First, I should clarify that, with this article about natural learning, I’m not saying “natural” is better. I’m not advocating that we return education to a “state of nature,” move classrooms outside, and make everything hands-on because, among other reasons, those would be unrealistic aims. Rather, I’m saying that we can design better teaching methods and choose more effective study techniques if we’re aware of how humans naturally learn. This is one of the many reasons why it’s a good idea to know something about human nature.
The most compelling public speakers and the most effective teachers are people who know how to connect with the evolved psychology of their audiences. The best study methods are those that tap into how we naturally form strong memories. All of us are in possession of an old brain living in the modern world. We’ll do better at everything, especially academics, if we know our brain’s history.
Our brains evolved to learn in particular ways, and so we struggle when attempting to learn in ways that don’t come naturally to us. Modern schools, for the most part, ignore key aspects of human nature. For example, the physical location in which learning occurs is radically different from that of our ancestors.
Our ancestors learned outdoors, while moving around. Play has been a key part of natural learning for millions of years of mammalian evolution. But now we think there’s something wrong with kids who have a hard time sitting still for hours on end. And many schools have done away with P.E. and reduced recess, forgetting that exercise makes students better learners.1 We can’t go back to a state of nature, nor should we, but we also can’t completely forget where we came from.
Our ancestors learned by hearing, watching, tasting, smelling, and doing. Their education occurred in a rich, multi-sensory environment. As such, we’ve evolved to remember things that stimulate many of our senses.1 Abstract concepts feel more real when we can link them to sensory experiences. The more senses a lesson stimulates, the more easily it will be remembered.1
Much of our ancestors’ learning was done through visual observation, and, to this day, the majority of the information we receive through our senses is visual.1 As such, vision is by far the most important sense to include in a lesson.1 And this has been true since long before our ape ancestors ever stood up and walked on two legs. The saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” actually reveals a deep truth about how humans learn.
Public speaking expert Carmine Gallo explains the power of visuals aids in learning:
If you hear information, you are likely to remember about 10 percent of that information three days later. Add a picture, however, and your recall rate will soar to 65 percent. … a picture will help you remember six times more information than listening to words alone.2
This makes perfect sense, given our history. Language is believed to be a rather recent development in our line of ancestry, perhaps dating back just 200,000 years.3 Reading and writing are even more recent developments, dating back less than 6,000 years.4
Although our current school system relies heavily on verbal information to teach, students now have the option of seeking out educational videos that offer a more vivid sensory experience. My favorite is CrashCourse. These are not a substitute for classrooms and textbooks, but they make an excellent supplement.
When it comes to verbal information, we learn best through stories. Stories grab our attention by tapping into human nature.5 Our ancestors did not sit through long lectures; they told one another stories.
Ideas make more sense to us when they’re wrapped inside a narrative, so one very effective way to study is to tell yourself a story about the ideas you’re learning. And you can go one step further and teach that story to others.
Trial and Error
Our ancestors also learned most skills through trial and error. After observing someone else perform the skill, we tried to mimic the behavior, struggled, and got better by struggling. In other words, we evolved to learn by making mistakes and failing.
This is just one more example of why the growth mindset is not just the most helpful mindset, but also the factually correct one. We’re born with a growth mindset. We all learned to walk by stumbling and falling repeatedly.
Our ancestors evolved to remember the things that stood out as important, and our brains still respond to the same cues.
New and surprising information is remembered well because it grabs our attention, and we must pay close attention in order to learn well. Titanic explorer Robert Ballard explains: “‘When you get a jaw drop, you can inform. You can put so much information into that mind, it’s in full receiving mode.’”6
Another cue that signals importance is strong emotion. We more easily remember things that are coupled with emotional significance because we naturally pay better attention when our emotions are aroused.1 Nobody has trouble remembering the time they broke their leg or won the big game.
It’s the boring things that we find hard to remember – topics that don’t feel important. Our brains aren’t inclined to devote resources to remembering things that seem unimportant. In fact, we find them hard to focus on in the first place, making them doubly hard to learn.
Our attention span is rather short, and listening is mentally exhausting.5 So, despite its ubiquity, a long, boring lecture is probably the worst way to teach. It helps to be reminded of the significance of the topic every 10 minutes or so; otherwise we tend to lose interest.1
Schools often struggle with this. They have to present material to students that is boring to many of the students. And most kids don’t feel like what they’re learning in school has much significance. Of course, most teachers search for creative ways to spice up their lessons because they know that it’s the best way to hold their students’ attention.
But this is no easy task, and we can’t put all the burden on teachers. It is up to the students themselves to find ways to stay engaged. All students have a responsibility to be active agents in their own education. Even when you don’t really care about the content, you can convince your brain to care by acting like you care. Use two hands, make written product, and ask questions.
Boring content isn’t going away, so it’s up to students to make it stick.
Since writing is relatively new to our species, it probably seems like an unnatural way to learn, so it may be surprising to hear that hand-writing information is a powerful tool to remember it.7 The reason is that writing is actually a very active way to learn. Because it uses our hands, it aligns well with the sort of active learning our tool-making ancestors did.
This may help explain why hand-writing is more effective for memory formation than typing:8 Holding a pen or a pencil is more similar to holding a stick or a small tool, as our ancestors did, so it should spark greater activation in the learning centers of the brain. We’ve been manipulating tools and learning by using our hands for millions of years longer than we’ve had spoken language,3 so hand-writing information actually taps into a deeper part of the brain than listening to a lecture.
Likewise, self-testing is a natural way to learn because our ancestors were forced to put their knowledge to the test constantly. The challenges of their environment demanded it. Taking practice tests is an excellent way to signal to your brain that something matters, and, as such, it is a very effective study method.7
And probably the best way to fool your brain into thinking something boring is really important is to use spaced repetition. To our evolved psychology, repeated exposure to something is a clear indicator of its importance. The brain, quite naturally, thinks, “This thing keeps coming up, so I should remember it.”
Plus, a great deal of unconscious learning happens between exposures, so, the more exposures, the more unconscious learning is prompted.7 We evolved to learn things over time, so cramming all your studying into one night isn’t nearly as effective as spreading it out over several days.7
The modern world is brimming with distractions that we didn’t evolve to handle.
Our ancestors lived with much less visual and auditory stimulation, so it’s no surprise that we don’t learn well when distracted.1 If you want to study effectively, eliminate as many distractions as possible.7
Bright colors, loud noises, music, and other people – whether they’re really there, on a TV screen, a cell-phone, or on social media – are all things that naturally grab our attention, pulling us away from what we’re trying to learn. These things grab our attention because, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they would have been rare and genuinely important.
One of the most insidious forms of distraction is self-imposed: multi-tasking. We’re really only capable of focusing our conscious attention on one thing at a time,1 And yet we are routinely overconfident about our ability to multitask. David Glenn, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education explains:
That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students’ minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.10
Lastly, I’d like to make the case that curiosity is a part of human nature that is underutilized in the world of education.
People like solving mysteries, deciphering clues, and putting puzzle pieces together,11 and mysteries naturally grab our attention.5 We’re more likely to be engaged in a lesson if we’re recruited by the teacher as sleuths. Sure, the teacher already knows the answer, but they can withhold it, and instead ask questions and provide hints that allow students to find the path to the answer on their own. This aligns well with how our ancestors would have figured things out. Lacking textbooks, professors, and Google, they would have had to go sleuthing to answer many of their questions.
We are natural explorers, with brains that evolved to scout the terrain and map the landscape. I, for one, experience a deep sense of exhilaration whenever I have the opportunity to explore someplace new, whether it is in the mountains or in the mind.
Students can choose to view their lessons as items on a to-do list, just things to get done. Or they can view their lessons as uncharted territory, awaiting exploration.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
2 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 213.
3 Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Harper Perennial, 2007.
4 Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press, 2007.
5 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
6 Ballard, Robert quoted in Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 112.
7 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
8 Hotz, Robert Lee. “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter? Students who take notes by hand outperform students who type, and more type these days, new studies show.” The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2016.
10 Glenn, David. “Divided Attention: In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 28, 2010.
11 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011.
Our Ancestors’ Classroom: Zenino, Christine. “Jungle girl…” https://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
Modern Classroom: Levine, Alan. “Ye Old Classrooms.” https://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
Campfire Story: Thomas, Martin. “Campfire.” https://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
Baby Learning to Walk: Nadiger, Sriharsha. “my first step.” https://flickr.com. Creative Commons Public Domain.
Written Product: Arment, Marco. “Brainstorming.” https://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.