Insights on Learning that can Improve Preaching

Every communicator needs to understand the science of learning, including those who preach. In this post I give a few insights about the science of learning. 

Between 1997 and 2004 the late Professor Graham Nuthall of Canterbury University in New Zealand conducted some of the most robust research ever on learning. His Project on Learning, a long-term study of students aged 9 to 11, examined what students actually retained in the classroom experience. He wired 12 different classrooms with video cameras and microphones to record what happened. As a result of his research, he could predict with 80-85 per cent accuracy what students learned. Some of his findings included these.

  •  A third of what students learn will be unique to them, not known by the other students.
  • Students will tend to know 40-50% of what we’re trying to teach them, but they all don’t know the same 40-50%.
  • If a student encounters a concept on at least three different occasions, their chance of remembering it six months later rockets to 80%.
  • Much of what students learn they learn from each other and 80% is wrong.
  • Learning happens not because something was taught but happens as a result of how students experience learning.

What are the implications of this research for us? 

For communicators to foster learning, we must remember that learning is a far more mysterious experience than simply using a few communication techniques. In my newest book If Jesus Gave a TED Talk, I don’t suggest that if you apply the neuroscience techniques I suggest in it, that learning will automatically happen in the learners in your context. However, neuroscience informs us, and Jesus illustrates to us how we can best effect durable learning. But ultimately it requires a learner’s active engagement and God’s work to effect transformation.  

I expand upon these broad ideas in the book.

1.     Learning engages the total person (thinking, feeling, and physically doing).
2.     The brain seeks patterns to find meaning.
3.     Emotions powerfully affect learning.
4.     Past learning impacts future learning.
5.     Memory (working memory) has a limited functional capacity.
6.     To retain you must rehearse.
7.     Practice makes permanent, not perfect.

This post adapted from my recent book. If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to Persuade His Audience (available at online retailers)

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