Brain activity and learning by doing

Prof. Sian Beilock, is an internationally known expert on the mind–body connection and author of the book How the Body Knows Its Mind. Beilock and her co-authors, Prof. Susan Fischer at DePaul University, UChicago graduate student Carly Kontra and postdoctoral scholar Dan Lyons, explain that hands-on experiences may benefit students more than previously realized, and this may be especially true for the initial stages of learning and in areas of science education that lend themselves to physical experiences.

Brain scans showed that students who took a hands-on approach to learning had activation in sensory and motor-related parts of the brain when they later thought about scientific concepts. 

“This gives new meaning to the idea of learning,” said Beilock. “When we’re thinking about math or physics, getting students to actually physically experience some of the concepts they’re learning about changes how they process the information, which could lead to better performance on a test.”

 “When students have a physical experience, they are more likely to activate sensory and motor areas of the brain when they are later thinking about the science concepts they learned about,” said Beilock. “These sensory and motor-related brain areas are known to be important for our ability to make sense of various scientific concepts.

“Those students who physically experience difficult science concepts learn them better, perform better in class and on quizzes the next day, and the effect seems to play out weeks later, as well,” Beilock added.

For Beilock, the findings stressed the importance of classroom practices that physically engage students in the learning process, especially for math and science.

“In many situations, when we allow our bodies to become part of the learning process, we understand better,” Beilock said. “Reading about a concept in a textbook or even seeing a demonstration in class is not the same as physically experiencing what you are learning about. We need to rethink how we are teaching math and science because our actions matter for how and what we learn.”


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