It is important to recognize that learning is work. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is difficult, but there is always work involved. For many years people made the error of assuming that learning was a passive activity that involved little more than just absorbing information. Learning was thought to be a lot like copying and pasting words in a document; the student’s mind was blank and ready for an instructor to teach them facts that they could quickly take in.
As it turns out, learning is much more than that. In fact, at its most rudimentary level, it is an actual process that physically changes our brains. Even something as simple as learning the meaning of a new word requires the physical alteration of neurons and the creation of new paths to receptors. These new electrochemical pathways are formed and strengthened as we utilize, practice, or remember what we have learned.
If the new skill or knowledge is used in conjunction with other things we have already learned, completely different sections of the brain, nerves, or muscles may be tied in as a part of the process. A good example of this would be studying a painting or drawing that depicts a scene from a story or play you are already familiar with. Adding additional connections, memories, and mental associations to things you already know something about expands your knowledge and understanding in a way that cannot be reversed. In essence, it can be said that every time we learn something new we are no longer the same.
In addition to the physical transformation that takes place during learning, there are also a number of other factors that can influence how easy or how difficult learning something can be. While most people would assume that the ease or difficulty would really depend on what is being learned, there are actually several other factors that play a greater role. In fact, research has shown that one of the most influential factors in learning is a clear understanding about learning itself. This is not to say that you need to become a neuroscientist in order to do well in school, but instead, knowing a thing or two about learning and how you learn in general can have strong, positive results for your own learning. This is called metacognition (that is, thinking about thinking). Some of the benefits of how we learn can be broken down into different areas such as:
- attitude and motivation toward learning;
- types of learning;
- methods of learning; and
- your own preferences for learning.