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3 Keys to Building Individual Learning Capacity

“The only thing that interfered with my learning is my education.”

— Albert Einstein

By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

Does everyone have the ability to learn? Of course. Learning is what our brains do. As we interact with the environment, the neurons in our brains make connections. Those connections are strengthened with practice and may be pruned away if they are not used. That is what learning is. Another term for the brain’s ability to learn is neuroplasticity. Our brains are constantly changing; they are constantly learning.

So, what is the difference between learning ability and learning capacity? While everyone has the ability to learn, we don’t all have the same capacity to learn. Some things are easy for a particular person to learn; other things are difficult. Things that are easy for one person to learn may be hard for another. And we may find learning something easier or more difficult at different ages. For example, learning language is trivially easy for most young children, but becomes much more difficult as we age.

While it may seem that we have little control over these differences, our learning capacity is something that can be built to a far greater degree than most of us understand. This is why we distinguish between learning ability and learning capacity.

We have identified 3 Keys to building individual learning capacity.

Key 1: Understanding a student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses and using targeted evidence-based strategies to support learning.

Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning. They are the processes our brains use to take in, store, organize, comprehend and retrieve information, as well as to make decisions and take action. Cognitive skills include processes like different types of attention, various aspects of visual and auditory processing, short-term and long-term memory, and executive functions, including working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility, among others. Each cognitive skill contributes to the learning capacity of the individual, as does the degree to which they work together. Each of us has cognitive strengths and weaknesses or stronger and weaker learning skills.

It’s not enough to know that a student struggles in math or is a slow reader. Students may struggle in math for many different reasons, including limited working memory, underdeveloped visual-spatial skills, or problems with sequencing. In reading, visualization, verbal reasoning and working memory often play key roles. When students struggle, the root cause is frequently not a matter of instruction or curriculum; it is because the student has a weakness in one or more cognitive skills.

When we understand how various cognitive processes contribute to or impede learning for an individual student, we can identify strategies that help that student leverage their strengths and support weaker processing areas, using a system like Mindprint. When we know a student’s learning profile, then determining the best strategies is not a matter of guesswork and is directed at root causes rather than surface symptoms.

What is an example of a personalized learning strategy? Consider a student who has difficulty getting started on a writing assignment and whose writing is disorganized and has gaps in it. Many teachers would recommend that this student start with an outline.  However, if we know that this student has strong visual-spatial reasoning and weaker verbal reasoning, a traditional outline may not be very helpful.  Instead, we might recommend using a mind map (semantic map) as an outline so that they can more easily capture the ideas, connections among them, and sufficient detail.

Key 2: Training students’ cognitive skills in a comprehensive and integrated way.

As helpful as targeted strategies are, they are often ways of working around a student’s weaker cognitive skills. For example, a common strategy used with students with limited working memory capacity is to give a set of directions one step at a time. This strategy doesn’t develop working memory – it avoids it.

So, the second key is to help develop individual students’ cognitive skills so that those skills are simply there to use and support them in learning.  That is the purpose of cognitive training, also sometimes referred to as brain training.  Cognitive training has been around for decades, taking the form of one-on-one therapeutic activities designed to strengthen various cognitive processes. Fields such as Speech and Language and Vision Development, Occupational Therapy and many other disciplines offer training to improve areas of cognitive functioning. Historically, each discipline has operated separately from the others and focused on a subset of cognitive skills.  Today we know how critical it is to train cognitive skills in a comprehensive and integrated way.

In fact, cognitive skills can be developed to a far greater degree than people may think, but it hasn’t typically happened in classrooms, where the need is great.

Teachers have not generally been educated in the therapeutic techniques to develop a student’s attention or memory, or visual-spatial processing skills. Cognitive skills are not the kinds of things that can be explained and learned the way typical classroom instruction happens. A teacher can’t explain to a student how to hold more information in their mind (increase working memory capacity) or to visually process more information at a glance (visual span). Nor do teachers generally have the time to work one-on-one with individual students in the ways trained therapists do.

This is where technology comes in. Today, computer-based cognitive training is opening up the opportunity for dramatic improvement in learning capacity to virtually any student. Bear in mind that all computer-based brain training is not created equal.  To be truly effective, the training program must be comprehensive in the range of skills developed. It must integrate skills as they are developed so that they work together (like cross-training), and it must be engaging, among other factors. Programs that don’t incorporate these characteristics are likely to be limited in effectiveness and in the ability of the skills being developed to transfer to improved academic performance and other aspects of everyday life.

How much can learning capacity actually be increased? The short answer: Enough to make a real difference for struggling students.  For example, research with