Optimal learning is influenced by several contexts and conditions as also stated in the concept research agenda Brain, Cognition, and Education initiated by NRO and NWO (2016). To make learning as efficient, effective, and enjoyable as possible, it is imperative that the exact relationship between the context and conditions on the one hand, where the personal learning capacity of the learner is also taken into account, and optimal learning on the other are investigated and that recommendations are formulated which are applicable in educational and instructional practice.
The research topic ‘Biopsychology of Learning’ is situated at the intersection of the domains of biopsychology and learning and aims to gain knowledge and understanding of how context and conditions (see below) affect the learning process, the learner, and the learning outcomes.
Learning is not an isolated cognitive experience in the brain of the learner. In addition to personal learning capacity (i.e., genetics and equivalent related personal characteristics), the extent to which learning occurs is highly dependent on the context in which and the conditions under which a person tries to learn. In this, context is defined as the (learning) environment in which learning takes place (this may be school, workplace, everyday life) and the conditions as variables that directly influence the biopsychology of the learner in a negative (e.g., feelings of inferiority, stress, fatigue, illness) or positive way (e.g., self-confidence, motivation, learning strategies, exercise, healthy diet, enough sleep). Collectively, the context and conditions can be seen as prerequisites for learning.
An important biopsychological theoretical starting point that forms the basis of the influence of context and conditions on the learner and his/her learning process is 'neural plasticity'. Kolb and Whishaw (1998) describe this as the possibility of the brain to change during both development and adulthood under the influence of the environment and experience. However, the first theories in this area arose much earlier (e.g., Ramon y Cajal, 1928; Tanzi, 1893, Hebb, 1947). Context and conditions cause changes in the brain such as increments in dendrite length, increases or decreases in the density of the neural spines, synapse formation, increased glial activation, and altered metabolic activity.
In sum, genetics, context, and conditions play important roles in learning and their underlying learning processes. All three influence the growth and maturation of the brain and influence learning. This results in the following list of research questions to be investigated in this topic:
- Which contexts for and conditions of the learner affect learning either positively or negatively?
- What are the biological prerequisites (e.g. physical activity, nutrition, sleep) for learning?
- What are the psychological prerequisites (e.g. learning strategies, for learning?
- Which techniques can be used to make the optimal context and conditions for learning visible?
- How can the context for and the conditions of the learner be influenced so as to optimise learning?
- Which context works for whom under which conditions?
- How can knowledge of the three prerequisites for learning (i.e., genetics, context, conditions) be combined in valorisation initiatives and innovations?
- What is the role of genetics in learning?
- How are genetics interrelated with context and conditions?