A neuroscientific approach to learning

Article by Catherine Brandon - Director
Genazzano Institute / 04 July 2018

‘Find a love of learning. Discover what interests you. Be curious and try to want to know more.’
Eleanor, Year 12.

The Science of Learning

In recent decades, technological advancements and discoveries in neuroscience have paved the way for exciting innovations and progress in a variety of disciplines such as brain research, health, marketing and rehabilitation. Educators and scientists alike are motivated to explore and answer the obvious question: How can new insights in neuroscience assist us to make a real impact in a field that is all about the brain – learning?

Certainly the notion of improving learning through taking on ideas from the latest academic research is far from new.  However, researchers and educators have long suggested there is a real disconnect between controlled ‘lab’ findings and how things operate in the reality of the classroom. Dr Jared Cooney Horvath is a neuroscientist and educator with an expertise in this very subject.   He says that the key to bridging science and educational practice is in the ‘translation.’  Dr Horvath suggests that the while research or technology can deliver us new evidence about brain function, it is teachers – the classroom experts – who can purposefully translate a neuroscientific principle into an activity, a framework, or an approach to meet the learning objective for a variety of subjects, age groups and classroom contexts.

Looking through the lens of the brain, ‘Science of Learning’ sheds light on the how and the why of learning, enabling us to find new meaning in some of the tried and true teaching practices, as well as some fresh approaches. It is a progressive field with much potential to transform teaching and learning. Universities, such as the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland, are leading the way in establishing a model for the collaboration of researchers and educators aimed at exploring the ways in which ideas from neuroscience can be made accessible and practical to facilitate more effective teaching and learning.

Educational Neuroscience at Genazzano

‘As educators, we are driven by the desire to improve learning outcomes for our students now and into the future. ‘Science of Learning’ is about education, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, providing teachers with further understanding of the learning process of the brain.’
Karen Jebb, Principal, Genazzano FCJ College

The Genazzano Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences is a new initiative that underpins Genazzano’s goals of promoting knowledge about the brain and learning for educators, students and the wider community. Under the leadership of Principal, Karen Jebb, Genazzano has embraced the philosophy of seeking to understand how the brain learns as a fundamental platform for promoting optimal learning. The core objectives are to:

  1. Build collaboration and collective expertise amongst the teaching staff in the ‘Science of Learning’;
  2. Support students to build an understanding of brain health and function, and to develop passion and agency in their own learning;
  3. Promote education and information about the brain and learning to the wider community.

The vision for the Institute has evolved and it is emerging as an exciting hub to champion educational neuroscience. While still in its infancy, the Institute has partnered with key industry and educational bodies and has already delivered some exciting projects with more in the planning.

To support teachers to collectively build knowledge and skills, Genazzano has embarked on a significant and comprehensive ‘Science of Learning’ professional learning course for all teachers to be undertaken over three years. The course focuses on the role of the brain in the learning process and supports teachers to interpret principles and consider how they can creatively use, embed or present the ideas in their own classrooms and contexts to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

A group of teachers commenced the learning last year as a pilot project. Their enthusiasm for the program was universal, with a number of teachers stating that it is ‘the best professional learning program we have ever done.’ In 2018 the program is being delivered to all teaching staff, along with additional professional learning opportunities through a project with the University of Melbourne.

‘I have found that learning ‘how the brain works’… has motivated me to want to learn more about learning.  Professional dialogue has inspired me, as I listen to colleagues and hear how they have applied the content and concepts investigated during our professional learning sessions.’
Penelope Karasavidis, Mathematics Teacher

Own Your Own Learning

In order to assist students to develop better awareness of their own brains’ health and function, the College is introducing a number of strategies to engage students and provide learning opportunities. Alongside various seminars and competitions, discussions have started organically in classrooms with many teachers sharing ‘Science of Learning’ principles with students to explain learning strategies or involve them in classroom projects to test the principles in action.

Student leaders have been appointed to work with the student body to promote an interest in neuroscience and education about the brain. Their initiatives have included a campaign called ‘Own your own learning,’ which included an extensive survey about student learning perceptions and practices, and a number of student-led lunchtime forums to discuss learning tips, choosing subjects and strategies for exam preparation. The forums have been well attended with students saying they are interested in hearing from older peers who have first-hand knowledge of many of the experiences they are going through.

Engaging Communities

Inspiring and engaging the community has been a rewarding aspect of the Institute’s work. The Genazzano Institute website and newsletter are vehicles for communication about research, featured articles and information on upcoming events, for example, free community talks on topics such as ‘The Learning Brain’ and ‘High Performance Brain: Strategies for Learning and Life’. Genazzano Institute’s own ‘Explain the Brain’ infographic competition was launched last year. The competition is open to any secondary student and was established to encourage young people to build knowledge and develop an interest in neuroscience. It has been incredibly successful, with hundreds of creative entries received from students around Australia keen to demonstrate what they know about the brain! The community has responded with genuine interest and enthusiasm and the Institute is eager to offer further engagement opportunities.

Looking ahead, the Institute plans to progress work with partners to explore the exciting educational potential of technology, such as virtual reality and brain-controlled apparatus.   A number of events for teachers and the community are planned for 2019 that we hope will offer valuable and practical insights on the brain that are applicable to not only the classroom but to any area of learning including the workplace, the home and creative pursuits.  

5 Brain Tips to Boost Memory

  • Spacing out practice: When learning new material, preparing for a performance or studying for a test, research shows that regular, spaced out revision or practice is more beneficial than last minute cramming. Break up practice sessions and allow plenty of time before a test or performance to revise.
  • Write out notes by hand: Research has shown that taking notes longhand supports memory to a greater extent than typing out notes. Writing engages the brain in deeper processing and often requires reframing or summarizing, which helps to consolidate the learning.
  • Avoiding Multitasking: ‘Multitasking’ is actually switching your attention from one task to another very quickly. But it takes time to refocus, so both tasks will suffer. Multitasking may be fine if the task is automatic or unimportant, however, when learning or revision is important, ensure that the brain is fully focused on the relevant material. That means- no interruptions or distractions, such as social media!
  • Link learning to prior knowledge: Connect new learning to prior experiences or knowledge to strengthen memories. Background knowledge is like the ‘glue that makes learning stick’ as it assists us to make sense of, interpret and categorise new information and experiences.
  • Seek high-quality sleep: Quality sleep is essential for memory consolidation and processing new information. Low quality sleep can impact mood, focus and the ability to comprehend, learn and remember. The recommended time for school-aged children is 9-11 hours while teens should aim for 8-10 hours a night.


Horvath J.C. and Lodge. J.M (2017) So you understand the Brain, now what? Pursuit (Mar) retrieved from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/so-you-understand-the-brain-now-what

Mueller, P.A and Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25 (6) pp1159 – 1168

Sleep, learning and Memory (2018). Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory