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Building “Muscle Memory” for Learning

By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

People often use the term “muscle memory” to refer to physical actions we take without conscious thought, like swinging a tennis racket or shooting a free throw. While it feels like our muscles are just working on their own, it’s really our brains that are in control, just at a nonconscious level.

There are a lot of things our brains do non-consciously including the mental processes called cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are how we take in, understand, organize, store, retrieve and apply information – in other words, how we learn.

Cognitive Skills: How We Learn

When people think about cognitive skills, mental processes like attention (focus) or memory often come to mind. However, each general category of cognitive skills may have a number of different individual skills within it. For example, attention skills include sustained attention, selective attention, flexible attention and divided attention. Attention isn’t just one thing, nor is memory, or visual processing. In fact, there are dozens (at least) of cognitive skills that constitute our ability to learn. They are the “how” of learning.

Categories of cognitive skills:

· Attention

· Visual Processing

· Auditory Processing

· Sensory Integration

· Memory

· Executive Functions (Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility)

· Higher-Order Executive Functions (Logic and Reasoning)

Unfortunately, the “how” of learning often doesn’t get as much attention as the “what” of learning – what knowledge and skills we need to learn. In elementary and secondary school, children learn to read and do math, take courses in science, history, home economics, and foreign languages. At the college level, every course has a syllabus that tells you what is taught in the course. But we know that just because teaching is happening, that doesn’t necessarily mean learning is happening.

In fact, the ability to learn is generally assumed at all levels of education. And indeed, our brains are learning machines. But we don’t all learn exactly the same way. We all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Some of us reason with visual-spatial information more effectively than with verbal information. Some of us have a limited ability to hold information in our minds while we think about it, a skill called working memory. Each person has a unique learning profile, a unique capacity for learning. (Note that we all have the ability to learn, but we haven’t all developed the same capacity to learn.)

The other aspect of cognitive skills that is not broadly understood is that these skills are not just about academic learning; they play a vital role in everything we do in life, from planning a vacation to working as a team to accomplish a project, to playing sports.

The chart below shows how three extremely important cognitive skills, called executive functions, apply to both academics and real life. These mental processes are the same regardless of context.

Building Better Learners

So, what do we do when we want to be better learners?

An Internet search will quickly serve up lists of ideas, like asking better questions, asking for feedback, eliminating distractions, and many other approaches. Everything on the lists involves managing the environment to make it easier for our brains to do their job. Those strategies can be helpful but ignore the fact that we can build our brains, just like we build our muscles. Each of us can build our capacity to learn with the right kind of cognitive training.

Cognitive training (also sometimes called brain training) has some things in common with physical training. Both are intended to develop greater strength, stamina, coordination and flexibility. One works our bodies; the other works our brains. The right kind of cognitive training can build executive functions and other cognitive skills for virtually anyone at just about any age – from elementary school students through adults. That’s really good news, because learning is something we need to be able to do well throughout our lives.

About the authors:

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She a neuroeducator, trained Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. She is coauthor of the book Your Child Learns Differently, Now What? (Seabiscuit Press, 2023).

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company where he has championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. He is coauthor of the book Your Child Learns Differently, Now What? (Seabiscuit Press, 2023).


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