June 22, 2020

SYNAPSE Step #7 – Exercise

Apply your new knowledge to real situations
by Christine Marshall

This is #8 in a series of 8 posts. Visit post #7 here.

Rooted in the fundamentals of neuroscience and buoyed by the power of storytelling, SYNAPSE was designed to support students as they step up to new academic challenges. And yes, remote learning certainly counts as a new academic challenge! Offering practical tips for students as they strive to construct meaning while working independently, SYNAPSE is easy to learn and fun to implement. Most importantly, SYNAPSE frees students from negative thought cycles that can undermine their progress, especially when the task at hand seems “just too big.” Exercise, the final lesson in SYNAPSE, supports a lifelong love of learning. Applying your knowledge helps you strengthen your memories over time and engage the world in a more informed way. So Exercise for the win!


The neural networks housing your memories need a workout or they’ll weaken over time. Just as you cannot go to the gym once and expect results, you must exercise your neurons deliberately and frequently to sculpt new memories into useful knowledge. Every time you apply what you’ve learned, you retrieve a memory from storage, disrupting its network a little bit—making it malleable or “neuroplastic.” These temporary physical changes are a good thing, allowing your neurons to reorganize as more efficient, durable networks and update themselves to incorporate new learning. When you use what you’re learning to engage more deeply with peers, family, or community members, you further your potential and expand your role within the world. Learn to Exercise your neurons by following these steps, based on what we know about retrieval, reconsolidation, synaptic plasticity, and connected learning.

  • See one, Do one, Teach one. After learning a concept or skill, practice using this new knowledge privately, supported by notes or other resources. Then share your learning with a peer or trusted adult. “Teach” them the concept or skill as thoroughly as you can.
  • Embrace struggle. Struggle is your ally when it comes to creating strong, durable memories. Somewhat paradoxically, the more you struggle to remember what you’ve learned, the more neural networks you disrupt along your retrieval path, leading to more memories being strengthened. Associate your way to the thought or concept you’re attempting to remember. If you cannot retrieve the memory within a reasonable amount of time, that’s useful information, signaling that you should pause for a quick “memory booster” review session.
  • Guide your studies with Muddy Cards. At the end of a study session or class, jot down the aspects of your topic that are most “muddy” or unclear to you. It’s easy to fall into the habit of reviewing what you know well and avoiding what you don’t. Instead, begin your studies with whatever’s written on your muddy card!
  • Write Minute Papers. Exercise your memories and self-check your understanding by writing all you know about a topic within one minute. What did you remember first, second, third…? What did you forget to mention?
  • Embody your education through community engagement. Utilize your education to engage your family or community in ways that are meaningful to you. As you practice using your knowledge to positively impact society, it will become easier to do and you will grow into a more effective change agent.

Now more than ever, it is critical for lifelong learners—young and old—to stand up and share knowledge for social good. “Exercising” what you’re learning shares the benefits of your hard work with others, operationalizing, and further strengthening your academic pursuits through the lens of goodness.

Dr. Christine Marshall, a biology instructor at Phillips Academy, began developing SYNAPSE as a Tang Institute Fellow in 2016. She currently teaches a science elective, The Neurobiology of Learning, Memory, and Sleep, for 11th and 12th graders. Learn more about her work by visiting her blog, Laboratory for Learning.

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