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The Science of Learning

How does learning happen — and can we get better at it?

A colorful image shows various silhouettes in different colors, each with a different subject in their brain.

Fall 2023

Credit: Katie Devries

David Rapp, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and professor of psychology and of learning sciences 

Successful learning requires at least two things: incorporating new ideas into your existing knowledge, a process called encoding, and accessing those ideas when they are relevant and useful, a process called retrieval. We spend a lot of time and effort encoding new information by studying, rehearsing and using flash cards. But we don’t spend nearly as much time on retrieval. Practicing our retrieval of newly learned knowledge — by answering questions about the topic, debating ideas and considering possibilities — can improve our retention of information. 

Credit: Bethany Fritz/Maypole Studios

Talia Lerner, assistant professor of neuroscience and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and founder of the Lerner Lab 

My lab examines how habits are learned. How can we build good habits and break bad ones? How and why do we shift from thinking about our life goals (for example, wanting to maintain good dental health) to performing an action consistently (for example, flossing every night)? The process of learning habits is largely influenced by dopamine in the brain. My lab records patterns of dopamine release while animals learn new habits, and we see that the dopamine release guides which neural circuits are strengthened or weakened. Our findings will help us understand the human brain and identify which neural circuits cause disorders such as depression or addiction. 

Credit: Northwestern’s Media and Design Studio

Elizabeth Norton, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders and director of the Language, Education and Reading Neuroscience (LEARN) Lab  

Our brains are the most plastic — or flexible for learning — early in life, so one of the most important ways we can ensure that children build a strong foundation for their lifelong learning is to identify children who are struggling as early as possible. Most children learn language with relative ease, yet about 10% have substantial difficulty even though they have good hearing, intelligence, social skills and caregiving. Without early intervention, those children are more likely to struggle in school and have longlasting mental health challenges, such as anxiety. If your child is slow to learn to talk, seek out a free evaluation from the early intervention office in your state. 

Nina Kraus ’80 PhD, the Hugh Knowles Chair and professor of neurobiology and otolaryngology 

Sound is at the root of how we make and keep connections. It shapes who we are neurologically by engaging how we think, feel and remember. Noise (or unwanted sound) can get in the way of this. Hearing is our “alarm sense.” We tend to ignore background noise because it is constant. But are we really tuning it out, or are we simply adapting to a perpetual state of low-level alarm? We have all had the experience of noticing a sound only when it goes away — the air conditioner cycles off or the car ignition is cut. Avoiding noise can promote brain health, facilitate learning and allow us to connect more intentionally with others without distraction. 

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