2016 in review: what we learned about online education

Alas it’s that time of year when we reflect on the successes of 2016. This year online education made some strides towards the future, and many people now believe this form of niche education has moved into the mainstream.

Here’s what this year’s data has shown us.

In the past, the average age of online learners has been those of a “nontraditional” status. However, the average age of today’s online student is decreasing. According to The Learning House and their fifth annual Online College Students Report, the percentage of online students aged 18 to 24 has doubled since 2012. Similarly, while the past has shown online education to be in high demand for parents and those with families, today’s learners are also more likely to be both single and childless, increasing 10 percent since 2013, according to the same report.

This year was filled with debate surrounding the concept of short-track training and has sparked many conversations. Many have questioned the traditional student path of taking general education classes for half their training and then receiving the training that directly corresponds to their career goals. As student debt continues to increase, many potential students are seeking fast-tracked training that teaches them exactly what they want to learn for their chosen career, saving both time and money. For many, online education has been the solution.

In 2016 about 3.5 million students enrolled in online programs, according to higher education research group Eduventures. This continues the trend of increased online enrollment, while at the same time, enrollment in on-campus classes has decreased. Some of this shift is speculated to be from students wanting credential and skill-building education that specifically translates into their career path. Further speculation in the shifting demographics of learners and the way they learn is the digital boom—where all things virtual are in high demand.

In August, a survey by Pearson research group asked learners, educators, and administrators within two- and four-year colleges and universities about their use of digital learning products. Even for those not teaching or learning solely online, 82 percent of those surveyed said they used digital learning products in the past six months, and 82 percent also said digital learning is the future of education.

As more schools create their own online programs to feed the need for distance learning, 57 percent of students from the Pearson survey said they think it’s the responsibility of the institution to help them make the shift from print-based learning materials to digital course materials. Eighty-four percent said digital materials are important in resolving system-wide challenges facing higher education today.

Although the debate continues among educators about the overall effectiveness of online education, when Pearson asked educators how they viewed the impact and importance of digital courseware 78 percent said they believe it benefits students. Eighty-seven percent also said digital materials are important in resolving system-wide challenges facing higher education, echoing what students said. Much of this is sparked by increased technology involving adaptive learning analytics that are personalizing education.

Due to continued demand for virtual learning, the 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology asked faculty and administrators details about their use of technology. Their findings showed that faculty members are creating new opportunities with technology. Through experimentation with online education, for example, faculty members said they are able to serve a more diverse set of students and think more critically about how to engage students with course content.

According to the survey, faculty who taught online in 2016 rose to 39 percent, up from 32 percent in 2015. This increase suggests that faculty attitudes are shifting towards digital learning. In fact, 79 percent of faculty surveyed said using digital resources has helped them develop skills and practices that have improved their teaching in the classroom and online.

So, with all of this summed up about 2016’s trends in online education, this year ends much as it did in 2015: with optimism and signs of longevity.

Cheers to the New Year!

Student survey revealed! Here’s how we’re doing…

questions-1Schools of the future have arrived, and LB iLearn is on board! With our use of innovative online education models to make credentials attainable for non-traditional students, we employed a rigorous course development process for competency-based framework.

Funded by the Department of Labor, Linn-Benton Community College was selected for a project to facilitate post-secondary educational completion for an underserved population of learners. Demographics targeted within the stipulations of the DOL grant included TAA-eligible, veteran, and dislocated workers who need to compete in Oregon’s growing industry sectors.

Based on labor market data, such sectors include healthcare- and business-related fields, which is why all of our certificate and degree programs fall into those categories. We seek to increase the number of qualified, employable candidates in our community by providing career-oriented education designed to jumpstart careers.

It has been almost two years since we began accepting students, and in recent months have seen our first graduates! In an effort to stay abreast of our successes and opportunities, a third-party survey group has asked our students how we are doing. This is what they had to say:

Why choose online instead of on-campus learning?

Research shows that a large population of online learners nationwide are either working professionals or adults who have families. To no surprise, survey results reflected this to be true for LB iLearn students as well. Nearly 64 percent of respondents said their decision to enroll online instead of in traditional classes was “other obligations including children and jobs that prevented them from taking traditional courses during the day.”

Why choose LB iLearn Online?

There were several reasons students chose LB iLearn for their educational needs, but there were two reasons given more than others. Our unique non-term structure in which students can enroll any Wednesday of the year and are not bound to a term schedule was a deciding factor for about 45 percent of respondents who liked “the ability to complete courses/programs at their own schedule/pace.” “The ability to finish courses/programs completely online” was the second most common reason for another 34 percent of students.

How good is the quality of course content?

For as long as online education has existed there has been debate about its quality and effectiveness. With the advent of adaptive analytics in recent years, overall quality has improved drastically, and, in some instances, has improved learning outcomes with its personalized platform. Of students surveyed, over 71 percent said course content was of “high quality” or “very high quality.” As for the difficulty of course content, nearly 76 percent said it was “just the right level of difficulty for the course level.”

Is the software easy to use?

We understand that online learning can come with some anxiety stemming from “what ifs” such as software malfunctions and navigational issues. This can be especially true for students who may not be as comfortable troubleshooting as many of today’s youth are. We thought about this and chose to use a software called Canvas, which is designed for ease of use. Of student respondents, about 74 percent reported Canvas as “easy” or “very easy” to use.

Does the curriculum help you learn content needed to pass courses?

Creating curriculum that not only prepares students for the job in which they are training for, but that also uses real-world examples to help comprehend what they have learned can be difficult. It’s called competency-based learning, and we worked hard to incorporate relatable curriculum to retain necessary content. It seemed to pay off, because over 81 percent of students surveyed said the curriculum helped them learn content either “effectively” or “very effectively.”

Do LB iLearn programs prepare you to get a job?

Our goal is to help students learn skill sets to become employed. We believe student success contributes directly to the success of our community. When asked if “LB iLearn courses or programs will help you get a job” nearly 70 percent of respondents felt courses were either “very useful” or “critical” to their job training.

In our years to come we will continue to ask the students we serve how we are doing, because education matters to us, and we want our students to live better and learn better.

Community partners identify needs of next-gen workforce

imagesFor a better workforce we must first understand the needs of employers and employees. In a rapidly changing world, both employee and employer must fit into the new workforce culture, and LB iLearn is reaching out to local professionals to understand what those needs are.

This month, LB iLearn sat down with our Community Partners Committee to discuss workforce trends and employability needs. Our partners consist of representatives from nonprofit organizations, for-profit corporations, and government agencies in the realm of employment services, retail, manufacturing, and youth services.

As each representative had a chance to talk about what they are seeing in their corner of the workforce, common needs began to emerge. All members agreed about these needed adjustments or advancement in training and development of employees. And, as an institution offering career-oriented certificates and degrees, we were listening.

Basic Computer Skills

The committee spoke of unnecessary time consumption when it came to training employees how to use basic computer software, and their ability to troubleshoot such technology without help. Trained employees with the confidence and skills to do these things on their own are considered a valued asset.

Next generation employees are expected to know things such as Microsoft Office, Outlook and Excel as part of their basic job description. Also, “the tricks that Millennials grew up with,” as one committee member said, such as using no mouse, security and password management, shortcuts and navigation, are important in the digital age. Employees who take the extra step to ensure they have these skills will find themselves at the top of a hiring pool.

Soft Skills

Soft skills are a basic foundation of personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively with others. Committee members have observed that promoting such skills is often lost in an effort to focus on more procedural practices. But, in the workplace communication is key, and ineffective communication skills can make or break the success of an employee—no matter how well they know a procedure.

The committee identified the need to enhance training programs that focus on communicating with supervisors, conflict resolution, critical thinking, and productivity. Productivity holds a larger scope including self-motivation and time management. These qualities, the committee felt, are imperative for the modern employee who is expected to network with many types of people from all over the world. Personal differences cannot come between effective communication and problem solving.

Employability

Finding a job is the first step; keeping that job is the next step. Basic employability skills such as punctuality, engagement, accountability, and overall work ethic were also a concern of our community partners. Their observations are that many employees seem to struggle with the balance between doing what they want to do and doing what is right for their employer.

The truth is, employees will be asked to be somewhere they don’t want to be, at a time they don’t want to be there, or to do a task they don’t want to do, in a timeframe they don’t agree with. But, these are struggles each generation had before them, and most likely each will have after them. Knowing how to be a “good” employee goes beyond just showing up with a smile. In a workforce that has an influx of new applicants, such as Millennials, it’s important to not just do the minimum, but to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Such employees are likely to be the ones who see professional advancement in the future.

Linn-Benton students show close to 50/50 split enrolling in online classes

38827b2Last week, LB iLearn Online joined the fun on Welcome Day at Linn-Benton Community College as students mingled on campus for the start of fall term. During the event, we decided to poll students who visited our booth in the courtyard. Before each student could spin the wheel to win iLearn swag, they had to answer a question: Have you ever taken an online class? Results showed nearly a 50/50 split.

Of the 158 students who visited us, 45 percent had previously taken an online class. By observation, many of the “yes” answers came from recent high school graduates who told stories of taking online classes in middle and/or high school. We also spoke to several students who had just completed Oregon Connections Academy, an online K-12 charter school. It was clear from our interactions that today’s youth are growing up with exposure to online courses, and that they have a level of comfort with them unlike those of many non-traditional learners.

Although several of the older-than-average students we spoke with had taken distance learning classes in the past, many of them had experiences they claimed were undesirable. The most common complaint was that they did not have the support they needed, when they needed it. The second most common response was that they found their time management, or lack thereof, caused them to have completion issues. Both of these complaints are valid, and not uncommon, but we know we can help them do better should they want to try again.

When students enroll at LB iLearn they are given a support team who stays with them from the very first class all the way through to completion. Their navigator, IT support, and content experts are available 365 days a year. Their navigator also reaches out at least once a week just to check in. We want students to feel connected to us.

Hear it from student Nichole Hollon, completer of HDFS 201 and Writing 121.

“What I really liked about the program was that they are really all about the student. They’re about helping a student be successful in their classes, and also not just their classes, but feel successful as a person, and I think that’s really important because it gives a student confidence in what they’re learning.”

We know that taking courses online requires self-management. Classes are convenient and accessible from anywhere, anytime, but students must push themselves to manage their time and coursework. It’s a challenge all online learners have to face. We also know our students are busy; in fact, 70 percent of them are working and their average age is 35. We understand these factors mean our students are busy balancing work and family. That’s why we maintain a personalized relationship with them to understand their needs.

Hear it again from Nichole.

“LB iLearn is enabling people to work, and to do so at their own pace and at their own time, and I think that’s really important for working moms or for working individuals. And I think it’s a really powerful motivator too, for people to get their education. And that’s why I like LB iLearn.”

Over the past decade online learning has gone from a niche educational format to a mainstream option. With 5.8 million students currently enrolled in online courses—nearly a third of all college students—it has become clear that school needs to be able to come to students in the digital age. As the results of our poll show, nearly half of the students in our community have had exposure to such learning, and as national statistics show, many of them will seek it out again.

Live better, learn better at LB iLearn Online.

A snapshot of online education – and why it’s here to stay

images-1If a picture can say a thousand words then what does a snapshot of online learning say? Well, in short, it says that it’s is not going anywhere, but here’s how we know that.

Since 2003 a report called Grade Level – Tracking Online Education in the United States has summarized the annual trends and growth of online learning. Since the report’s conception, student enrollment has increased every year without fail. Over the 12 years, the online student base has increased by 263 percent with a current 5.8 million students enrolled—more than a quarter of all college students.

Although in 2015 enrollment rates for online education were at its lowest growth rate yet with a 3.7 percent increase over last year, on-campus enrollment saw its first decrease at 8.7 percent.

The shift in traditional versus nontraditional enrollment is a telling sign of the future educational landscape, and it also shows the importance for institutions to adopt online programs for continued sustainability.

The Center for Online Education released a report based off the most current data from the U.S. government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs). They looked for recent changes in the availability of online degrees at over 1,800 non-profit institutions. They also looked at the top 100 universities as determined by the U.S. News & World Report. Of those schools, nearly 75 percent offered online degrees, and about half are increasing online programs.

It has become clear to both administrators and government agencies that students continue to choose online learning. And there is research that tells us why they continue to do so.

Although there has been much debate over the quality of online education, modern technology such as adaptive learning analytics has strengthened and personalized the distance learning process. It is now considered of the same or higher quality than on-campus classes, according to surveys and studies by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC).

The OLC says 90 percent of students now believe online learning is the same or better than traditional learning. Eighty-seven percent say adaptive analytics lead to better learning outcomes because of access to their personalized data, and 68 percent feel continual feedback made possible by adaptive analytics drives improvement. Seventy-seven percent say the use of technology during learning increases engagement with course materials, and 64 percent say it increases engagement with their professors.

With such overwhelming support from students it is becoming hard to ignore the utility of online learning. As the digital movement continues to grow so will the demand for digital learning materials, both on campus and in virtual classrooms. In fact, by fall 2018 the OLC predicts nearly 50 percent of all learning materials will be digital.

In general, online education has gained a reputation of a more affordable tuition than brick and mortar schools. Tuition comparisons of the top non-profit online schools shows annual tuition as low as $3,400 to $8,400, according to the OLC, as compared to a potential $30,000 price tag for traditional schooling, according to The College Board.  

Aside from affordability, the mobility of online learning is an obvious benefit to students, as well as the flexibility to study in between life’s demands. It has opened the classroom to students with work or family obligations, or to those with disabilities or conditions that may make a traditional classroom experience difficult.

So, as the trends suggest, online learning is no longer a niche, it is the future of contemporary education.

 

Competency-based education enhances higher education

X79A5261In this digital age, the past decade has proven a changing time for many things, higher education included. Nationwide, 71 percent of all institutions have already implemented online programs, and the way in which online education is offered continues to evolve.

The complex palette of competency-based education (CBE) is believed to have potential to enhance higher education.

CBE is designed to bridge the gap between theory and application of content, allowing students to show what they know and what they can do. Using cutting-edge technology, it is a customizable form of learning that requires student retention and adequate performance scores in order to progress through their online program. A CBE approach can be positioned as a multi-faceted solution for delivery of information quickly, and at a pace that fits the student’s lifestyle.

Since 2013, major foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have taken interest in the utility of CBE and have directed funds towards efforts to better understand and, hopefully, promote wider adaptation.

The Department of Education and the Department of Labor have also noticed this growing form of higher education. In recent years, the DOL selected several institutions nationwide and granted funds to implement CBE-oriented programs for workforce training programs. LB iLearn Online was created from such a grant.

The brick and mortar school that houses LB iLearn is Linn-Benton Community College. LBCC received funds to create the 100 percent online certificate and degree programs which were designed to be performance- and credit-based.

“This allows them to be not only state recognized, but also completely transferrable,” said Stacy Mallory, instructional designer for LB iLearn.

Deconstructing CBE, a recent study by Eduventures, research and advisory service for higher education, asked 251 institutions specific questions about their use of CBE-based online programs. They found that 97 percent of institutions surveyed are interested in implementing CBE, and of them, 70 percent were already using it for one or more programs.

“Prospects for long-term, scalable, and sustainable growth for CBE will depend on the collective ability of institutions to shape CBE into courses, programs, and degree pathways that solve local and immediate problems,” the authors wrote.

Of Eduventures’ responding institutions that are already using CBE, 31 percent said curriculum was based off feedback from employers and partnerships regarding needs in the community.

“It has the potential to be both rigorous and affordable, while providing students with a highly personalized and efficient means to obtain a certificate or degree,” the authors wrote.

At LB iLearn, programs were also designed based off local needs. Labor market data showed growth in healthcare- and business-related jobs, therefore all programs fall into those categories to enhance the student’s local marketability.

Similar to other online learning options, Eduventures’ data shows CBE students are more likely to include older than average learners. Responding institutions reported 68 percent of their CBE students were of non-traditional age. LB iLearn shares similar demographics, with the average student in their mid-30s.

“Higher education as a whole is currently undergoing a dramatic and dynamic education revolution and is trying to keep up with not only the technology, but also the demands of their consumer/students,” said Mallory.

As researchers and educators continue to watch how innovation in the digital age can increase access and engagement of distance learners, over the next two years Eduventures will also continue to examine the implementation and growth of CBE. A national survey will follow in 2018.

Student Testimonial: Laura Kasper

Returning to the workforce after a 15 year hiatus can be scary. Especially if your skills need to be refreshed in order to compete for a job in the field you want. Ask Laura Kasper, she knows.

Laura graduated from Oregon State University in 1991 with a Bachelor’s in Spanish and additional emphasis on International Business and Finance. After a few years in the workforce, she decided to raise her children as a stay-at-home mom while her husband worked full-time. Her children are now 11- and 15-years-old and Laura is ready to get back to work.

But, times have changed and so have her interests. Laura now wants to be an Accounting Clerk in the next phase of her career. In order to get the training and credentials she needs, she began to look for schools and found LB iLearn Online.

At first, she wasn’t sure about enrolling in an online program, but she knew juggling parental duties and student duties would be a challenge with traditional on-campus classes.

“I chose the online classes primarily because of the convenience of studying from home and at my own pace,” she said. “Also, the classes are very affordable.”

She has since found that with a little planning she can arrange her days to allow time for both family and coursework.

“Some days I am able to get a lot of studying in and others, not so much,” she said. “I try and set aside blocks of time each day to study and take the weekends off for family time.”

With the support of her family, Laura is making progress towards earning her Accounting Clerk Certificate at LB iLearn. She is now a believer in the distance learning format.

“I’ve never experienced online education, but I must say, I love the iLearn program,” she said. “I have told many of my friends about it.”

When she needs assistance with coursework or technical support, Laura, like other LB iLearn students, has a team of staff to turn to, 365 days a year.

“The staff and the navigators have been wonderful,” she said. “They are very helpful, available almost anytime, and are always encouraging!”

Laura’s success balancing classes and family as she reinvents herself for the workplace has been made easier by the flexibility and convenience of online learning. Are you ready for the challenge?

To find out how you can start earning a certificate or degree online, contact admissions specialist Tina Leonard at leonart@linnbenton.edu.

Student Testimonial: Timi Scherp

Snapshot_20160707_5As a middle-aged woman, Timi Scherp found her life turned upside down in May 2015. She got news that her 15 year career as a payroll associate was ending. Timi’s employer at the time, Levi Strauss & Co., decided to replace her with foreign employees to do her job cheaper.

After the initial shock, Timi realized she needed a new plan. She had some college experience, but she had not completed a degree. As she hustled to find a new job, for the first time in her life she knew what it felt like to be a displaced worker.

“To me, it means reaching a pinnacle of sorts in my field, in a position it never occurred to me would be outsourced and relocated to another country, and suddenly, it was,” she said. “I looked for comparable employment here and in my surrounding area and did not find it. I also did not restrict myself to the wage level I had achieved at Levi Strauss and still could not find work.”

She decided to contact the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Program to help redirect her career. TAA is a federal program that helps people just like Timi pave a path to employment after losing their job to foreign trade.

“I realized after 15 years in this field I had lost the ‘spark’ that I had for it in the beginning and really desired a new direction to relight that spark,” she said.

She wanted to become a medical coder, but she needed the support and resources to achieve that goal. That’s where Timi knew TAA could help.

“I received not only understandable direction, but compassionate and human responses to my questions and anxieties,” she said. “Since working with them, I have adjusted to going back to school and have found a new enthusiasm for the future and possibilities for my new career.”

TAA helped her figure out what kind of school would best suit her lifestyle and her circumstances. Together they found LB iLearn Online, and Timi enrolled to become a Coding and Reimbursement Specialist.

“There are multiple advantages to iLearn,” she said. “Availability of classes, assistance with a personal counselor, ability to work at my own pace, and, after a long hiatus from the learning environment, ease of accessing the program, not having additional stress of learning a campus, transportation in all kinds of weather, and not being distracted by other students. To me, all of these factors add to my ability to place all of my focus on the material that I want to learn.”

When Timi encounters a problem or needs help with coursework, LB iLearn staffers are on call 365 days a year.

“They are very responsive and get back to me quickly,” she said. “The courses have been well put together and the support for the courses—excellent. This program has calmed many of the fears I had about going back to school and learning a new field after so many years of working in my profession.”

To find out how you can start earning a certificate or degree online, contact admissions specialist Tina Leonard at leonart@linnbenton.edu.

 

 

10 “brain foods” you should eat

The average human brain weighs only 3 pounds and makes up about 2 percent of our body mass. The brain, small in comparison to our bodies, uses about 20 percent of our daily caloric intake—more than any other human organ. Eating the right foods to feed our brain is a smart idea. With the right kinds of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins, these “brain foods” will help build healthy brain cells, and a healthier you.

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Blueberries

Blueberries are considered one of the #1 brain foods, and are linked to improved memory, learning, reasoning, decision-making, and comprehension. Blueberries help maintain communication between brain cells, and eating blueberries activates the production of BDNF, a protein that is superior at stimulating new brain cell production. Blueberries are also exceptionally good at protecting the brain from degeneration. This fruit is one of the highest known antioxidant-rich foods, containing vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber. What you may not know about these blue powerhouses is that frozen berries actually contain more available nutrients than fresh ones!

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Avocados

Avocados are loaded with fiber and vitamins. They contain vitamin C, E, and K as well as folate, a type of B vitamin that is key for cell growth. Both vitamin B and C are not made in our bodies, so consuming them is important. Although avocados are often considered a “fatty” fruit, the fat they contain, monounsaturated fats, are the good kind. Monounsaturated fat contributes to healthy blood flow, and is one reason why avocados help lower blood pressure and promote overall brain health. Avocados also boost production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps improve cognitive function, memory, and concentration.

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Leafy Greens

Green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, spinach, chard, and bok choy are some of the best sources of B vitamins. Of the B vitamins, three in particular—folic acid, B6 and B12—are essential brain vitamins. An Oxford University study found that these three vitamins work together to reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function, and reduce brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s. Leafy greens are a good source of the amino acid L-tyrosine which can improve your mood and increase your ability to learn, solve problems, and remember. A Harvard medical study even linked consumption of leafy greens to decreased cognitive decline.

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Root Vegetables

Potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, turnips, and legumes are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates that supply your brain with a steady stream of energy. Because your brain cannot produce glucose, root vegetables give your brain a constant supply. They are sources antioxidants and important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and dietary fiber. They are believed to boost blood flow to your brain, improving your alertness, focus, and ability to encode new memories. 

imgres Turmeric

Maybe unfamiliar by name, Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its gold hue. The compound curcumin is found in turmeric and is a potent antioxidant that boosts levels of the brain hormone BDNF, which increases the growth of brain cells and fights degenerative processes in the brain. Turmeric also helps keep your immune system healthy while improving your brain’s oxygen intake. For all these reasons, turmeric keeps you alert and able to process information, improves memory, and reduces brain inflammation.

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Coconut Oil

Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which enables the oil to supply energy directly to the brain. Since your brain’s main source of energy is from glucose, and because your brain cells can’t store energy, they need a constant supply. MCTs help do that. It’s this property that also makes coconut oil a potential treatment for neurological disorders. Coconut oil works as a natural anti-inflammatory, suppressing cells responsible for inflammation. It also helps with memory loss and memory disorders. When given to adults with mild cognitive impairment, they experienced significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking their first dose.

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Dark Chocolate

Made from the cocoa seed, chocolate contains a number of compounds that increase pleasure-giving substances called endorphins. Chocolate boosts mood, protects the brain from damage, improves memory and focus, and reduces stress. It also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, which contribute to improved memory and focus. Chocolate’s health benefits are largely attributed to compounds called flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants linked to neurodegenerative prevention. In general, darker chocolate contains the most flavonoids and is best to eat when made with 70 percent dark chocolate.

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Rosemary

Like many herbs, rosemary has significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to fight free radical damage in the brain, which are linked to neurodegeneration. Carnosic acid, a phytochemical found in this herb, is particularly good for protecting the brain from a stroke and neurodegenerative conditions. Rosemary also stimulates nerve growth factor synthesis, reversing nerve cell damage.

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Wild Salmon

Most fish, but especially salmon, have a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, one of the most important nutrients for your brain. Omega-3s support healthy brain cell structure. Two important omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are found in certain fish, particularly wild salmon. Wild salmon get their omega-3 from their natural food sources—wild plankton and small crustaceans—as compared to their farm-raised counterparts that receive very little of each. Omega-3s also improve the brainpower of younger adults. Research from the University of Pittsburgh found adults under age 25 who increased their omega-3 intake over six months improved their scores on tests measuring working memory.

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Walnuts

Most nuts and seeds, although small in size, are nutritional powerhouses. Of all the nuts, walnuts are considered a top nut for brain health. They have a high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for the brain. DHA has also been shown to improve cognitive performance and memory, and prevent age-related cognitive decline.

 

 

 

The power of your brain: 6 things you may not know

Brain_power

Learning how we learn can be fascinating. It takes the right environment and the right internal balance to truly absorb information. Besides the usual suspects; food, sleep and repetition, a lot of how we learn happens in our brain, without us even knowing it. It can be said that “cells that fire together, wire together.”

Growing your brain

For your brain, going to school is comparable to going to the gym. We grow our biceps at the gym and we grow our brain at school. A neural synapse is the space between brain cells, which are called neurons. Neurons allow chemical signals to pass from one neuron to another. Chemicals called neurotransmitters leave one cell, travel across the synapse, and are taken in by the next neuron through a receptor. The connection between the two neurons is called a neural pathway. When we learn new things, new pathways are made between neurons. Thus, learning causes growth of brain cells by creating new dendrites, which look like fingers coming off the arm, or axon, of the neuron. The more dendrites created and continually used, the more brain activity you will have.

Context-dependent memory vs. state-dependent memory

Have you ever walked to the next room to do something and forgotten what it was you were going to do? Did you retrace your steps and find that when you returned to where you came from you remembered what the task was? That is because of context-dependent memory, and as you may guess from the name, the context in which you remember things matters. Research shows that a person who takes an exam in the same seat or room as they learned the material will test better in that place than in a new area. State-dependent memory refers to internal conditions under which someone learns. If you always study while consuming caffeine, for example, your brain creates neural pathways that make a connection between the learned material and caffeine. In this example, you would likely perform better on a test while consuming caffeine.

Short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory

As we learn we create a path of remembrance similar to a trail that is often walked by hikers, leaving a well-worn path. Short-term memory is the process in which we gather information in our neural pathways that we want to use in the near future. When we don’t use it anymore we will forget it, as the brain prunes its unused neural connections to strengthen more used paths. Our working memory is what we store along neural pathways, which can be interrupted by distractions from music, the tv or text messages, limiting the amount of working memory we will have. Working memory can be enhanced by focusing and connecting information you already know that is relevant to what you are learning, then storing that information with the previous learned information. The retrieval of well-learned information from long-term memory and the connection of new information is a good way to move information from working to long-term memory.

20 minute pick-me-ups

It happens to the best of us. We study for what seems like an eternity and eventually find ourselves staring at a page or screen, no longer processing information. Your brain is telling you it’s had enough. Our brain doesn’t like to be forced to learn too much, too fast. Psychologists have discovered that our pupils dilate when we push our brain to learn. This means, for more reasons than one, that learning takes energy. To rejuvenate yourself, consider working out for 20 minutes. Psychologists have proven that exercise can boost memory and brain power. Not only does aerobic exercise make more oxygen pump to the brain and release hormones, research from UCLA showed that exercise also increases growth factors in the brain—making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal pathways. In fact, Dr. Chuck Hillman of the University of Illinois showed evidence that about 20 minutes of exercise before an exam can improve performance.

The debate: writing vs. typing

In the digital age we live, finding laptops in the classroom is the norm. Many students have moved from note-taking with pen and paper to typing their lecture notes. This could be a bad choice if your goal is to effectively retain information. Writing stimulates cells at the base of our brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for what your brain needs to process, giving importance to what you are focusing on at the moment, such as writing. When the RAS is triggered through writing it sends a message to your brain to pay particular attention to information you are feeding it. The same can not be proven for typing. A University of California study found that of two groups of students asked to listen to the same lecture, the group that had to write their notes not only tested better on their ability to remember the ideas in the lecture, but they retained the information far better a week later. The study suggests that movements involved with handwriting require a motor memory and more neural pathways in the brain to recognize and connect letters, which is absent when typing.

Laughter and smiles aren’t just for fun

Gamma is the highest brain frequency and the only frequency found in every part of the brain. A Loma Linda University study found that humor associated with laughter creates gamma-band oscillations. Since gamma frequency reaches all parts of the brain, this means that humor actually engages the entire brain. As well, laughter involves the part of the brain that associates with pleasure, so mixing laughter with learning creates a more enjoyable experience. Laughter also reduces mental tension and increases energy, which increases your ability to focus. And even if you aren’t laughing, the facial-feedback theory says that a smile can also increase your performance. Your brain is constantly monitoring your posture and movements, including your facial expressions. Faking a smile can trick your brain into thinking you are happy, which then stimulates your body to respond as such. Try it. Stick a pencil between your teeth and make yourself grin. It forces your face to mimic a genuine smile, recruiting the muscles of the mouth, cheeks, and eyes that respond when you are happy.