper the learning becomes. This strong connection allows the neurons to communicate with each other faster and more efficiently each time. Therefore, it takes less time for the brain to process the information.
The brain is said to be “plastic”, meaning it physically changes as we learn or experience something new. With each new experience and each remembered event or fact, the brain changes its physical structure by making connections between neurons in the brain. Hence, a physical change occurs when a new memory is formed.
Cognition and Learning
Cognition and learning are often thought of as the same, however, they are different. Learning is just one aspect of cognition. There are also other aspects including perceiving, thinking, reasoning, remembering, judging, and understanding.
Connection between Cognition and Learning
Learning is a process whereby knowledge is created and results in a change in a mental representations or associations due to an experience. After an experience, you may perceive or understand something in a new way, or you may behave in a new way because of the knowledge you gained. However, in order to learn, you need to perceive, acquire, and process the new information. Thus, you need cognition.
Cognition is the mental steps you use to acquire, process, and understand information. It involves absorbing information, processing it, and then applying it to the appropriate situations. Whenever you see, hear, or experience something new, you go through a series of cognitive processes, which results in learning. Learning comes at the end of a series of cognitive processes. You experience, you process, you learn. Hence, learning is a result of cognition. You mentally process information, and you generate new knowledge as a result of the processing.
Learning also feeds cognition. Cognitive processes are essential to applying the learned information to previously learned skills, as well as to future situations.
After you have gained knowledge, you may have additional experiences and cognitive processes to enhance or continue the learning. Thus, learning becomes a cycle with cognition and experience.
Once this new information is learned, cognition comes into play by helping you apply the information to future situations.
Cognition is the mental steps you use to acquire, process, and understand information through senses, thoughts, and experiences in order to create knowledge. Cognition can be thought of as mental processing.
Cognition is comprised of both conscious and unconscious processes. It encompasses different mental activities such as learning, attention, memory, language, reasoning, judging, and decision making.
Cognitive processes cover a wide array of mental activities including:
- Abstract processing
- Problem solving
- Decision making
Each of these cognitive functions work together to integrate the new knowledge. Also through cognition, existing knowledge can be used to create new knowledge and to generate new ideas and concepts.
Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created. It may occur consciously as part of formal education, training, study, or experience. However, learning may also occur without conscious awareness through personal experience. For example, you may learn where a specific store is located, the score of a soccer game, or the price of a gallon of milk.
Learning is the cognitive process that we use to incorporate new information into our prior knowledge in order to create new knowledge. Learning can be thought of as the process of information entering your cognitive system and changing it. However, there is much information that you will process through your experiences and interactions, but from which you will not learn. This is because the mental processing does not change your mental representations and associations.
Domains of Learning
As humans, we are lifelong learners. We begin learning at birth and continue learning all throughout our lives. As we have new experiences, we continue to assimilate new information into what we already know.
Learning, however, is not just a cognitive (thinking) function. We can also learn attitudes, behaviors, and physical skills. These different categories create three domains of learning. These three domains of learning can be categorized as cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills) and affective (attitudes).
Learning can be categorized into the domains.
- Cognitive Domain (thinking)
- Affective Domain (feeling)
- Psychomotor Domain (doing)
Bloom’s Domains of Learning
In the 1950’s, Educational Psychologist Benjamin Bloom divided what and how we learn into these three separate domains of learning. Bloom developed classifications of behavior and learning in order to identify and measure the levels of learning.
Cognitive Domain: mental skills (knowledge)
Affective Domain: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude)
Psychomotor Domain: manual or physical skills (skills)
Each domain has a taxonomy associated with it. Taxonomy simply means a classification. All of the taxonomies are arranged so that they proceed from the simplest to more complex levels. For example, the cognitive domain would start with the simple task of “remembering” and work towards more complex tasks of thinking such as “evaluation.”
There are other variations on the theme which summaries the three domains:
- Think-Feel- Do
The cognitive domain involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. This includes the recall or recognition of specific facts and concepts that serve developing intellectual abilities and skills.
There are six major categories of cognitive a processes, starting from the simplest to the most complex
The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulties. That is, the first ones are the lower level ones, and must normally be mastered before the next one can take place. The higher the level ones require more complex mental operation.
The original Taxonomy has been changed over the years. The most notable change is the terms used to describe the levels. The revised version changes the names of each of the six levels. The levels have also change from nouns to verbs. The new version is as follows:
The affective domain involves our feelings, emotions, and attitudes. This domain includes the manner in which we deal with things emotionally, such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes. This domain is categorized into 5 subdomains, which include:
This domain forms a hierarchical structure and is arranged from simpler feelings to those that are more complex. With movement to more complexity, you become more involved, committed, and internally motivated.
The psychomotor domain refers to the use of basic motor skills, coordination, and physical movement. Development of these skills requires practice and is measured in terms of speed, precision, distance, procedures, or techniques in execution.
The psychomotor domain is comprised of utilizing motor skills and coordinating them. There are three different Taxonomy for Psychomotor Domain:
- Reflex movements
- Fundamental Movements
- Perceptual abilities
- Physical Abilities
- Skilled movements
- Non-discursive communication
- Guided Response
- Complex Overt Response
Kolb Learning Styles
Kolb’s Model of Learning Preferences
While the VAK learning style categories focus only on the external aspects of learning (auditory, visual, kinesthetic), Kolb’s learning styles include perception and processing.
According to Kolb, learners perceive and process information in a continuum from concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.
Kolb’s learning theory sets out four distinct learning styles, which are based on a four-stage learning cycle. Learning styles can be viewed on a continuum across two dimensions, based on how people perceive information (concrete vs. abstract) and process information (active vs. reflective).
Kolb believes that as we learn something we go through a learning cycle. That cycle begins with a concrete situation which we experience. He believes we then reflect on this experience and what it means. After we reflect on the experience, we then begin to understand what is to be learned from the experience. He suggests we then attempt to apply what we learned by creating an experiment.
Kolb Learning Styles or Preferences
Although Kolb thought of the learning process as a continuum or cycle that one moves through over time, he believes people come to prefer one element or style above the others.
The four learners styles or preferences are:
Concrete experience: being involved in a new experience
Reflective observation: watching others or developing observations about one’s own experience
Abstract conceptualization: creating theories to explain observations
Active experimentation: using theories to solve problems and make decisions
The Kolb Learning Styles Inventory plots the degree to which the subject engages in concrete experience, active experimentation, abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. The four resultant learning-style types from the Kolb instrument are diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating.
Additional Learning Style Theories
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