Effective learning


Do you remember when you were a child at school? What, in particular, sticks out in your memory? Could it be that everything seemed really big? Was there a certain smell associated with the classroom or the school building in general? A particular colour? Perhaps a specific sound that you can recall? Whatever the actual detail is, most of us retain a composite of different recollections which are attached to a great deal of the things we learned in our formative years.

As you might say to someone: “Something which really sticks in my mind is when I was five years old and we had this female teacher who wore great big glasses on a string around her neck.” Others may recall a particular memory (often a place or a person) whenever they hear a certain song or detect a particular odour. This effect or impact is not by choice, rather it is by design. Our brains can store a tremendous amount of information – locked away for many years. Research into our learning experiences suggests that children can recall more from a lesson if their emotions are connected to the learning process.

If we examine the human brain we could divide this amazing organ into three separate areas:

  1. The Reptilian – this area responsible for instinctive, automatic responses.
  2. The Mammalian – This area is responsible for emotional responses.
  3. The Neural Cortex – This is where the most complex thought processes take place. Here we deal with the problem-solving process. This continues to develop throughout our teenage years.

What do we understand about the learning process?

If we were to look at the nuts and bolts of learning, we could say that broadly speaking, our brains are activated by classes of words, pictures and other categories of information that involve complex cognitive processing on a repeated basis. Activation sets into motion the events which are encoded as part of long-term memory. Memory processes treat both true and false memory events similarly and, as can be shown by imaging technologies, activate the same brain regions, regardless of the truth of what is being remembered. Experience is important for the development of brain structures, and what is registered in the brain as memories of experiences can include one’s own mental activities.

Brain development is often timed to take advantage of particular experiences. This means that information from the environment helps to organise the brain.

A good example of this natural process is the development of language in young children. Like the development of the visual system, parallel processes occur in a child’s language development for the capacity to perceive phonemes, the ‘atoms’ of speech. Simply put, a phoneme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit of speech sound. Humans discriminate the ‘b’ sound from the ‘p’ sound largely by perceiving the time of the onset of the voice relative to the time the lips part; there is a boundary that separates ‘b’ from ‘b’ that helps to distinguish ‘bet’ from ‘pet’. Boundaries of this sort exist among closely related phonemes, and in adults these boundaries reflect language experience. Very young children can distinguish many more phonemic boundaries than adults but they lose their discriminatory powers when certain boundaries are not supported by experience with spoken language. Native Japanese speakers, for example, typically do not discriminate ‘r’ from the ‘l’ sounds that are evident to English speakers, and this ability is lost in early childhood because it is not in the speech that they hear.

The above points about memory are important for understanding learning and can explain a good deal about why experiences are remembered well or poorly. For anyone teaching children – especially young children, there are many ways in which the learning environment can be used to enhance the potential for effective learning to take place. Therefore, we need to examine how we can manipulate or enhance the learning environment in order to facilitate the maximum outcome for children.

The learning process can be greatly enhanced if the lesson involves the utilisation of some of the following ingredients.

Remember that the amount of time in minutes that a child’s brain can process information effectively is their age plus 10! How long is your child expected to be on task during the lessons at school? Think about the following learning friendly ingredients and see if any of them are included in your child’s lessons:


Teachers utilise movement – video/Social Media, field trips and hands-on activities – to enhance the learning process.


Teachers ensure students avoid information overload by previewing what’s to come, asking questions throughout a discussion and reviewing at the end. “Too much; too fast


This area is so neglected! Energise learning by allowing movement at least every 20 minutes. Encourage limb movements across the body’s lateral centre to stimulate both sides of the brain. For example, get the children to draw figures of eight with their two hands in opposite directions or pat their head with one hand whilst simultaneously rubbing their tummy with the other.


Don’t forget that they do get hungry and thirsty! Research shows that a little water at regular intervals is very useful. This keeps the brain hydrated and aids learning. Food energises the brain. Let children bring healthy snacks to school for mid-morning and mid- afternoon breaks.


Music helps regulate mood. Use it for greeting rituals or for transitions in instruction. I have often used music to calm down children who are returning to class after a break.


As mentioned above, learning is strongly influenced by emotion and it also has strong attachments with positive role models. Create a warm, welcoming environment which invites children to learn. Try not to use put-downs, raised voices or other stressful behaviours.


Students need a stimulating learning environment. Sitting down all of the time and being barked at for blinking out of place are not conducive for developing a child’s learning. In fact, it is counter-productive. Away from school, if you make the time at home, prepare a short fun activity with a learning outcome. It doesn’t have to be anything advanced – perhaps just to get the child to re-tell a story you have read to them. For younger children, this may involve a visit to the dressing up box or it could be drawing or painting. For older you may start a story and your child can continue. This process might last for 20 minutes. This is an excellent way to be inventive and develop vocabulary and pronunciation skills. Whatever you do, think of short bursts of learning within a warm, caring and fun environment.