The Neuroscience Behind Efficient Learning
Night before a big exam, and you’re just trying to cram as much information as possible? Or maybe it’s the first week of term, and you already feel like your head is about to explode. At some point, you might have wondered if there were better ways to learn things more effectively and efficiently.
Luckily for us, neuroscientists have long been examining how the neurological process of learning occurs within the brain. For example, we now know that the brain is a very plastic organ capable of adapting, and increased plasticity may be associated with “sensitive periods” . However, there are also many individual factors such as genetics and environment influences which can affect how different brains learn .
So how do we learn?
In psychology and neuroscience, learning is defined as the acquisition of skills and knowledge . Inside the brain, information is conveyed through action potentials which are generated by synapses connecting a group of neurons in response to stimuli. It’s thought that the process of learning results in specific patterns of neural activity, with new circuits gradually strengthened as the connected neurons repeatedly fire together and become more easily able to generate an action potential and thus a memory . The process of synaptic strengthening is sometimes known as long-term potentiation and it is thought to be the basis of behavioural learning and memory. Memories, both declarative and procedural, play a huge role in helping us learn as new information is encoded, stored, consolidated and retrieved.
Figure 1. Synaptic Plasticity. The process of strengthening synaptic connections is thought to form the basis of memory formation. Although the exact role of NMDA and AMPA receptors in learning is unclear, this diagram represents how the synaptic strength of neurons can be increased through long-term potentiation (LTP) and decreased through long-term depression (LTD). From .
During the process of learning, information we learn is initially stored within our transient working memory with a relatively limited capacity and timeframe . These neural pathways are continually reconsolidated to turn the new information into more stable memories stored for future access and development . From a neurobiological perspective, these long-term memory traces (sometimes referred to as “engrams”) are stored through changes at the synapses, where neurons connect .
So what strategies can we adopt to become more efficient learners?
What the research says:
Active learning generally refers to activities that involve higher order thinking and more student-control as opposed to learning through more passive methods . It is thought that active learning may be more effective for learning as it facilitates fact-encoding within a network of multimodal associations, making it easier to retrieve later on .
Researchers have found that active learning, either through independent learning or collaborative approaches such as problem-based learning may lead to improved learning outcomes. For example, a study comparing passive study and active retrieval practice amongst grammar and mathematics students showed greater fronto-parietal brain activity during retesting amongst the active learning groups which could represent reactivation of fact-retrieval and contextually-linked information within the brain .
Similarly, newer methods of classroom instruction such as “inter-teaching”, where students come together in small groups to discuss information on a preparation guide before identifying knowledge weaknesses for the instructor to go through, has been shown to result in higher student scores compared to traditional lecture-style teaching .
What this translates to:
Activities that involve higher order thinking may be beneficial for our initial learning. In practice, this could mean that more study time could be allocated towards completing case studies, answering problem-solving questions, or even peer-teaching in small groups with friends. In contrast, reading through notes or rewatching lectures might not be as efficient for learning unless combined with a more active approach, like note-taking or concept-mapping.
Practice and Spaced Repetition
What the research says:
According to a 2010 review of students’ long-term memory of basic science knowledge, around 33% percent of information learned is lost after 1 year . After 2 years, just over 50% of the information is lost . Whilst lots of different factors may affect exactly how much knowledge is retained, one way to improve this is through repetition.
According to scientists, “spaced repetition”, where learners try to learn and recall information in gradually increasing intervals of time , is more effective at helping students retain knowledge than so-called “massed learning”, where a single, comprehensive lesson is delivered in a short amount of time . It is thought that spaced repetition enhances the stability of memories by making memory traces more “distinguishable” during retrieval as information is presented in different contexts over time . An EEG study in 2019 showed that spaced repetition increased item-specific spatial temporal patterns in the right frontal brain . This rise in brain electrical activity was associated with greater memory retention and was increased amongst participants who undertook spaced repetition compared to massed learning .
Figure 2. An Early Model of the Impact of Spaced Repetition. In the figure above, (a) to (c) demonstrate how increasing intervals of spaced learning result in increasing net gain as summarised in (d). However, the likelihood that spaced learning will successfully reinforce information learnt decreases as the length of the interval between repetition increases (e). Nonetheless, there is still a gain in net learning compared to massed learning and potentially even an optimal interval for spaced repetition as demonstrated by (f). From .
What this translates to:
Unfortunately, it seems that there isn’t a way to totally skip your practice. But flashcards and doing exam-type questions can often help to improve learning by strengthening those neuronal connections. However you choose to study though, science seems to support repeating materials in small chunks rather than comprehensively studying a topic all in one go.
For those who want to try spaced repetition but don’t know where to start, there are many tools and apps like Anki, Quizlet and IDoRevise, many of which are free to use and can help you organise your study.
Set Yourself Up for Success – Nutrition, Sleep and Environment
What the research says:
It’s not always about the study itself. One of the best ways to boost your learning efficiency is to set yourself up for success through good nutrition, a good night’s rest and a distraction free workspace.
Studies have shown that eating breakfast, decreasing junk food intake and eating more fruits and vegetables are associated with better academic performance amongst students .
Getting a good night’s sleep is also important, with researchers finding that students reporting more total sleep and more regular sleep-wake patterns tended to perform better academically . It’s thought that sleep plays a role in the consolidation of memories by Adequate sleep may also improve the learning of motor skills. A 2002 study in which participants were taught a finger-tapping task found that improvement in the learning of the motor skill was significantly greater following a night’s sleep compared to 12 hours of awake time . This suggests that post-sleep training is important in optimising the learning of motor skills.
Finally, studying in the right environment will boost your learning. Studies have shown that participants attempting to learn under divided attention – for example, memorising words or pictures whilst tracking a dot on a screen – fare much worse in their tasks . Potentially, this is due to divided attention limiting the time needed for encoding, elaboration and organisation .
What this translates to:
Maintaining healthy eating habits, developing good sleep hygiene and finding a quiet, distraction free space to focus seem to be important ways to boost learning efficiency and productivity. Whilst this can be trickier than it looks in practice, especially with everyone’s busy and chaotic lives, it might be worthwhile making small steps towards healthier habits anyway, like choosing healthier snacks or scheduling an extra day of revision so you don’t have to pull that terrible all-nighter.
Scientists have discovered many strategies that can help us learn more effectively. Whilst these techniques may not work for all individuals and there is still so much that we have yet to uncover about learning inside the brain, perhaps these strategies are still worth a try.
 Knowland VCP, Thomas MSC. Educating the adult brain: How the neuroscience of learning can inform educational policy. International Review of Education. 2014;60(1):99-122.
 Morris R, Hitch G, Graham K, Bussey T. CHAPTER 9 - Learning and Memory. In: Morris R, Tarassenko L, Kenward M, editors. Cognitive Systems - Information Processing Meets Brain Science. London: Academic Press; 2006. p. 193-235.
 Kennedy MB. Synaptic Signaling in Learning and Memory. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2013;8(2):a016824.
 Niroula S, Niroula A. Effective Way of Studying and Learning in Medical School. JNMA J Nepal Med Assoc. 2020;58(231):954-6.
 Kooloos JGM, Bergman EM, Scheffers M, Schepens-Franke AN, Vorstenbosch M. The Effect of Passive and Active Education Methods Applied in Repetition Activities on the Retention of Anatomical Knowledge. Anat Sci Educ. 2020;13(4):458-66.
 Markant DB, Ruggeri A, Gureckis TM, Xu F. Enhanced Memory as a Common Effect of Active Learning. Mind, Brain, and Education. 2016;10(3):142-52.
 Stillesjö S, Karlsson Wirebring L, Andersson M, Granberg C, Lithner J, Jonsson B, et al. Active math and grammar learning engages overlapping brain networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021;118(46):e2106520118.
 Saville BK, Zinn TE, Neef NA, Van Norman R, Ferreri SJ. A comparison of interteaching and lecture in the college classroom. J Appl Behav Anal. 2006;39(1):49-61.
 Custers E. Long-term retention of basic science knowledge: a review study. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2010;15(1):109-28.
 Smolen P, Zhang Y, Byrne JH. The right time to learn: mechanisms and optimization of spaced learning. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2016;17(2):77-88.
 Sisti HM, Glass AL, Shors TJ. Neurogenesis and the spacing effect: learning over time enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. Learn Mem. 2007;14(5):368-75.
 Feng K, Zhao X, Liu J, Cai Y, Ye Z, Chen C, et al. Spaced Learning Enhances Episodic Memory by Increasing Neural Pattern Similarity Across Repetitions. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2019;39(27):5351.
 Burrows T, Goldman S, Pursey K, Lim R. Is there an association between dietary intake and academic achievement: a systematic review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017;30(2):117-40.
 Curcio G, Ferrara M, De Gennaro L. Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2006;10(5):323-37.
 Walker MP, Brakefield T, Morgan A, Hobson JA, Stickgold R. Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning. Neuron. 2002;35(1):205-11.
 Baars BJ, Gage NM. Chapter 9 - Learning and memory. In: Baars BJ, Gage NM, editors. Fundamentals of Cognitive Neuroscience. San Diego: Academic Press; 2013. p. 253-88.