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How People Need to Learn

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The Neuroscience of Learning
Chesapeake Bay FieldScope: Analyzing Authentic Scientific Phenomena

Advances in the learning sciences, including cognitive science, neuroscience, education, and social sciences, give us greater understanding of three connected types of human learning – factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and motivational engagement. Neuroscience tells us that these three different types of learning are supported by three different brain systems. (See sidebar on the Neuroscience of Learning.) Social sciences reveal that human expertise integrates all three types of learning. Technology has increased our ability to both study and enhance how people learn (National Research Council, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009; National Science Foundation, 2008b) and can augment all three types of learning.

Factual knowledge

Students are surrounded with information in a variety of forms, and specific features of information design affect how and whether students build usable knowledge from the information they encounter. For example, computers can replicate and integrate a wide variety of media for learning and education: text, video/film, animations, graphics, photos, diagrams, simulations, and more. As a result, technology can be designed to provide much richer learning experiences without sacrificing what traditional learning media offer. Technology can

  • Represent information through a much richer mix of media types. This allows the integration of media and representations to illustrate, explain, or explore complex ideas and phenomena, such as interactive visualizations of data in earth and environmental sciences, chemistry, or astronomy. Technology can help learners explore phenomena at extreme spatial or temporal scales through simulation and modeling tools. This opens up many domains and ways of learning that were formerly impossible or impractical.
  • Facilitate knowledge connections through interactive tools. These include interactive concept maps, data displays, and timelines that provide visual connections between existing knowledge and new ideas.

Procedural knowledge

Procedural knowledge learning includes both content-related procedures (learning how to do science inquiry, for example) and learning-related strategies (learning how to figure out how to solve a new problem or self-monitor progress on a task). Technology can expand and support a growing repertoire of strategies for individual learners by

  • Providing scaffolds to guide learners through the learning process. Many programs use interactive prompts embedded directly into the learning resources, live or virtual modeling of helpful strategies, interactive queries that prompt effective processing, and timely and informative feedback on results. These scaffolds can be designed to respond to differences in individual learning styles and be available on demand when the learner needs help and then evolve or fade as the learner builds stronger skills.
  • Providing tools for communicating learning beyond written or spoken language. This can be accomplished through web-based multimedia, multimedia presentations, or gestural expressions such as those that drive interactions in gaming systems.
  • Fostering online communities. Technology can provide platforms for connecting learners in online communities where they can support each other as they explore and develop deeper understanding of new ideas, share resources, work together beyond the walls of a school or home, and gain access to a much wider pool of expertise, guidance, and support (Ito, 2009).

Motivational engagement

The field of affective neuroscience has drawn attention to the critical importance of motivation in how the brain learns. We learn and remember what attracts our interest and attention, and what attracts interest and attention can vary for different learners. Therefore, the most effective learning experiences are not only individualized in terms of pacing and differentiated to fit the learning needs of particular learners, but also personalized in the sense that they are flexible in content or theme to fit the interests of particular learners. To stimulate motivational engagement, technology can

  • Engage interest and attention. Digital learning resources enable engaging individual learners’ personal interests by connecting web learning resources to learning standards, providing options for adjusting the challenge level of learning tasks to avoid boredom or frustration, and bridging informal and formal learning in and outside school (Brown & Adler, 2008; Collins & Halverson, 2009; National Science Foundation, 2008b). Technology can also be used to create learning resources that provide immediate feedback modeled on games to help engage and motivate learners (Gee, 2004)
  • Sustain effort and academic motivation. Technology-based learning resources can give learners choices that keep them engaged in learning, for example, personally relevant content, a customized interface, options for difficulty level or alternative learning pathways, or choices for support and guidance.
  • Develop a positive image as a life-long learner. Technology can inspire imagination and intellectual curiosity that help people engage actively as learners and open new channels for success or visions of career possibilities. For example, when students use the tools of professionals to engage in real-world problems, they can begin to see themselves in productive professional roles (“I am a graphic artist,” “I am a scientist,” “I am a teacher”). Technology also provides opportunities for students to express themselves by engaging in online communities and sharing content they have created with the world.
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