How the Brain Learns

Updated: May 31

The brain is a complex and dynamic 3-pound organ. According to Yale University’s Colón-Ramos lab, “The human brain consists of 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion synaptic connections. There are more neurons in a single human brain than stars in the milky way!” (2021, para. 1). A neuron includes a cell body, dendrites, and axons (see Figure 1). “Neurons communicate through synapses - contact points between the axon terminals on one side and dendrites or cell bodies on the other” (Queensland Brain Institute, 2021, para. 4). Dendrites are tree-like branches that extend from the beginning of a neuron. Most neurons have multiple dendrites that receive electrical impulses (information) from other neurons. These electrical impulses are sent along the axons to the axon terminus. According to the Australian Academy of Science, “Memories are formed by neurons that fire in our brains, creating or changing networks of connections” (para. 1). To form memories, The Harvard Gazette (Jiang, 2020) states that “the brain must wire an experience into neurons so that when these neurons are reactivated, the initial experience can be recalled” (para. 10). Hence, the saying “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Figure 1



Image: Adatis

Learning is far from prior analogies of “the mind is a vessel to be filled” or “the brain is a bucket to fill with knowledge.” As shared by Dr. Kenneth Wesson, educator and neuroscientist, “When the brain learns, new dendrites grow”(2020, para. 2). Therefore, educators are in incredible roles as brain changers. From course design to teaching, educators have the opportunity to design courses that engage students in learning experiences that support the human learning process. “Understanding how the brain converts information into learning provides keys to the best instructional strategies and learning experiences” (McTighe & Willis, 2019). The more educators know about the brain and learning, the greater the opportunities to design courses that optimize learning and changing brains. In designing new courses, revising current ones, or pivoting across formats, the question to ask is: What’s in your course? Dr. Kristen Betts