Learning by doing

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” 
― Aristotle

We all intuitively know that we learn something more effectively by doing it than by someone explaining how to do it.   Research has shown that activity based learning, or experiential learning can be 40% more effective than learning via a lecture. (The Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2011, 40-54).  

There are three parts of the brain that are the most important to kinesthetic and skill learning. The basal ganglia, cerebral cortex, and the cerebellum all play equally important roles in the ability to learn new skills and master them.[16]

The basal ganglia are a collection of ganglia (clusters of neurons) that lie at the base of the forebrain.[4] The basal ganglia receive information from other parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and cortical areas that send messages about the outside world. Most of these messages are sensory, meaning what a person is physically feeling. The basal ganglia then interpret this information and sends it on a path to the thalamus and the brainstem which both play large factors in physical movement. Therefore, the basal ganglia are the beginning of the process for somebody who is learning-by-doing to respond viscerally to the stimuli around them. It is important once a skill is learned to practice it. This can change how basal ganglia circuits participate in the performance of that skill and that synaptic plasticity is a basic neural mechanism enabling such changes.[4] The more a person practices, the more plasticity they develop.

The cerebral cortex is the brain tissue covering the top and sides of the brain in most vertebrates. It is involved in storing and processing of sensory inputs and motor outputs.[4] In the human brain, the cerebral cortex is actually a sheet of neural tissue about 1/8th inch thick. The sheet is folded so that it can fit inside the skull.[16] The neural circuits in this area of the brain expand with practice of an activity, just like the synaptic plasticity grows with practice. Clarification of some of the mechanisms of learning by neuro science has been advanced, in part, by the advent of non-invasive imaging technologies, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging(FMRI). These technologies have allowed researchers to observe human learning processes directly.[17] Through these types of technologies, we are now able to see and study what happens in the process of learning. In different tests performed the brain being imaged showed a greater blood flow and activation to that area of the brain being stimulated through different activities such as finger tapping in a specific sequence. It has been revealed that the process at the beginning of learning a new skill happens quickly, and later on slows down to almost a plateau. This process can also be referred to as The Law of Learning. The slower learning showed in the FMRI that in the cerebral cortex this was when the long term learning was occurring, suggesting that the structural changes in the cortex reflect the enhancement of skill memories during later stages of training.[4] When a person studies a skill for a longer duration of time, but in a shorter amount of time they will learn quickly, but also only retain the information into their short-term memory. Just like studying for an exam; if a student tries to learn everything the night before, it will not stick in the long run. If a person studies a skill for a shorter duration of time, but more frequently and long-term, their brain will retain this information much longer as it is stored in the long-term memory. Functional and structural studies of the brain have revealed a vast interconnectivity between diverse regions of the cerebral cortex. For example, large numbers of axons interconnect the posterior sensory areas serving vision, audition, and touch with anterior motor regions. Constant communication between sensation and movement makes sense, because to execute smooth movement through the environment, movement must be continuously integrated with knowledge about one's surroundings obtained via sensory perception.[16] The cerebral cortex plays a role in allowing humans to do this.

The cerebellum is critical to the ability for a human or animal to be able to regulate movement. This area of the brain wraps around the brainstem and is very densely packed with neurons and neural connections. This part of the brain is involved in timing as well as movement. It assists in predicting events, especially in the formation, execution, and timing of conditioned responses. The cerebellum plays a very important role in all forms of kinesthetic learning and motor function. For a ballerina, it is important to be able to control their movements and time it exactly right for their routine. For a football player it is important to be able to regulate movement when running throwing, and being able to have control over where the ball goes as well as the timing of it.

All three of these important systems in the brain function together as a team, one not being more important than the other. They work together to allow for responding to sensory events, timing, controlling physical actions, and more. However, it is important to remember than unless a person is actively practicing, these parts of the brain won't help them get to their full potential. Alterations in the brain that occur during learning seem to make the nerve cells more efficient or powerful. Studies have shown that animals raised in complex environments have a greater volume of capillaries per nerve cell—and therefore a greater supply of blood to the brain—than the caged animals, regardless of whether the caged animal lived alone or with companions. Overall, these studies depict an orchestrated pattern of increased capacity in the brain that depends on experience.

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