How to learn better throughout life


Throughout his life, human beings are confronted with new situations, acquire new knowledge which they transpose to new contexts, develop new ideas and skills, and even modify their environment to improve their well-being. We do all of this through an extraordinary skill called “learning,” which has allowed our species a greater degree of flexibility and adaptability, placing us at the pinnacle of evolution.

Human learning takes many forms. In some cases, it can be observed because it transforms behaviors, for example, when a child learns to put on a coat. But in other cases, what changes is invisible to an outside viewer, for example, when a student understands an explanation or learns to solve a problem.

Accidental or intentional learning

People can undertake complex learning (spoken language, values, customs, etc.) without conscious effort and spontaneously, through observation, imitation or interaction with objects or people: this is what we called incidental learning .

However, most of the learning we do throughout our lives is voluntary and intentional and consists of complex systems of knowledge. Acquiring them requires effort, a favorable disposition and a will to do so. These learnings are acquired in specific institutional contexts and are promoted by education professionals.

Human learning is complex, and research in psychology has offered us sometimes different and sometimes complementary explanations of how people learn and the main psychological processes involved, as well as the factors, both personal and contextual, that can help or hinder them.

These contributions have led to a better understanding of the learning that occurs throughout our life cycle, as well as to analyze, critically review and improve current educational practices.

Biological bases and flexibility

To learn something, we have to be biologically prepared for it. This biological determination is written into our genetic code, in which a distinction can be made between closed content and open content .

The closed part is quite rigid and includes a series of immutable traits, except for genetic alterations, which define us as a species, and a maturation schedule that determines the abilities and skills possible at each moment of our life. .

For example, human beings are born with the ability to speak, but we will speak only when our brain has reached an adequate level of development and our vocal apparatus is ready. The maturation schedule will determine when language acquisition will take place.

The open part , once the foundations for maturation are in place, will depend on the person’s interactions with the environment. The acquisition of a particular language, with more or less fluidity and more or less lexico-semantic richness, is possible because language is not a closed content, like the color of eyes or hair, but a open content with room to expand.

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The brain is the physical support of mental processes. Regions of the cerebral cortex develop and differentiate anatomically and functionally at different times, with some processes occurring before birth and others continuing into adulthood.

The brain is flexible and can adapt throughout life, even in the event of brain injury. Neurons are unspecialized from the moment they are formed, resulting in constant changes in the structure of the brain . This feature of the nervous system is called plasticity .

Sensitive periods in the brain are referred to as the times when specialization of neurons takes place and certain learning occurs more appropriately and efficiently. This does not mean that learning happens rigidly in fixed periods, but that there are times that are more appropriate than others for different learning. In fact, it has been shown that in some parts of the adult brain there is neural regeneration throughout life .

Social experiences

Learning is not fixed and maturation alone is not enough for learning to take place: we do not learn alone. Learning is the result of the daily interaction we have with other people (parents, teachers, peers), and the various activities that our culture offers us. In other words, some learning will or will not be acquired depending on the experiences we have.

First, we learn to do things by observing or collaborating with other people, then, with practice, we are able to do it on our own. Learning is a social process, we learn from our peers and what we learn has been socially constructed by other people and cultures that have gone before us.

However, individuals are not passive in this process. They are engaged in a complex mental activity in which they interpret the situations they experience based on the knowledge and previous experiences available to them. For example, if we want a person to learn the functions of the respiratory system, it is necessary that he has general knowledge about breathing or the parts of the respiratory system.

Cognitive processes are also necessary for learning: attention, perception, memory. Perceiving, selecting, encoding, interpreting and retrieving information are skills that are involved in a large part of everyday learning.

But we don’t use them in the same way: people have different styles in how they perceive, process and manage the vast amount of information offered by today’s society. The individual will deal with this information saturation by implementing metacognitive skills .

Metacognition is central to the learning process . It implies that the person is aware of what he is learning (metacognitive knowledge) and that he knows how to achieve and use new learning (metacognitive skills/self-regulation).

To learn well, one must be aware of the aspects that influence learning and deliberately and intentionally use previous knowledge, skills and learning strategies.

The role of emotions

But learning is not only the result of the cognitive and metacognitive processes used to learn and know what one is learning, it must also take into account the affective and motivational processes , which include the reasons, goals and objectives of each and which will determine the learner’s attitude or willingness to learn.

It is essential to adopt a positive and critical attitude towards what needs to be learned, as this reinforces effort and investment. Experiencing learning as an opportunity for personal development, working for the enjoyment of learning, and feeling competent in mastering the task are crucial elements for meaningful learning to take place.

The emotions and feelings we experience when we learn depend on our self-concept and self-esteem and mediate the cognitive, metacognitive, motivational and relational processes that take place during the learning process.

In today’s society, knowledge is constantly changing, which makes lifelong learning necessary.

>Author Bio: Mar Garcia Senoran is Profesora Titular in the Universidad de Vigo. Area of ​​Evolutive Psychology and Education at the University of Vigo