Neuroscientist Nikki Sawyer, PhD, came up with “the ART of learning” to explain how the brain learns best—plus two tricks to help students study smarter.
Adjunct Professor of Biology,Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia
PhD in Neuroscience, BS in Biology
For the past six years, Nikki Sawyer, PhD, has been teaching nursing students at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia. A large number of them are juggling family obligations and full-time work along with their coursework—which is no small feat in any class, but especially in an information-dense course like Human Anatomy and Physiology.
Theirs is a situation Sawyer understands better than most: She first enrolled in college at age 29. Today, the adjunct professor—who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Emory University—does more than serve as living proof that they can succeed. She also offers them evidence-based practices that can help them master their coursework, not just memorize it.
To that end, the first body part on Sawyer’s syllabus is the brain. The first week of class includes a review of the research on how the brain learns best, as well as an overview of the study skills that support deep learning.
“I find that after I do this, a lot of students really get on board,” she explains. “They realize that if you put in the effort, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Below, Sawyer unpacks her unique approach and its far-reaching benefits for the student body—and beyond.
“The more you learn about how the brain works, the more you understand exactly how you learn new material. That doesn’t only apply to the sciences, but to anything that you want to learn.”
-Nikki Sawyer, PhD
Course: BIOL 1152 Human Anatomy and Physiology II
Course description: A continuation of BIOL 1151 which typically includes study of control systems of the body, maintenance systems and continuity.
For the first lecture: Explain the ART of learning
One of the first things that Sawyer covers—after reviewing the syllabus—is something she calls the ART of learning: an acronym that stands for Acquire, Retain, and Transfer. All of this, she tells students, requires active participation rather than passive absorption of facts (which she says rarely works).
Here is a quick summary of what she shares with students about the steps to deep learning and some examples of each:
Step 1: ACQUIRE information—through class time and coursework
Our brains are constantly taking in new information throughout the day. As information arrives through our five senses, connections are made between the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons. That is not enough to lock it into memory, though. “When you first learn a fact, that connection in the brain is very tenuous,” says Sawyer. “If that connection is not reinforced, it will be lost.”
- Carefully reading something for the first time
- Listening attentively to a lecture in class
- Watching a video at home
Step 2: RETAIN information—through study (and sleep!)
For the brain to strengthen the connection and make a permanent memory, students must repeatedly and actively engage with the information. They also must sleep in between—a fact that she stresses early and often. “You have to study one day, then sleep, then look at [the material] again, then sleep,” Sawyer explains. “When you sleep, two things happen: The memories you want to keep are strengthened, and the tenuous memories are erased.”
- Writing out flashcards
- Rewriting/rephrasing key concepts in your own words
- Self-testing using online practice quizzes or flashcards
Step 3: TRANSFER information—through analogies and application
Sawyer says that when a student transfers knowledge, the connections between neurons become reinforced until they are like superhighways—fast-moving and unlikely to disappear. A great way to transfer knowledge? Form an analogy between the new information and something you know well. For example, some students might think of the nervous system itself as a system of superhighways and back roads.
- Engaging in group discussion or study groups
- Coming up with analogies and real-world examples
- Explaining concepts to a friend or family member
For the first assignment: Ask for a study plan
Just as knowing how to exercise does not make you fit, knowing how to study does not make you learn. Making time to put in the work is crucial. So Sawyer’s first homework assignment is to create a study plan. This is simply a worksheet where students indicate the hours and days of the week they plan to study for her class. She invites them to note other commitments, such as work hours and kids’ soccer games, so they can see their whole week in context. “I tell them that I know that they won’t be able to stick to this 100%. I just want them to start thinking about it,” she says. Finally, she has them indicate how they are going to use that time to learn the information. When reviewing the plans, Sawyer often sees students go off track in these ways:
1. Too few hours studying
In a science class, students should expect to study four hours each week for every credit hour—that is above and beyond any time spent in the classroom and lab. Human Anatomy and Physiology is a four-credit course, so she tells students to expect to spend at least 16 hours per week studying.
2. Too many hours studying
“I’ve had some students turn in plans that indicate they’re going to study 26 hours a week—just for my class,” Sawyer says. “I tell them, ‘You’re going to burn out at that rate. You know your brain needs some rest, too, right?’” She reiterates the four-hours-per-credit rule to them.
3. Too long studying without a break
Sawyer recommends that students limit their “study blocks” to two hours at a stretch, simply because the brain gets fatigued. “After a while, your brain’s not going to be efficient at absorbing the information, and you’re just wasting your time,” she tells them. For the same reason, she also encourages students to take breaks within that two-hour stretch.
4. Too much reliance on passive learning
“Even after we do the lecture in class, they will still put that they plan on reading and highlighting a textbook,” Sawyer says. She encourages them to explore more active study techniques instead, like the examples listed in the previous section of this article.
After the first test: Assess study skills with an exam wrapper
After the first exam, Sawyer uses a structured worksheet to help students reflect on their study methods. She makes it clear to students that they should be honest and that she will not judge or grade them on their answers. For this to be an accurate self-reflection, they must keep it real.
Specifically, students are asked to inventory:
- Which methods of study they used
- How much time they spent studying (outside of class)
- Whether they received the grade they expected
In addition, students who earned an A must list the three study techniques that contributed to their success. Those who received any other grade must list three changes they will make in how they prepare for the next exam.
Sawyer does an exam wrapper after the second exam as well, so students can assess their studying again and also compare their performance between the two exams. After that, they are on their own—unless, of course, they ask Sawyer for help getting or staying on track.
“They can always come see me—my door is always open,” she says. If students do begin to deviate from their plans, she instructs them to skip the negative self-talk and start making adjustments instead. Moving forward, she notes, is key.
Students have told her that her study-skills instruction has helped them not only in her course but throughout their education. Many have become nurses and are working in the field when they contact her to thank her for her guidance and support. Others have told her that her class has impacted their parenting. “They’ll tell me about how they went home and told their kids about the study skills lessons, [explaining it] in language that their kids could understand,” she says. Interestingly, this is a great example of the T in ART—as they TRANSFER their learnings to the next generation.
“It’s great information, and I wish everybody could just be taught it in kindergarten,” she says. “I think it would make life a little bit easier in so many ways.”