Learning to learn: UC Berkeley instructors discuss best learning practices

Photo of a student studying
Gavin Sagastume/Staff
Instructors at UC Berkeley and Berkeley Unified School District alike are studying the learning process from a neurobiological standpoint and instructors’ perspectives with the goal of improving students’ skills as learners.

Related Posts

Learning is an important and beautiful part of life, and understanding what’s behind it can help individuals become better learners.

By exploring this process through a variety of lenses, such as the neurobiological level or an instructor’s perspective, individuals will have a more thorough understanding of the complexity behind learning. This, in turn, can help one discover and design a learning method that works the best for them, according to Mark Spencer, a CalTeach lecturer.

“People learn by connecting ideas,” said Libby Gerard, research scientist and lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, in an email. “Some of these may be contradictory or conflicting, making this process exciting!”

The learning process begins first with an individual reflecting on their own prior knowledge, according to Gerard. Prior knowledge can come from previous schooling, their own family background and many other places.

Next, people gather new information that may be useful in gaining a better understanding, and this can happen in ways such as observing, executing a scientific experiment or researching scientific journals, Gerard added.

“For example, when thinking about what material to use to keep your drink cold, you might remember how that metal soda you took out of the refrigerator was nice and icy cold. You may also remember using a metal thermos to keep your hot chocolate warm,” Gerard said in an email. “Does metal keep a drink cold, or hot, or both?”

Lastly, the old and new ideas are investigated and examined thoroughly to back up a conclusion with specific evidence, and a new understanding is developed, Gerard said.

At the neurobiological level, the learning process takes place when the brain physically rewires itself to adapt to new situations, according to CalTeach instructor and Longfellow Middle School math teacher Marlo Warburton.

“When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons,” Warburton said in an email. “This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.”

While the above process may seem simple enough, the execution of the process is not always so.

Oftentimes, even after students have learned new material, they revert back to their initial response a few weeks later because they haven’t had a chance to integrate the new material with their previous understanding, according to Gerard.

“This is why it is important we help people learn by reflecting on their initial ideas and seeing how the evidence they’ve gathered for that idea connects with or challenges the new ideas and evidence presented in class,” Gerard said in an email. “The student can make these connections across their ideas and build an integrated and long lasting understanding.”

Spencer noted the goal of classes should not be for students to memorize and regurgitate lecture material.

Instead, instructors should focus on introducing work and exercises for students to apply, analyze and synthesize the material they learned in class.

“Students are not empty vessels and a teacher’s job is not to ‘fill them up’ with knowledge,” Spencer said in an email. “Rather teachers (and professors at Cal) should design their courses as opportunities for students to actively engage with the content of their discipline.”

Spencer teaches a class on project-based instruction for UC Berkeley’s CalTeach minor, which is the school’s teaching credential program for math, science and engineering majors.

In this class, one of the techniques he uses is splitting the class in half and having each group learn from the other. Spencer said this allows students to reflect and explain what they just learned, which helps students analyze and solidify their understanding of the material.

“While there are some faculty that actively engage undergraduate students in their laboratory and research work, it would certainly be a positive thing for (UC) Berkeley if more faculty took it upon themselves to create opportunities for undergraduates to engage,” Spencer said in the email. “Teaching and learning should be something that both professors and students engage in together.”

Spencer also introduced the Russian word obuchenie, which can be defined as the integration of teaching and learning. He noted the word reminds him teaching and learning should not be thought of as distinct activities.

To improve learning, Gerard recommends students explore the topics they are discussing in classes from different perspectives. This can include talking to professors during office hours, joining research groups and clubs, reading books about the topic and listening to free informational videos, among other things.

While studying methods are very important, being healthy is also essential to learning well, Warburton said. Regular exercise, adequate rest, emotional security and healthy amounts of stress all help improve learning, she added.

“To be a great learner, we need to do more than study content,” Warburton said. “Our physical and emotional well-being need attention too.”

Contact Erica Jean at [email protected].