Nightingale Challenge Meeting: Exploring Learning Science and Gen Z Nursing Students

by Audrey S. Schou, MSN, RN, Kaplan Nursing School Consultant & Electra Allen, MSN, RN, CPN  | September 28, 2020

Learning science is a new and intense area of research and is constantly inspiring new innovations in teaching. By taking deep dives into the science of learning, we are able to tackle the questions which have challenged nurse educators since the beginning, such as:

  • If we understood the science of how we learn, could we be better educators? 
  • Could students be more effective in their learning?

The objectives for this presentation were to:

  • Understanding the difference between focused mode and diffuse mode
  • Defining “chunks” in terms of teaching and why “chunking” is important
  • Diving into working-memory versus long-term memory
  • Discussing techniques to help students learn more effectively
  • Exploring actions that hinder learning
  • Delving into important aspects of testing
  • Understanding more about Gen Z students and how they learn.

Understanding the Brain and How Learning Works

Scientists believe that the brain is the most complex device in the universe. It has billions of synapses where memories are stored, and interestingly, the brain does most of its deep thinking below the level of consciousness. The brain sends hundreds of trillions of messages across different neural pathways every second, and these messages are transmitted by neurotransmitters.

Four of them are critically important for learning:

  • Dopamine: Rewards positive behaviors and gives learners motivation to learn
  • Serotonin: For the formation of memories and to promote neuroplasticity
  • Oxytocin: Promote trust in the teacher or trainer
  • Endorphins: Promote happiness and relaxation, both essential for learning to occur

In addition to these neurotransmitters, the brain also works to assimilate new material in two approaches: Focused Mode and Diffuse Mode, which cannot be accessed simultaneously. In focus mode, our brain is studying something very intensely and it is 100% focused. In diffuse mode, the brain is diverted, relaxing or even sleeping, and doing its problem solving and conceptual thinking. Between both of these modes, the brain is building neural patterns.

Exploring Memory

Memory is where all of that learning is stored in the brain. Much like a huge warehouse, memory has room for billions of items, but memories themselves are stored all over the warehouse and can be difficult to retrieve if not accessed frequently over time. Educators need to facilitate the process of helping students move material from the short-term memory―what has been studied while cramming or in focused mode―into their long-term memory―where fundamental concepts of what we are trying to learn is stored. 

As we are working from our memory, research shows that we have the capacity to only hold onto 4 “nuggets” of information at a time―or only what we are working on at that time―in our working memory. We need to keep repeating those nuggets in order to remember them.

Nursing students can increase their memory and recall through:

1. Using images to connect memory to the brain’s visual spatial center

2. Repetition to lodge information into long term memory

3. Using handwriting to help more deeply encode information into neural structures

4. Auditory repetition to create auditory neural hooks

5. Grouping information (“chunking”) to simplify content

Mastering ideas by chunking requires:

  • Focus (no distractions!!!) 
  • Understanding of the concept or content
  • Context to enable the learner to know how, when or why to use this information. 

Once a chunk has been created, then they start to get bigger and bigger, creating ribbons of memory/neural patterns that can not only be stored and retrieved easily, but can also begin to evolve and find other applications and patterns.  But it is important to note that these chunks must be practiced over a time period to prevent from slipping into the deep recesses of the mental warehouse. Once information makes it into long-term memory, the capacity is virtually unlimited!

Techniques to Boost Effective Learning

Based on the science of learning, effective techniques for learning are:

  • Spend time in diffuse mode for brief periods of time. For example, set a timer for 25 mins, then relax for 25 mins.. A general rule of thumb is 50/50. Cramming is not effective!
  • Use chunking―connecting different parts of the brain to tie together ideas or concepts. Uniting bits of information together into a chunk will help to create a network of neurons
  • Practice and repetition are important to promote the creation of strong memory traces
  • Exercise to support new neuronal growth, and allow time for the brain to be in diffuse mode.
  • Interleaving to weave one subject or discipline with another. Think deeply about a topic and then be able to apply it to another. This is where deep learning occurs.

How to Avoid Ineffective Learning

Ineffective learning techniques are fairly standard methods of studying and actually contribute very little toward embedding information into long term memory. This includes techniques such as:

  • Rereading texts or notes from class. A better practice is to read then look away and recall what was read. Retrieve the information. Or create a concept map to retrieve and connect the concepts.
  • Highlighting is a process of making lots of motions with the hands or coloring the textbook, but again does nothing to place the concept in the brain.
  • Illusions of competence when students reread and highlight and think that they own the material. There has been no testing for recall to insure the learner has grasped the idea.
  • Overlearning or the continued practice of material that the student has already mastered which ends up being a waste of valuable learning time.

The Role of Testing in Learning

The role of testing in learning has a valuable place not only as in moments of  formative and summative assessments, but also simply in the effort of retrieval and problem-solving during testing. The process of testing concentrates the mind, and as students toggle through the questions, they are also moving through the focused mode and the diffuse mode to both retain and connect information. As we understand the science of learning we understand the value of testing early and often!

How Gen Z Students Approach Learning

Obviously there are many other directions that we can go in order to investigate the science of the brain as it pertains to learning, but one area particularly relevant is how our current, Generation Z, students approach learning. So, what do we know about them and how can we apply learning science to their needs?

Generation Z students get bored quickly, especially if technology is not used. Attention spans have shrunk to about 6-8 seconds and students only read about 25% of what’s in front of them.  This is why techniques like chunking and interactive activities and videos can be helpful for their learning.

This generation has a drive for self-learning and is used to getting answers quickly through search engines such as Google. They may resist active learning because to them, a lecture where they are spoon-fed the information seems faster, and they mistakenly believe that this means it is a more effective learning strategy. 

Pro Tip: Spend time explaining the rationale for learning activities selected to Gen Z students. Let them know what they will be learning and how it is relevant for them and their future careers. 

In Conclusion

As educators, we need to understand how the brain functions relative to learning and to maximize our effectiveness in facilitating learning in our classrooms. In addition we need to help students appreciate how to be effective learners and understand how their brains work to be able to tackle any subject. We can learn anything if we just know how!

Audrey Schou, MSN, RN, is currently a Kaplan Faculty Nurse Consultant who has been with Kaplan for over 17 years.  She has worked as NCLEX faculty both nationally and internationally, as a National Teacher Trainer, and for the past 11 years has been the West Coast Territory Nurse Consultant for Institutional Partnerships, providing educational guidance for over 80 nursing programs.  Audrey graduated from Cornell University School of Nursing and received her graduate degree in nursing education from Dominican University. Her expertise lays in maternal-child health, public health nursing, and medical-surgical nursing. Audrey also volunteers as a nurse at RotoCare Free Medical Clinic and is on the board of The Send It Foundation, providing outdoor experiences to young adults battling cancer. & Electra Allen, MSN, RN, CPN is a member of the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and a certified pediatric nurse with a clinical background in pediatric emergency nursing. She worked at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, VA before moving to California where she worked in the level one trauma center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.   From the beginning of her nursing career, she has had a heart for education and was even voted “Most Likely to Become a Nursing Professor” by her classmates while she was in nursing school. In 2015 she earned her M.S.N., in Nursing Education from Duke University, and since then has served as an assistant professor of nursing at Biola University in southern California.  She has taught theory and clinical for Advanced Med Surg, Mental Health, Community, and Pediatrics.  Most recently she has begun teaching her program’s Intro to Pharmacology course.  Her scholarship interests include generational characteristics of nursing students and providing emotional and spiritual support for undergraduate nursing students.

See more posts by Audrey S. Schou, MSN, RN, Kaplan Nursing School Consultant & Electra Allen, MSN, RN, CPN