Make Your Brain Work Hard
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You may have heard that your brain grows when you try challenging tasks. In this lesson, you’ll learn two specific types of activities that can provide the ideal level of difficulty for growing your intelligence.

Forget to Learn

We are usually focused on remembering things rather than forgetting, but forgetting actually plays two important roles in learning. First, it helps us focus by keeping irrelevant information from distracting us, and second, it helps form stronger neural pathways (memories) by making our minds work harder to retrieve them.

First, let’s look at how forgetting helps us focus. Imagine what life would be like if you remembered everything all the time. The noise created by all of these memories recalled all at once would likely overwhelm your ability to function. American psychologist William James observed, “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.” Forgetting allows you to focus by filtering out competing memories and routines.

The second way forgetting helps is by forcing your brain to work harder to retrieve memories. When a memory is harder to remember, it forces your brain to work harder, thereby strengthening the neural pathways of that memory.

Use Active Learning Techniques

Not all forms of study are equal. To make your brain work hard, you need to use active learning techniques. An active learning technique requires you to produce something. Active learning techniques include the following: writing, speaking, discussing, teaching, memorizing, summarizing, questioning, debating, sharing, planning, presenting, collaborating, adapting, and group work. Each of these techniques makes your brain work hard to reproduce what you have learned. It also helps you identify gaps in your learning when you cannot explain how something works.

Tip: Active Learning

An active learning technique requires you to produce something.

On the flip side, passive learning techniques like reading, listening, remembering, and watching videos create an illusion of learning. An illusion of learning happens when your brain isn’t working hard enough to learn. Imagine if you went to the gym to get bigger muscles but when you sat down on the bench press you decided not to put any weights on the bar. Your muscles would not grow because they aren’t being challenged. Your brain is much the same. When it is not being challenged, it tends to “check out”—meaning it is not really paying attention. Passive learning techniques encourage your brain to check out because what you are studying seems familiar.

For example, pretend for a moment that you have already finished reading this lesson and enough time has passed that you're starting to forget parts of it. If you read your notes, it is likely that your brain will begin to tune out the information because it seems familiar. On the other hand, if you were to cover up your notes and make yourself recite what you have learned, then your brain is going to pay attention because suddenly it is being asked to produce something.

Ponder and Record

As you review and reflect on the material above, please consider the following questions and record some of your thoughts in your Learning Journal:

  • Why do we keep asking you to write down what you are learning?
  • What active learning techniques will you start to use?
  • When have you experienced the illusion of learning?

Need More Help?

  1. Study other Skills Lessons in the Resource Center.
  2. Visit the Online Tutoring Resources in the Resource Center.
  3. Contact your Instructor.
  4. If you still need help, Schedule a Tutor.