Forming new memories, skills, and habits

Memory Formation

Understanding how our brains acquire skills can help an educator design and implement quality curriculum, and is of equal importance to catering to different learning styles and focusing on activities that help form lasting memories.

Our brain is an amazing piece of machinery! Even after decades of neuroscientific study, we still know very little about where memories are stored. We do, however, have some idea of how memories are made.

The amygdala is connected to emotional learning, and it’s thought that positive emotional experiences and environments produce better learning results. The amygdala receives data from some sort of external stimuli (auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) and sends a signal to the hippocampus to begin “recording” the event. The hippocampus then stimulates the neurons to “fire” or connect. Each time the same neural pathway is stimulated with the same information it becomes stronger.

As with most things, habits and knowledge are formed through study and repetition/practice. But how much repetition is enough to form a meaningful new memory or skill-set? According to the latest research

  • After 20 repetitions, a new neural pathway form
  • After 40 repetitions, a habit/skill forms
  • After 66 repetitions, the neurons along this neural pathway become thicker and more connected

Habit Formation

In addition to repetition, it’s best to associate a new skill with previous knowledge or an already established habit.

An already established skill, or schema, provides the groundwork to which you can add further skills. For example, when teaching a child to read, we first teach them the alphabet, then the phonetic sounds of each letter, then the phonetic sounds of the combination of letters, and so on. If we began by explaining what nouns and verbs were, we wouldn’t get very much farther than “gaa-gaa” with our little ones.

When trying to develop a new habit in our students’ routines, we should try to identify something that they already do well that relates to the habit we’d like to teach. A great example of this comes from when I was teaching online.

Most of my courses focused on Composition and Rhetoric. Universities usually divide the curriculum for this kind of foundational course into two levels. The first level usually focused on various writing styles, the writing process, and building an essay from start to finish. The essay was usually a personal narrative or some other sort of essay that doesn’t require outside sources. The second level of the course addressed how to incorporate outside research into a persuasive, expository, or other type of essay that requires documentation in order to build an argument. The second level built on knowledge established in the first course.

In the simplest terms, habits are usually formed on the path from cue to routine to reward. The most obvious example in online education is this: a student sees an announcement for a new assignment; the student completes the assignment; the student receives a score. An example from the real world would go something like this: a child is hungry, she asks for food, and his or her mother produces a snack. Neuroscientists and behaviorists have repeatedly proven that reward is a much better way to shape behavior as compared to punishment. Bearing this in mind as you craft lessons for your students or when you’re trying to form a new habit yourself can result in increased success.